Behind the Creative Minds of Heatherwick Studio

Knowing your Keynote Speakers – Thomas Heatherwick

Behind the Creative Minds of Heatherwick Studio


From London Olympics Cauldron and UK pavilion at Shanghai World Expo 2010, to Google's latest campus, Heatherwick Studio is known for its wide array of ingenious projects. As founder and design director Thomas Heatherwick's keynote session at Innovative City Forum 2016 is drawing great attention, we had the opportunity to speak to Neil Hubbard, a senior designer and project leader at Heatherwick Studio to represent the studio and introduce us to some of the thought processes behind its astounding works.

Looking Back at Past Work

I’ve worked on every scale of project that we’ve done really, I started on some of the largest projects like the Shanghai Bund Finance Centre and Pacific Place. The next project I worked on was the New Bus for London, which was a much smaller project really but it was one of the most significant projects that I worked on. I was in a team of two and worked consistently on it for two years. It was really amazing to see it through from initial sketches to the final production.
Another interesting thing that I’ve done is to lead the design of shows at the V&A Museum in London as well as the American and Asian exhibition tours. Thomas has often referred to me as the living archive in the studio because I have an ability first hand to remember what design studies we’ve done, probably to the day. This has been useful in design reviews and has been very useful with curators as I’m able to say whether we have the right design material to represent our work. I’ve found interacting with curators really fascinating, it’s very interesting to see how someone else would re-interpret the work that we do; it was quite terrifying at first actually.

Response from Asian Cities

We’ve worked on several projects in Asia now, and they’ve been refreshing and mind opening experiences each in their own way. In Britain property developers are very stuck with the idea that a designer has a style, and so if they had seen something like the UK Pavilion for example, they would think ‘I don’t need a hairy office building’ and they assume that’s your style. Whereas in Asia it feels more that people say “that’s an interesting solution that the studio had to the Shanghai Expo, what would you do for this site on the Suzhou creek? Or here on the Bund?” which is really refreshing.

Differences Between Project Management in Asia and Other Major Cities

One of the first things you realize is that you can’t go to any country, and expect them to do things how you would do it. What you actually have to do is to sit with the people who build things and understand their approach. Rather than constantly saying: “but we want it done this way!” You actually have to work with other cultures’ methods of doing things and understand things from a different perspective. With the projects we have done in Asia we often work with executive architects who know local building codes and we work with local artists, who help us with our projects and can make sure it’s correct in a cultural capacity. The main thing is the understanding. Especially in those early dialogues, of course you can build that here and ship it over, but maybe the result is better when you’re really engaging with the local area. So you don’t just feel like designing an alien in their landscape.

Adding New Values to London

The other thing that’s really important when designing areas, such as areas in cities or things within a larger in context is to know how to strike a balance. Protecting a good idea doesn’t mean that every part of a design has to be shouting and loud. The Bombay Sapphire Distillery project is a great example of this, we oversaw the masterplan of the whole area, which buildings to remove in order to increase the visitor flow. We opened up a river that ran through the centre of the site and landscaped the environment so that the whole site could sing together in a harmonious way.
It was this thinking that allowed the glass houses in the masterplan to act as the beacon in the middle, it’s all about choosing your moments where you place value. The UK Pavilion is another example, it was a small building in comparison with the other pavilions at the expo with a large area around it. In fact the pavilion included the entire area around it too, which was the size of a football pitch. People don’t remember that space because we allowed it to be the quiet part, but without that quiet part there would not have been so much emphasis on the building, it’s all about choosing your moments where you place value.

The Reason Behind the Multidisciplinary Team Structure

Our design approach has this zoom-in zoom-out nature. Thomas rather likes this idea of a camera lens zooming in and zooming out. The smallest detail of a project might be the thing that effects the largest conceptual impression, or we might go from the largest conceptual impression and zoom back in to the smallest detail. This is perfect for me because of my broad design background. The way we work on a project like a bus is the same way as a masterplan. We care about every single detail, how it all fits together. I currently am working on a masterplan and I am working on it in the same way we worked on the bus, where there are a series of components that slot together. Our job is to care about all those elements and have people experience them, but to also be aware of how these small incremental changes may change your overall impression of the project. It is our job to protect the idea whilst making sure that all the engineers, consultants and clients feeding back on all of these different details doesn’t change the overall idea.

Benefits of Diverse Talent

The benefit of having so many different backgrounds and skills in the studio is hugely beneficial when it comes to putting across our ideas. When I was working with the Curator of ‘Inside Heatherwick Studio’ Kate Goodwin in the run up to the Asia exhibition we spent many evenings sitting together talking about the studio and how we wanted people to experience things. In particular I remember a discussion about the UK Pavilion project which doesn’t exist anymore but was a key project of ours. Kate had a good point: she didn’t feel that we had ever produced a model that had expressed what it really felt like to be inside of that building. All of our models had always looked at what the building had looked like from afar and what it looked like in context but no model had ever been made that really evoked that feeling you have when you were inside that space. Kate and I sat there saying “what if you could put your head inside something, a model so large you could see around it?” This discussion is what lead to that cross-sectional model that’s a metre and a half tall by a metre and a half wide that is in the exhibition at D Museum. For the first time you could really see how that interior space was formed by the sheer consequence of geometry of the outside, and you really could almost put your head in it. It was an amazing dialogue but it turned out to be a headache for the workshop team. They achieved the amazingly difficult task of getting LEDs shining inside as well as outside. In my opinion, it’s one of the most stunning objects that the studio has produced. We wouldn’t have been able to produce something so amazing if everyone had had the same vision and the same ways of working.

Short Question

our voice can change the future of cities.
As we aspire to develop a better future for cities, please let us know your thoughts by answering the questions below. Thank you !

- Question -

If you were to ask Thomas Heatherwick to design an architecture in Tokyo, what would that be ?

New public space design
New workspace design
New neighborhood design
New commercial space design
Thank you for your answer!