A casual observer might be forgiven for wondering how Thomas Heatherwick has developed such a reputation among architects. A scan of the works of Heatherwick Studio reveals relatively few completed buildings, and many of those that do make the list are small projects: kiosks, retail interiors, cafés. Indeed, to the average Londoner he is probably better known as the designer of the new homage to the iconic red Routemaster bus and as the creator of the wildly popular cauldron for the London 2012 Olympics - both unveiled in a year in which Heatherwick all but officially became the state-approved designer of 21st century Britain.
A look at the website of Heatherwick Studio sheds some light on this conundrum. With projects separated into “small,” “medium” and “large,” it is clear that a progression in scale is mirrored by a progression in time, with many of the smallest projects completed in the Studio’s early years, and most of those in the “large” category either recently completed or (more frequently) still on the drawing board. Their most recently completed project is also one of their largest, a “Learning Hub” for Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. How does a design studio that made its name in small projects adapt to such scale? ArchDaily spoke to Thomas Heatherwick about the Learning Hub and the increasing size of his projects to find out.
In spite of the Learning Hub’s larger scale, the brief for the building was far from luxurious. “We had a budget that was a bit more than for a car park - it was modest,” explains Heatherwick. “That meant that to achieve the highest possible environmental performance for the building, and to meet the buildability codes in Singapore, there was only one material that we could use for the columns, the floors, the, cores and the cladding - and that was to use concrete.”
“When you say "concrete" that many times,” he adds, a Northern European gets “a kind of sinking feeling in the stomach. The associations with cold grey masses of material make that problematic.” He also describes how the 1986 Kenzo Tange masterplan which provides the building’s context “celebrated scale,” with “very long elevations, very long corridors and walkways, very long pieces of glazing.”
In the 21st century, such a celebration of scale is no longer appropriate for a university, Heatherwick argues. A “radical shift in pedagogy,” with students able to do so much of their work online, means that one of the most important things a new university building can provide is a space for informal conversations, where students can meet new people and discuss ideas.
“We were now trying to focus back on the human scale,” he says. As such, the 57 teaching rooms are arranged into 12 separate towers in which “each individual tower is no bigger than a terraced house in plan, but they come together to make lots of nooks and crannies between them in the connected circulation, where ambiguous and informal conversations can take place.”
So far, then, all very much an approach taken from the architect’s standard playbook. But it is in discussing their approach to neutralize those “cold grey masses” of concrete that Heatherwick really shows the benefits of his multi-scaled approach to design.
“To some extent the project was like a clay project, trying to really enjoy using concrete as clay” he says - an approach that fed into the conditions of the building’s creation, where not only money but also time were in short supply. “We needed something that was working with what Singapore contractors knew how to do, and can pretty much get straight on with.”
But the approach is about more than just efficiency: “the epiphany for us really in the process was using concrete in a very handmade way. Often with concrete there is so much emphasis put on fair-faced concrete and trying to make flat, blemish-free perfection. With ceramic we often value more the things with imperfections and natural quirks from the manufacturing process.”
In the Learning Hub, Heatherwick Studio provide ample opportunity for this. The columns of the building are cast with adjustable silicon molds to give their undulating surface pattern, and the walls of the circulation elements are cast with 700 overlapping drawings by illustrator Sara Fanelli. As Heatherwick explains it, “there was an inch of love in the surface of that concrete.”
To Heatherwick, the Learning Hub is at least partly a giant piece of ceramic work, a pot into which other, more conventional architectural ideas can be placed. This sense of scale agnosticism seems to permeate his thinking: twice in our conversation he refers to the entire building as a “device,” a word which these days is usually seen prefixed with “hand-held.”
When I ask how his studio is able to maintain their renowned creativity even when working on larger, more constrained projects, Heatherwick explains: “within the big scale use the small scale. Even if you're working on a masterplan for a part of the city, you're probably not going to think well at that large scale if you're not also sensitized to the human impact at the person-sized scale.”
With projects such as Pier55 in New York, Abu Dhabi’s Al Fayah Park, and of course the recently announced Google Campus still in the works, the increasing size of Heatherwick Studio’s projects is far from reaching a conclusion. In the coming years this approach to scale will be tested many times; the results could well be instructive to the whole profession.