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Thomas Heatherwick: Designing the extraordinary

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Thomas Heatherwick is a name that has only recently been accelerated to recognition by the general masses.

His design of the Cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic games, along with his recent collaboration with London Transport on his iconic reinvention of the London bus are projects that have now more firmly established him in the black book of British inspiration.

He and his team at Heatherwick Studio have however been at the forefront of pioneering architecture since their establishment in 1994. From early on, Heatherwick focused on building collaborative relationships with engineers and fabricators, a catalyst to the studio’s portfolio of cross-genre projects that combine sculpture, architecture and engineering.

A handful of their ingenious outposts include a bridge that rolls up into itself, a hairy building, a curvaceous, wooden staircase that wraps the entirety of a retail façade and a crumbling, texturised hotel with rooms that protrude and recede the structure’s core.

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A key element of the design process at Heatherwick Studio is their hands-on approach – ‘design should be governed by the physical process of making,’ Thomas believes. A passion for research of materials and engineering techniques is reflected in everything the studio has created. They explore ways in which physical or chemical manipulation can alter the properties of a material, ultimately creating unique and unconventional forms.

One structure that evolved from such processes is the Bleigiessen, a striking, spherical glass sculpture that the studio was commissioned to create for the atrium of a biomedical research charity. A 30-metre high space that sits above water, inspiration for the piece derived from the notion of falling liquids. Heatherwick aimed to physically capture such forms – a challenge unto itself. The team experimented by pouring molten metal into cold water, which solidified instantly, producing various uniquely shaped moulds. One piece was selected as the core form for the sculpture, after which hundreds of thousands of glass spheres were created and suspended on steel wires. The bespoke lens of the glass reflected dynamic shifts in colour and light. This, combined with the sheer scale of the suspended piece, created an extraordinarily striking installation.

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The approach that Heatherwick Studio takes in conceptual and design development is one that has helped them maintain their name as a pioneering virtuoso in the name of architecture. They have an admirable sense of curiosity for understanding the limits of materials and techniques; they then proceed to push these limits to their absolute. One such awe-inspiring project that proves their philosophy is the Glass Bridge. Comprising 1200 pieces of glass weighing a total of 140 tonnes, the structure demonstrates the ability of a seemingly fragile material to collectively build strength through compression.

A project that exposed the groundbreaking abilities of Heatherwick Studio on an international scale was the ‘Seed Cathedral’, a piece that won the team the gold title at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. With a brief to create a pavilion that represented the countries’ technology and culture, Heatherwick’s unconventional interpretation of this was sure to impress – to execute ‘simplicity and clarity’ as a means of standing out.

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Incorporating the annual theme ‘Better City, Better Life’, Heatherwick explored the unified relationship between city and nature. The team used the majority of the allocated space to create a striking landscape that resembled crumpled paper, upon which sat a 100m2 box. Protruding the surface of the box were 60 000 acrylic rods, each with a variety of seeds embedded into the ends. The length of the rods and their fibre-optic qualities created a notion of natural movement during the day, as they sway in the breeze. At night, the seeds are backlit by LEDs; a mesmerising, illuminating contrast.

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Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of Thomas Heatherwick is the way he approaches the process of experimentation with ‘purposeful aimlessness’ – allowing the materials in his own hands to evolve organically. This often ultimately drives the concept, after which the functional requirements are considered. Something about the seemingly spontaneous ability to create awe-inspiring forms that push all materialistic and structural boundaries seems admirable.

It could however be disputed that this post-rationalist approach would question the ability to harmonise concept and function in equal measure. It’s worth noting that various ideas in the studio have been seen though to fruition, only to have then been set aside until the opportunity for such a piece lends itself to a client or proposal.

The studio’s ability to create the mind-blowing architectural masterpieces they have is a sufficient enough reflection to justify their unique approach. Each creation has gone through a rigorous process of being challenged, pushed and manipulated in every sense, from the cutting-edge materials to the sheer magnitude of some of their works. There is no doubt that Heatherwick and his team of masters will continue to stretch our imaginations beyond belief, along with our admiration for their genius architectural capabilities.

Images courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

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