In Conversation with Michael Westthorp

In conversation with Michael Westthorp, Outline Projects 


Michael Westthorp, designer of ‘High Tide’ – thought-provoking sculptural model – talks to the Timber Trade Federation about his design idea and thesis behind his project. 

Michael Westthorp designer of ‘High Tide’ runs Outline Projects, as well as being a Senior Lecturer in Interiors at Middlesex University. The Interior programme at Middlesex encourages challenge, innovation and achievement – all of which we hope to inspire with our Conversations about Climate Change exhibition and with our FLEGT communications.

“As designers and architects we have the opportunity to lead the debate within the built environment”.

Michael approached the brief encompassing an education perspective – utilising the upcoming exhibition as a platform to generate emotion and response from the public to one of the predicted outcomes of climate change – rising sea levels. We are thrilled that Michael is one of our six winners, articulating the importance of educational exhibitions like this and raising the profile for further climate talks. As he annotates below, he teaches sustainable practice and the importance of material provernance and responsible sourcing – all key themes of this exhibition and our wider FLEGT project. Michael brings the issue of climate change and encompassing issues right to our conscious and provokes an immediate compelling reaction.

Lucy: What was your first impression of the brief?

Michael: As well as running a practice, my other job is as a Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University. I had just finished running a module where the river was an important element for the students. Reading the brief and knowing about how climate change is raising the tide level around the world, I thought I should make a proposal which highlighted the effects this will have.

Lucy: Prior to designing for this project, how would you describe your understanding of timber legality, sustainability or FLEGT?

Michael: Sustainable practice is something I teach at University so I’m afraid to say that I had not heard of FLEGT before this competition. I was very aware of the TTF and the work they do, as well as the various timber construction products and the general use of timber as a sustainable resource. I was also aware of the practice of illegal logging and how this timber can filter into the market.

 Lucy: In what way has the Conversations about Climate Change project led you to understand or research more into timber legality, sustainability, or the FLEGT Action Plan?

Michael: Certainly it has brought FLEGT into focus. I teach my students that they have to know where the materials they use come from and what their sustainability credentials are. I’m aware that it requires work to find this information, it is often concealed and confusing, I therefore welcome any strategy which makes this process more transparent. Additionally it has also allowed me to think of using timbers that I would not normally have thought to specify.

Lucy: What ‘Conversation’ do you hope your design will prompt?

Michael: The idea is that the design reminds people about something I think we all know – that the sea levels are rising. By positioning the proposal in major cities, (most European capitals are on a river) the rising tide becomes something that becomes more immediate, something that will actually affect the person standing there. Hopefully it will bring the impact of climate change direct to the viewer and prompt conversation about what things they personally can do to halt and reverse it.

 Lucy: How do you view using and specifying timber as a mitigative method in the climate emergency?

Michael: It is a step I the right direction, I love its carbon hoarding capability.

Lucy: How would you describe your work?

Michael: I am lucky to have two jobs. One to design spaces and the other to help educate the next generation of designers and thinkers. My built projects have always been people and materials focussed.

Lucy: What are your inspirations?

Michael: That’s a really tough question. Personally I don’t really believe in big moments of inspiration or that it can come from things. I like to walk our dog and think about whatever it is I’m working on while doing this, I find walking is good for solitary inspiration. Talking things through and having to explain things to students also make you question what to actually do think and makes you really understand things. So, walking and talking.

 Lucy: What is the biggest opportunity and challenge you see looking into the future? What are your aspirations?

Michael: We need to remind ourselves that climate change is going to affect all of us, it seems a remote distant problem for other people to deal with. As designers and architects we have the opportunity to lead the debate within the built environment, many people are doing great work bringing clients onboard.

Michael’s ‘High Tide’ model will be exhibited at the Building Centre in London, opening mid-Jan 2021. Further materials, photographs and videos of Michael’s journey can be found on the HIGH TIDE page here