The name Thomas Heatherwick may not immediately ring a bell, but it doesn’t matter because his creations are not something you would easily forget.
In 2010, he created The Seed Cathedral for the UK Pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo – an eye-catching cube-shaped pin cushion with 60,000 acrylic rods projecting outwards like quills on a porcupine. At the lower end of each rod, a plant seed from the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew was embedded. It attracted eight million visitors over the six-month long expo and won the gold medal for Pavilion Design.
Then there is his cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic Games – made out of 204 small copper cauldrons individually ignited before converging into a single flame. “No one remembers the design of any Olympic cauldron, they only remember the moment it is lit,” says Mr Heatherwick, 49, founder of London-based design practice Heatherwick Studio. At the end of the Games, the 204 participating nations took back their own cauldrons, bringing home a precious Olympic memory.
His first completed project in Singapore was The Hive at the Nanyang Technological University – 12 towers of stacked, rounded rooms, resembling dim sum baskets. The design came from the brief to create a building without corridors, but incorporating nooks and crannies with garden balconies for people to stop, think and talk.
The design graduate from Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art in London is currently working on the Google headquarters in London and California, and putting the final touches to his first ever residential project, Eden, at Draycott Park for Hong Kong developer Swire Properties.
Over the last 25 years, you’ve built a wide design repertoire, from a top-like chair for Magis to London’s new public bus. More recently, you did the Vessel, a honeycomb-like structure for Hudson Yards in New York. What’s your approach to design?
In our work, we try not to have a single style but instead develop something particular for a location. I’m always interested in the strategy that drives the design. Often when something has an aesthetic quality, there’s the assumption that that is all that matters, whereas for me, it is led by function.
The projects we work on are driven by ideas, what is it for, why, and what’s the problem to solve? We always start without any preconceptions. We get excited and interested in the place where the project is. We are always looking at what’s around, what’s the context, and what’s a complement rather than a competition. I love it when we can find new visual languages that come out from the peculiarity of that one problem.
Tell us about the design for Eden.
What's interesting about Eden is that even though this is a private development with only 20 apartments, it is in a very public part of the landscape. We did a lot of research visiting apartment towers and people in their homes. We noticed that people don’t open their windows and they won’t go out on the balconies because it is too hot. Having lived in a house, I liked the feeling of being able to touch the ground. In apartments, you have the views, but it feels like being sealed in a box. Apartments with their single levels make for more practical living, but I feel that today, most people have lost their connection with nature.
With Eden, I wanted to create a home with a garden, not an apartment with a balcony. The apartment has two wings for the bedrooms, with a service and entrance core in between. A hanging garden wraps around each apartment, so residents feel held rather than exposed. The apartments are open on three of its four sides, thereby creating a flow of air that moves through it. The apartments are lifted from 23m off the ground, so each has perfect views looking out. The flooring is wood with knots still in them and stone, for a back to nature feel. Concrete is used on the building facade but has been cast with the typography of Singapore on it, to soften the overall look of the tower. It would be interesting if some archaeologist were to discover this 3,000 years later.
Your projects are very innovative and eye-catching, such as the Coal Drops Yard retail development in London, with roofs that appear to kiss, or the Vessel made up entirely of staircases. You have your reasons for their design, but there are those who say they are gimmicky.
Of course, I wouldn’t agree that it’s gimmicky. What drives my studio to do what we do is a sense that there’s a dimension missing in a lot of the built environment around. Usually because the space didn’t work well functionally and didn’t connect with the human dimension. In a sense, my work is a response to what I saw when I was growing up. I feel that architecture has become something of itself instead of connecting with people and the environment more broadly. It’s not surprising that people say my works are gimmicky. If something is interesting it doesn’t mean it is a gimmick, I think it is an easy, clumsy put down, and in a way it makes me smile, because I find a lot of the world not interesting. There are new things that are shallow in style and don’t come from logic. People always have things to say about what someone does. My job as a designer is to improve.
Heatherwick Studio is partnering with KPF Associates on the design for Changi Terminal 5. Can you reveal anything about its design?
I can’t tell you yet. But you can see from Jewel, the level of ambition the team has, so there’s no shortage of ambition. Plus Changi Airport has won best airport for seven straight years, so the expertise on the project is phenomenal. What I can reveal is that we are thinking of Terminal 5 more on a human scale than as a building.
With three projects in Singapore, what are your thoughts on the country?
I admire how Singapore is so visionary in driving forward its ambitious projects, but I think like every city, there needs to be attention to scale. These new shiny amazing buildings don’t necessarily make for streetscape vitality. Rather, I feel it is the small hawker centres that have a lot to teach about creating vitality. I like the hawker centres as much as any building, and they are just as important in adding to the atmosphere of the city. I love having carrot cake and shaved ice desserts, and how in this age of digital revolution where you don’t have to go out to get food, the hawker centres are very much a social magnet. It would be my dream to design a hawker centre. I would adore that and be there all the time.
Written by Tay Suan Chiang for The Business Times.