Outside the box: a British designer puts soul into buildings

September 12, 2015 08:08
Thomas Heatherwick, 45, is a British designer who is lauded around the world for his creativity in architecture, urban infrastructure, design and strategic thinking. Photo: HKEJ

Looking at images of projects done by Heatherwick Studio, you can’t help wondering if they are mere concepts residing virtually in the computer or things that exist in real life.

The man behind the studio, Thomas Heatherwick, 45, is a British designer who is lauded around the world for his creativity in architecture, urban infrastructure, design and strategic thinking.

Heatherwick Studio’s renowned projects include the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the Olympic Cauldron for the 2012 London Olympic Games and the design for London's new double-decker bus.

Having visited Hong Kong numerous times, Heatherwick quickly admitted he loves this city for the extraordinary balance between its urban area and its natural landscape.

In his mind's eye, he sees nature like a pair of hands holding up the city.

Heatherwick is deeply impressed by the easy access to mountains and the sea in Hong Kong.

Despite the city's skyrocketing land prices, he hopes Hong Kong can preserve those valuable aspects forever.

As a boy, Heatherwick was fascinated by mechanics.

He loved disassembling and reassembling all kinds of electronic devices in his bedroom.

He also spent hours at a time in his grandfather’s house, reading books about Victorian technology.

Heatherwick jokes that his studio is no different from his childhood bedroom, just a larger version of it.

The studio is where he and his staff build miniatures of their architectural designs before finalizing the blueprints.

Heatherwick’s mission is to master his craft and to bring his ideas to reality.

“In actualizing the ideas, you will learn much more, which will lead you to the next creation,” he said.

Heatherwick trained in three-dimensional design in Manchester and at the Royal College of Art in London, where he met design guru Terence Conran, who later described him as “the Leonardo da Vinci of our times”.

Soon after he graduated in 1994 at the age of 24, Heatherwick founded Heatherwick Studio.

He explained his philosophy simply: “Why do we keep creating new things? Because the existing ones are not good enough, pushing us to make changes.”

Heatherwick found the buildings that were being designed in the 1990s soulless and cold.

He decided to create buildings with a soul and with enhanced aesthetic qualities and eco-efficiency.

Heatherwick also considers himself a problem solver.

For instance, when designing the new bus for London in 2012, Heatherwick greatly improved the lighting, introducing much more natural light into the vehicle, and making the public space more welcoming.

Asked to design the learning hub of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Heatherwick and his team were given a challenging budget, slightly more than the cost of building a car park.

Yet they came up with a teaching complex with 12 tapered towers connected to one another other, where the atrium space is at the heart of the design, encouraging students to gather and stay.

However, Heatherwick’s innovative buildings are not popular with everyone.

Critics derided his award-winning UK Pavilion -- Seed Cathedral -- at the Shanghai World Expo as “fluffy” and “empty”. 

London’s Garden Bridge, which is due to start construction in January, has drawn much criticism for its high construction and maintenance costs.

“It would be weird if it drew no criticism," Heatherwick said.

"After all, it is about building a bridge over the River Thames.” 

He believes that the media has simply exaggerated the views of critics and supporters, making the project controversial.

“In fact, over 87 percent of consultation respondents were supportive of the scheme,” Heatherwick said.

He said the bridge will serve as the best spot for pedestrians to stop and enjoy the remarkable river setting and unparalleled views of the city.

The British Council exhibition “New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio” is at PMQ in Central until Sept. 23. An installation of Heatherwick Studio's spun chairs is at Pacific Place in Admiralty until Sept. 24.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 10.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Heatherwick's design allows more natural light into London's new double-decker bus. Photo: Iwan Baan
London's Garden Bridge will be open to everyone for free in summer 2018, connecting Londoners on both sides of the River Thames. Photo: Arup
Heatherwick's Rolling Bridge is a movable bridge at Paddington Basin, London. Photo: Steve Speller
The UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo was called Seed Cathedral. It housed 250,000 plant seeds at the end of 60,000 acrylic rods. Photo: Iwan Baan
The aluminium bench (left) belongs to the Heatherwick Studio's Extrusions. The right photo shows the Olympic Cauldron for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Photos: Peter Mallet, Edmund Sumner

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal