Heatherwick and MAD on Innovation in Architecture

Innovation can take on so many definitions. It can revolve around finding solutions, tackling with novel ideas, or just an original way of perceiving life. It can also be a very concrete technological advancement or an intangible concept. There is no right or wrong when it comes to innovation, just different points of view.

ArchDaily had the chance to discuss the topic of Innovation with Thomas Heatherwick and Yosuke Hayano from MAD Architects, during the reSITE 2019 event in Prague, where prominent thinkers from around the world shared their ideas about the future of cities under the theme of REGENERATE. The interdisciplinary conversation, in its 8th edition, explored natural and urban revitalization, as well as the recurring problems of our times like climate change and housing affordability.

In the conversation that tackled the architects’ thoughts on the topic of Innovation, both Heatherwick and Hayano had very similar thoughts to share. Although they have different approaches, their concerns were quite the same.

In conversation with Thomas Heatherwick from Heatherwick Studio

reSITE 2019 - Thomas Heatherwick. Image © Tomáš Princ

On Innovation in general

ArchDaily (Christele Harrouk): How do you perceive Innovation?

Thomas Heatherwick: Innovation is something that has no scale. Pieces of cities, development projects, and buildings, all start with the most strategic thinking but still end up with the essentials such as a door handle, a floor, a functional bathroom and so on. What always fascinated me was the mental elasticity to move between the micro and the macro, and I’ve always found it quite funny that there are architectural practices that will just tackle with master plans, or just design smaller things. I think it’s dangerous to think of a master plan without the specifics as well because a master plan means nothing if the elements and ingredients within this scheme don’t connect to the human being.

To me Innovation is a funny word, I think it is should be a question of ideas, and we humans connect with ideas. Ideas have no scale, they can be at the smaller or at the larger spectrum. It should be about trying to find the functional reasons that can drive those ideas, like for example a way to make stuff more affordable or to use local materials, or it could be an idea about how something can make you feel.

In our studio, we try to always stay alert to find ideas and to embed them properly, because anyone can directly tell if a project hasn’t got love in the details. Actually a master plan means nothing unless it portrays personality and has a generic quality that creeps in the building. We must always campaign for the human experience because that is the true driver of Innovation.

Learning Hub - Heatherwick Studio. Image © Hufton + Crow
NYC's Pier 55 - Heatherwick Studio. Image © Pier55, Inc. and Heatherwick Studio; Renders by Luxigon

On Innovation in the approach and the mindset

AD:  Your studio has been named as the most innovative architectural practice. How would you describe your architectural approach, and how do you see Innovation in your way of doing?

TH: When venturing into any new project, we, as a team start by analyzing the problems and try to find the issues that feel like the opportunities in the city. We no longer think of buildings as objects so simplistically, I think we see every project as an opportunity for urban improvement, enrichment, and engagement. It’s always a chance to connect with people, provoke their interest and in the dumbest way try to be an antidote to the bluntness and plainness that is creeping in most major new developments in cities. My team and I don’t see a distinction between architecture and urban design, we use the same verb to describe the action. In fact, you don’t architect something, you design it.

Our focus has always been more oriented towards the bottom of our buildings, rather than on the top, which is so overrated to my opinion. For example, London has been arguing and debating far too long about towers, because it is the easy thing to talk about, whereas the harder thing would be discussing the impact of constructions on the streets, where most people reside. We focus our effort on the people, on where they are and on the issues that matter the most to them, creating subsequently a dialogue with that.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa - Heatherwick Studio. Image © Iwan Baan
UK Pavilion for Shanghai World Expo 2010 - Heatherwick Studio. Image © Daniele Mattioli

On Innovation and the human experience

AD:  Why do you think your studio has been given the chance to design the most important projects worldwide? What is so particular to your conceptual process, and what do you think is the essence of our times?

TH: I think there has been a real gap, and while setting the studio up, my passion has always been in investigating what was missing. We express ourselves through problem-solving and the big issue, in my opinion, seemed to be monotonous pieces of cities. Many of those places were generated by cerebrally led forces, rather than emotional. This reasoning directed me to a very human-focused design direction. If I am commissioned to do more things, it is probably because my path was defined by basic observations and analysis that I tried to keep, revolving around the utter need for more human-driven diversity in place making. It is already hard to build anything at all, and to make it also special is phenomenally difficult, I think we should cherish anyone who is trying to make places that are wholehearted. What I can say is do something particular to a place rather than imposing a style on a place. The process wears designers down. In our team, there is no illusion about the occurrence of genius moves, we just keep going and going without giving up, with constant enthusiasm.

The essence of our times is human needs. It’s important to think about what those needs are. There is no simple answer, making the whole process so exciting but also very complex. In the past, we viewed function quite 2 dimensionally, therefore functionalism led to some of the most dysfunctional places. In fact, we also tend to forget that emotion is a function, and that is a critical part of the functionality we need to perceive. We are trying to bring that notion back to the factors that will constitute functional design.

In conversation with Yosuke Hayano from MAD Architects

reSITE 2019 - Yosuke Hayano. Image © Tomáš Princ

On Innovation in future solutions

ArchDaily (Christele Harrouk): Where and how do you think Innovation is crucial nowadays? What project of yours portrays your concept to the best?

Yosuke Hayano: We are currently living in an era where it is important to define from now, the future urban vision. The meaning of life in the city is changing because of technological and social transformations. In fact, most of the historical capitals have the same issues, and they are constantly trying to find ways to adapt to a new social life and infuse a new character into their old fabric. That is why most of the metropoles like London and Paris are trying to regenerate their city center, in order to make it more efficient, and more connected. They are pursuing new visions for a productive and inclusive future.

Hyperloop, our latest project, is a new kind of high-speed technology that can connect a city with another in a short period of time, changing, therefore, the meaning of center and periphery. Nowadays, people come together to work in the built and dense city. To live, on the other hand, they have to go to suburbia to have a better natural environment. People spend most of their time in the car, but if they had more time at home or in the working place, they would be consequentially more efficient. Having a high-speed connection will change the dynamics and impact of urban and architectural methods. The linear Hyperloop system will be challenging for each city, especially that each one has its own character, tradition, culture, and history, basic aspects that the city would want to hold on to, for the future.

The project is merely the beginning. In the future, we’re going to have to think about more advanced, 3-dimensional infrastructure and transportation systems to create more efficient connectivity. We have to be ready from now, to imagine what kind of urban space we can provide for people when the technology will be available. It is actually similar to the train and the industrial revolution. It is a new challenge for architects, who will have to find new solutions, by observing the social phenomenon. Actually, we should have a vision for the future, and from that point, we should go back to our times and try to find current solutions that will help us get to that visualization.

HyperloopTT. Image Courtesy of MAD Architects
Absolute Towers - MAD Architects. Image © Tom Arban

On Innovation and emotional connection

AD: How would you describe your approach? And what would be characterized as innovative?

YH: It is true that every project has a different scale and context, but the attitude behind all our architecture is the same. We don’t believe in the typology of projects, and not so much about functions. In fact, depending on the diverse social backgrounds, all the meanings of the function can be different. That is why, in our approach, we always think about what kind of space can respond to the demand for the project and the urban space.

First, we try to understand how the community functions, in order to produce a building that can generate emotional connections. We do not perceive the building as square meters. We investigate how the structure can be part of people’s lives, and how this creates for the community a sense of belonging to the city, to this space, and to the building. That is why in our opera house project in China, we created a space for the people. Even if they knew nothing about the opera, they could still go to the premises, climb to the top of the tower, enjoy the view, and realize how beautiful their city is. People don’t really need to see or understand architecture, but architecture is part of the urban space experienced by the people. Following the concept of “shanshui”, which is harmony and balance, between the natural environment and human life, we always try to articulate our projects towards what’s proper to the society in question and create spaces that can generate human emotional responses. It’s not a question of beauty, but an issue of space that creates a certain sense of belonging in those experiencing it.

Having new technologies is quite important, but what is crucial is understanding their meaning. They should be used as tools to achieve what we want, and not to deviate from our past. Harmony in the contemporary city should be between humans and nature. Technology is never in the center, it is always in the background to make space for the people, to let them find an emotional connection to space.

Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center- MAD Architects. Image © CreatAR Images via MAD Architects
Harbin Opera House- MAD Architects. Image © Hufton+Crow

On Innovation and the different scales

AD: How can Innovation be achieved in the urban context, and how can it change people’s lives?

YH: Thinking about the site boundaries and responding only to the direct conditions of your project doesn’t help regenerate urban conditions. Although we are dealing with architecture, I think we should always be working on the different scales of the projects, especially in our modern times. Sometimes we have to go back to tiny details, and sometimes it’s about seeing the meaning of the project in the urban context. While thinking about the city, we always have to go back to the past and think about history, culture, and community. Only then, we can go back to the future vision and think about how this can be integrated currently. It’s a loop, we have a lot of responsibilities to think about while doing the project.

In order to change the life of a local community, we should be able to move easily between the different scales, because sometimes one cannot realize the existing potential unless you zoom out or zoom in, to discover the beauty that you can work with. People can live all of their lives in a certain context, without realizing anything special about it, but we as architects, with our creativity can help change this. We have to go beyond and think about the meaning of architecture in society.

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Cite: Christele Harrouk. "Heatherwick and MAD on Innovation in Architecture " 14 Oct 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/926311/heatherwick-and-mad-on-innovation-in-architecture> ISSN 0719-8884

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