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Blue Carpet


Core Principle

The design and installation of a new square in the city centre of Newcastle was conceived from the outset as a project which would be achieved through collaboration between an artist or designer and the City Council’s in-house Design Team. The collaborative approach was explicit in the Ideas Competition brief. The final selection panel looked at the record and experience of the artists and used six criteria to assess proposals, which included the quality and originality of the work, the personal approach of the artist in terms of willingness to consult with the public, and interest in collaborating on the design and planning of the project. Thomas Heatherwick Studio was selected to undertake the commission on the strength, originality and radicalism of the proposal and because the panel felt he would fit in and work well with the in-house team.

Collaborative Experience

The Studio had a good track record and demonstrable skill in combining architecture, public art and design and had worked on a number of large scale and high profile projects. However, whilst Thomas Heatherwick was keen to collaborate with the Design Team, he had not worked in the context of a Local Authority before nor on a project of this size or type. Similarly, the members of the Design Team, comprising planner and urban designer, highway engineer, traffic engineer and landscape architect, were individually and jointly very experienced in developing and delivering solutions to urban planning and traffic issues, but they had no experience of working collaboratively with an artist. The project manager, Nader Mokhtari, had considerable experience of managing multi-disciplinary projects but no directly relevant experience of working with an artist as a member of a design team on a creative project.


At the first meeting between Thomas Heatherwick and the Design Team in early 1997, each of them had a clear idea of what their own role and that of the other party would be within the project. The Design Team was expecting the Lead Artist to lead from the front, to produce fully developed drawings from his initial concept after seeking advice from the various professionals on the constraints and imperatives of the urban environment. The Design Team would then be able to use these to produce construction drawings in order to build and install the new square. On the other side of the partnership, Thomas Heatherwick Studio was expecting to be able float ideas, explore their feasibility and if appropriate develop them more fully utilising the Design Team’s engineering and materials knowledge and expertise. The Project Manager was expecting a role involving straightforward project planning, managing the input of the various professional teams, and keeping the project on time and to budget.

Team Building

The timetable in the Ideas Competition brief indicated a very short period of four to five months from appointing the artist to finalising the design for the square and going out to tender. There was therefore an expectation at the early meetings that artist and Design Team would be able to move forward to firming up the creative work immediately in order to meet the tight schedule. However, it quickly became clear that the project required a more flexible approach both to roles and to the timeframe. The first few meetings were effectively spent exploring the ground, understanding what each could bring to the partnership and developing a personal and professional relationship. In addition, Thomas Heatherwick was coming into an unfamiliar working environment which was not his own - the professional world of the urban designer and the political world of the City Council - and that took time to get used to. As trust and greater understanding built up between the collaborating parties, the ways in which they could work together effectively and creatively as a team became clearer and a positive energy developed.

In retrospect, the project manager reflects that the early timetable should have acknowledged that working relationships were key to the success of the project and that they would take time to mature. He also began to understand at this stage that his own task included an important facilitation and liaison role, beyond straightforward project management - ensuring clear and full communication between people rather than managing processes and products.

Project Manager’s Role

During the early months, while the working relationship was still being formulated, Nader Mokhtari visited Thomas Heatherwick at his Studio in London and saw where the creative work happens. During the visit, they went to an event at the Roundhouse, organised by Artangel, which included an oversize bouncy castle. Neither had known what to expect when asked to hand their shoes in at the entrance; there was nothing for it but to join in and bounce. This shared experience followed by a social meal brought the barriers down between them and led to a close personal and professional understanding. Later, Thomas Heatherwick joined the two traffic engineers and the project manager at a social event in Newcastle which helped further cement the team. Over the term of the project, the collaborative partnership continued to become fuller and more trusting, and indeed working in the Design Team became a positive pleasure. This does not mean that the going was straightforward - it is in the nature of both creative and engineering projects that challenges are raised, met and resolved - but firm and essential foundations were established for working together successfully.

The role of the project manager was clearly absolutely central to the realisation of Blue Carpet. Thomas Heatherwick identifies Nader Mokhtari as key to whether his concept was delivered as fully as possible and without compromise, or indeed whether the project could be delivered at all. The project manager was a strong advocate with councillors and officers within the City Council, ensuring that despite the very long design development process, developing a budget and subsequently securing funding, the project continued to be driven forward. He played a proactive role in solving the complex technical issues and gave commitment and time to the project well beyond the professional requirement, not only keeping the project on schedule but ensuring that communication flowed between the expanded number of partners and contractors.

Equally the project manager and the City Council were strongly committed to Thomas Heatherwick and believe that by commissioning an outstanding designer of imagination, Newcastle would have a new square quite unlike any other, of which it could be proud. His originality and creative approach to the project were far more prized qualities than technical or political experience.


From these experiences, it is clear that collaboration is about more than bringing together different expertise and disciplines, it is about bringing together people and their creative skills, enthusiasms and energies. The territory for collaboration appears to take place in the central area (which can become a gulf) between two ‘traditional’ professional positions or ways of working. Creative exchange or collaboration takes place when both parties develop mutual trust and respect and are able to reach across the divide and take on some of the approaches and perspectives of their partners. It is of course possible to deliver a project in which different disciplines work in parallel, but the more conventional the practice, the less likely one is to break new ground.

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2000