Heatherwick hails ‘human scale’ approach

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Heatherwick hails ‘human scale’ approach

Thomas Heatherwick wowed a packed audience at the NLA’s first annual lecture with a talk that explored projects from his first student structure of ‘twisting glass’, to the Olympic cauldron, to the Garden Bridge – a human-scaled ‘place’ for lingering and looking out across the city.

Thomas Heatherwick wowed a packed audience at the NLA’s first annual lecture with a talk that explored projects from his first student structure of ‘twisting glass’, to the Olympic cauldron, to the Garden Bridge – a human-scaled ‘place’ for lingering and looking out across the city.

Heatherwick, who spoke for over an hour to an audience of over 900 people at the Institute of Education’s Logan Hall, began with a description of his ethos of striving to ‘make things happen’. This was first demonstrated in his Manchester student years by taking a risk to create a single pavilion of twisted glass that now sits in Goodwood Sculpture Park, 23 years later. The goal then and now was ‘to grab people’s eyeballs’, said Heatherwick, which was continued at Littlehampton with the East Beach Café, a ‘raw’ structure that ‘hunkers down’ as it looks out to sea.

Following an innovative, twisting and unifying window display he created for Harvey Nichols, the British Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai was another turning point, with a brief that warned competition entrants to create something that was in the top five of all attractions at the show. With three-hour queues for each pavilion, this was a sensible strategy and Heatherwick’s winning scheme ‘deliberately made five sixths of the site forgettable’. Despite having a budget half of the other western nations, his team tried to second-guess what others were designing then designed the opposite. ‘Could we make a building that could quiver in the wind and tingle?’ asked Heatherwick. He could, with a scheme that shows off a quarter of a million seeds rather than the obligatory films inside, at the end of 25-foot acrylic optic fibres. After winning the top prize and attracting seven million visitors to the Expo pavilion, the next project shifted the order of magnitude even further. The cauldron at the London Olympics would be viewed by a billion and Heatherwick and his team – today up to 170 staff – came up with the idea of creating 204 separate copper petal elements which were brought together to make up the cauldron. ‘It had never worked properly before that moment’, said Heatherwick, against the ‘embedded logic’ of the British expectation that things will all go wrong.

Under construction now is a University building in Singapore which is a learning hub with 57 tutorial rooms that eschews straight lines in order to rid the institution of the dreaded corridor and instead offer more chances for people to meet. This is, again, a ‘human scale’ building, something which underpins much of the Heatherwick philosophy. The concrete scheme – essentially 12 buildings in one – is raw and rough, with nooks and crannies and imperfections in the concrete to give it more humanity and warmth. Then there is the Cape Town art gallery - the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – being created out of a former grain store, but with as much attention paid to the interior as the exterior. This is in a bid to stop people from simply visiting, taking photographs of the exterior, visiting the shop and leaving. ‘It’s the most tube-tastic thing’, said Heatherwick, referring to the 42 huge vertical concrete silo chambers in the scheme. Inside, Heatherwick has chosen to cut into the tubes with the shape of a single grain of corn, super-scaled.

And then there was the Garden Bridge. This, said Heatherwick, was an opportunity (tendered for) to fill a gap in crossings along the Thames, with an average of 450m between them suddenly being 850m beyond Waterloo Bridge. The northern landing point at Temple is the centre of London, he said, according to research his team had done the map measurements, but why must bridges always be a link? Why can’t they be a place? The project is essentially just two planters, with enough depth to grow a variety of plants, but it is also a garden that can ‘stitch London together’ and help reinforce the crescent of the Aldwych. ‘It’s about lingering and looking out across the city’, he said. ‘It has to be in the centre of the city or not at all’. Heatherwick’s team is also developing a family of elements such as lighting components that enable people’s faces to be detected on CCTV, birdbaths and seating. And while projects such as the Shard and London Eye offer good vantage points for the public, this one is for free, for always. With test piles in at the moment and construction starting next year, Joanna Lumley’s idea over 10 years ago is nearing reality. ‘It’s a fascinating process trying to make a project like this happen’. A big, grown-up city like London needed extraordinary things and anyway, said Heatherwick, ‘it would be pretty astonishing if there wasn’t friction.’

There was time for more reflections on schemes like a collaboration with Bjarke Ingels for Google on its Mountain View Campus, his London bus (so much design scrutiny for two storey buildings, but so little historically for two storeys on wheels, all around the capital) and a new plant-covered Maggie’s cancer care centre in Leeds. And finally there was also a response to a question about what makes him proudest. ‘It is inventing a system of evolving projects’, he said. ‘It’s just a problem to solve and how you feel about it is just part of the problem. We problematize.’ 

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