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Odd but beautiful new buildings by Thomas Heatherwick

13 Mar 2018  •  7 min read

What makes a building? Pillars to support the structure. A beautiful façade. And a roof overhead. At the Brainstorm Design Conference 2018, Thomas Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio gave a glimpse of how he has re-interpreted these. We set forward the unique challenges of some of these projects. See if your solutions are anything like Heatherwick’s.

What to do with 1,000 pillars

In Shanghai’s art district, where the Suzhou Creek flows into the Huangpu River, the Heatherwick Studio worked on two plots of land covering 3 million square feet. There were concrete buildings, unchanging through the seasons, all around. On the bright side, there was a park nearby. The challenge was how to not be the cheesy new development, fenced in and looming over the neighbourhood.

The park was the best option to help “stitch” everything together. How does one invite the park in? With greenery. The development required a grid that works for a car park three levels underground. This necessitated 1,000 columns. Instead of hiding the columns in shop fronts and walls, the studio made the columns the “heroes”. They put a Chinese mountain tree on the top of each column, and brought the columns down to meet the river and the city around it. This way, the greenery helped knit the new development with park and with the city.

You don’t need to tear down buildings that don’t quite fit – oddness is well encouraged.

How to keep 300 m of façade fresh

For Google’s project in London, the studio worked on a wedge of land on which they would erect a building 300 m long – about as long as the Eiffel Tower is high. How do you give it soul so people walking past it aren’t bored by 3-and-a-half minutes of sameness?

You could cheat and make it look like several different buildings. But that doesn’t necessarily give it soul. Heatherwick was inspired by the market hall in Ledbury, a simple building lifted off the ground. The team did the same with this project. They lifted the building two storeys off the ground and made space for something not created by them. This is like the village, a community-driven space, where things could be there for a week or even a year, but never stay the same.

How to pull two buildings together

At King’s Cross in London, a new mall is slated to open in October 2018. Originally Victorian warehouses for coal, these formed two fingers, about 111 m long and set 39 m apart. How would you connect shoppers on one building to the other building?

A bridge or two? A big roof to hold the two buildings together? The key was the roof. The slate roofs needed to be rebuilt, and Heatherwick’s team went a little further. They “grew” them, literally gradually raising the roof on each side in graceful curves and “stitching” the roofs together at the centre between the two original blocks. In doing so, he created a new third floor, which the design school next door could hold their fashion shows.

To Thomas Heatherwick, you don’t need every line to be clean, and every façade shiny. It’s alright to have dirty lines, and rough and unclad surfaces. He advocates borrowing shamelessly from the “soul” of existing old buildings. You don’t need to tear down buildings that don’t quite fit – oddness is well encouraged.

This article was written by Manuel Sosa, INSEAD Associate Professor of Technology and Operations Management and is republished courtesy of

INSEAD Knowledge

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