Part of the “New British Inventors” series by the British Council, Inside Heatherwick Studio exhibited at the National Design Centre in Singapore from March 11 to April 12 2015. Perhaps because we see regular technological advances, some of us have become jaded with inventions, even coming to expect them. Inventors are a different breed; there is something maverick them. Restless. Non-conformist. They are explorers dissatisfied with the way things are and are compelled to push the envelope. To bridge nodes in the timeline – present and future – with experimentation. Without inventors, society would stagnate. In spirit, for sure.
The Heatherwick Studio, formed in 1994 and based in London, does not only work in one field but displays agility in diverse disciplines from furniture and urban design, with project scale increasing over the years. This 160-people firm was founded by Thomas Alexander Heatherwick who studied design at Manchester Polytechnic and then the Royal College of Art in London. He was already known for taking on ambitious projects, designing a small pavilion in his final year at Manchester. With a reputation as an “ideas engine” Thomas Heatherwick has emerged a versatile and gifted designer. The approach at Heatherwick Studio is centred on questioning, and teasing out the essence of each project, seeking originality each time.
Looking at the Heatherwick projects displayed in the Singapore exhibition, one cannot discern any signature design and that perhaps is the point. Designing is not about the designer, though that is often reflected, but about the project and the users. From using 1/10 mm thick metal sheets as the facade of the Artists’ Studio in Wales (2008) to using 60,000 clear acrylic rods for the Seed Cathedral of the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, it is clear Heatherwick Studio is undaunted by challenge. They also look at existing processes and adapt to new productions, as they did with the spin chair (commerically available from Italian furniture makers Magis) and the spinning process that typically produces symmetrical objects like drums. Sometimes they look at existing structures and explore new approaches. The Double Rolling Bridge, essentially a kinetic sculpture, is such an example.
Even while there is no signature design element, perhaps iconic could be used to describe Heatherwick projects. Their design of London’s Routemaster, originally introduced in 1956, tackles a well-known symbol of this city. Not only are they making it 15% more fuel efficient compared to the existing hybrid model and 40% more than the conventional diesel one, the Heatherwick design is bringing back the hop-on hop-off service, with a rear platform, that was retired from service in 2005. The first buses went into service in 2012 and a variety of routes now use the new bus. Not all routes have the platform available as both a conductor and a driver are required and not all routes have a conductor.
Another iconic project will be unveiled in 2016, with the anticipated opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town. Converted from a grain silo, this dockside museum, with 102,000 square feet, will have 80 gallery spaces and education areas over nine floors, set in a light-filled glass-roofed central atrium.
It is exciting that Singapore is having such interesting and quality exhibitions. We visited on the last day and many visitors were reading, playing, and taking photos. Many interesting conversations abound, with memories of their personal encounters with these iconic projects.