6 Eco-Friendly Designs of Thomas Heatherwick

Thomas Heatherwick and his studio create projects that humanize our cities while respecting and valorizing our relationship with nature.

Dec 11, 2023By Xuan Mai Ardia, MA Chinese Studies, BA Chinese and History of Art & Archaeology
thomas heatherwick eco friendly designs

 

Cities are inextricably tied to the future of the world. Their future, and therefore the architecture that makes them, is paramount for the creation of a sustainable community, its innovation, and its culture. Designer Thomas Heatherwick believes that soulfulness is the key to building an environment that can sustain a happier, healthier, and more responsible future way of living and coexisting with nature.

 

Who is Thomas Heatherwick?

thomas heatherwick portrait mori 2023
Thomas Heatherwick by Tayama Tatsuyuki, 2023, via Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

 

Thomas Heatherwick’s award-winning studio was founded in London in 1994. The studio members work on architecture, urban infrastructure, design, and strategic thinking, with projects spread from West to East, New York to Shanghai. Heatherwick has designed buildings, spaces, and parks, as well as objects like the famous Spun chair for Magis, vehicles like the new Roadmaster double-decker bus, and the electric Airo car for IM Motors. Heatherwick focuses on creating humanized projects, emphasizing the importance of emotion for realizing designs that awaken our senses. He believes that we are living through an epidemic of boringness, increasingly surrounded by characterless buildings with inhuman traits. For him, something crucial is missing and it’s the function of emotion and the ability of buildings to mean something to us, lift our spirits, and connect us.

 

Buildings affect us, as we walk around them, look up at them, and live in them. Contemporary architecture erases the shadows, the textures, and the three-dimensionality, in favor of a gloomier two-dimensional simplicity. This monotony is unhealthy according to Heatherwick.

 

Moreover, as of 2019, the construction industry was responsible for 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—almost 20 times that of the car and aviation industry—due to trending irresponsible and unsustainable construction policies. For instance, while every year in the US a billion-square-foot of buildings are destroyed and rebuilt, in the UK 50,000 buildings are demolished annually, and the average age of commercial buildings is 40 years. There is little consideration for the repurposing of buildings that are not being used. Heatherwick maintains that more importance should be given to emotions and their impact on humans and nature.

 

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Heatherwick has received many awards and his work has been celebrated worldwide. Below are some of Heatherwick’s iconic projects.

 

1. The Vessel, New York City (2019)

thomas heatherwick vessel 2019
Vessel by Heatherwick Studio, 2019, Hudson Yards, New York, via Hudson Yards website

 

One of Heatherwick’s most controversial projects is called The Vessel. It is a tall pinecone-shaped attraction at the Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side that cost an estimated $200 million to make. The latticed, honeycomb-like structure is composed of a set of interconnected escalators that lead to observation decks at various levels, providing a 360-degree view of the area. With its open structure, Vessel offers a nature-inspired shape that connects both the urban and the natural environment of the metropolis.

 

The building was made for people to use, touch and relate to. It is meant to be climbed and explored. The inspiration for it came from the ancient step-wells of India, with its countless steps, flights, and landings reaching down to the earth. The Vessel has almost 2500 steps and 80 platforms on 16 levels arranged around its perimeter. The materials used for the structure also have a special meaning, as the polished copper undersides contrast with the raw painted steel surfaces, connecting more nature-inspired hues with the industrial colors of the city. Unfortunately, The Vessel was suddenly closed to visitors in 2021, except for its ground floor, after the fourth death by suicide took place there.

 

2. 1000 Trees, Shanghai (2022)

thomas heatherwick 1000 trees 2022
1000 Trees by Heatherwick Studio, 2021, Shanghai, via Heatherwick Studio website

 

The 1000 Trees shopping center interweaves the natural, urban, and artistic landscapes of Shanghai’s Moganshan area, overlooking Suzhou Creek. Heatherwick called the project an example of the challenge of bigness, as the development occupies a huge 3.5-million-square-foot site where the Empire State Building could if it was laid on its side. The choice of building 1000 columns on a grid made the enormous project cost-efficient and structurally effective, while also humanizing it. The columns became the key element of the structure, helping connect the park on one side and the art district on the other. Each column carries a semi-mature Chinese mountain tree on top, with the appropriate nourishment, drainage, lighting, and moisture that guarantee its life.

 

For the other side of the building, Heatherwick collaborated with local artists. 1000 Trees is a complex structure that seamlessly links two realities on opposite sides, the natural and the human, creating movement, connection, and emotional response. Patrick Lee, the Chief Executive Officer of Tian An China Investments, the developer of 1000 Trees, said the project was conceived not only as an urban neighborhood revitalization project but a well-scaled Green Lung space that engages its surrounding neighborhoods.

 

3. Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town (2011)

thomas heaterwick zeitz mocaa
Zeitz MOCAA in Silo Square by Heatherwick Studio, via Heatherwick Studio website

 

In this ambitious project, Thomas meant to create a new building with the old one’s idiosyncrasies and particularities as its main characteristics. Heatherwick and his studio turned a centuries-old disused grain silo in Cape Town into the Zeitz MoCAA, Africa’s first major institution for contemporary African art, worth visiting not only for its art but also for its original building structure. Since its opening in September 2017, the museum permanently houses the Jochen Zeitz and Zeitz Foundation’s collection of contemporary art and also holds temporary exhibitions.

 

thomas heaterwick zeitz mocaa inside
Zeitz MOCAA Atrium view by Heatherwick Studio, via University of Arts, London

 

The original gigantic structure was composed of two main elements: a grading tower and a block of 42 adjacent silos. The designer studio wanted to convert the enormous concrete tubes into art galleries, while also retaining its industrial character. Drawing from the original purpose of the building, Heatherwick took the shape of a grain of maize that was once stored in the silos and cut it out in the center of the tubular section of the structure. By doing this, the main social space was formed. Here, the visitors would congregate and admire the monumental interior of the museum. The tubes around the perimeter were converted into five floors of galleries. Open at the top and covered with laminated glass patterned with motifs designed by West African artist El Loko, the tubes let the light in from the sky.

 

The museum also houses a roof sculpture garden with a glass floor that allows its visitors to see the interior from above. The grading tower also offers an entrance for natural light through a series of three-dimensional lantern-shaped windows that function like a kaleidoscope, refracting the light in different colors and textures throughout the day.

 

4. Little Island, New York City (2021)

thomas heatherwick little island 2021
Little Island by Heatherwick Studio, 2021, via Heatherwick Studio website

 

Originally called Pier 55, Little Island is an elevated park over the Hudson River in New York City, located just next to the remaining wooden piles of Pier 54, where the Titanic’s survivors disembarked in 1912. The park is connected to the mainland via two gangplank-style walkways suspended over the water. Heatherwick was commissioned to design a pavilion for a traditional flat pier, but his studio wanted to create something that offered a sense of escape from Manhattan. The $260 million project was funded by businessman Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg through their  Diller-Von Furstenberg Family Foundation. The development of the project had its problems. Construction started in 2016 but halted in 2017 after some opponents obtained a court ruling against the building of the park. However, the City Governor Andrew Cuomo helped reinstate the permits to continue with the project.

 

The 2.4-acre park is supported by 132 pot-shaped structures called tulips, which stand on 280 concrete pilings extending deep into the riverbed. The park stands above the waterline, creating an undulating topography inspired by Heatherwick’s visits to the hill towns of Italy. Little Island provides an environment meant for relaxation away from the urban chaos. There are food stands around The PlayGround plaza, as well as a 687-seat amphitheater located on the park’s highest hill. The park also has a rich diversity of plants that are arranged in color patterns. The landscape of the park includes 35 tree species and 65 shrub species, as well as 270 species of perennials and grass.

 

5. Nanyang Learning Hub, Singapore (2013)

thomas heatherwick learning hub
Learning Hub in Singapore by Heatherwick Studio, via Heatherwick Studio website

 

Nanyang Technological University in Singapore was looking for a new learning environment fit for the digital age. The goal was to transform the old lifeless classrooms and corridors into a social place where people could come together and connect. Heatherwick Studio designed a project that created a dynamic environment more conducive to casual and incidental interaction between students and professors.

 

A series of twelve small towers facing each other, surrounding a central open space, contain stacked individual tutorial rooms. Every room receives light from both the outside and the internal central atrium that is naturally ventilated and open. There are nooks and crannies everywhere. There are also balconies where students can stop to relax and connect with each other. Students are inspired to stay here as long as they like, as the structure is open 24/7.

 

Heatherwick has called it a new kind of tropical architecture, without sharp corners, soft to touch and to look at. The Studio explored the visual possibilities of the main building material, reinforced concrete, by treating it like clay that would give warmth and softness to the building’s surface. Naturally ventilated, the building’s open atrium maximizes air circulation around the towers, creating a cool environment in the Singaporean humid heat. Each room is cooled using silent convection, without the need for energy-heavy air conditioning fans. The Learning Hub building was awarded Green Mark Platinum status by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA). This is the highest possible environmental standard for a building of this type.

 

6. Maggie’s Yorkshire, Leeds (2019)

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Maggie’s Yorkshire by Heatherwick Studio, via

 

Maggie’s, a charity providing support to people affected by cancer, commissioned Heatherwick Studio to create its new center on the campus of St. James’s University Hospital in Leeds. The site was the only green location left on the hospital premises and the designer did not want to erase it with yet another building block. Instead, the Studio came up with the idea of integrating the greenery using three giant plywood structures that held up three gardens, creating a garden building with 17,000 plants and 23,000 bulbs.

 

Heatherwick’s idea was to make an architecture of hope, focusing on the emotions of its visitors. The goal was to humanize an otherwise sterile, stressful, and fear-inducing environment. The site includes a counseling room, a kitchen, a library, and an exercise room. There are also seating and walking areas, where patients can relax and connect, or sit in quiet contemplation. The interior encourages a meditative and relaxing atmosphere with its natural and tactile materials and soft lighting.

 

Thomas Heatherwick: Cities of The Future

thomas heatherwick seed cathedral 2010
Seed Cathedral by Heatherwick Studio, 2010, via Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

 

Thomas Heatherwick did not formally train as an architect but as a designer. He saw architecture as too rigid, while design offered a more dynamic, flexible approach that he felt more akin to. Since founding Heatherwick Studio, the designer has proved how a visionary attitude can give birth to soulful buildings and spaces. Moreover, Heatherwick has also shown us how respecting our environment and working with it can embellish our metropolitan life and help us fight against global climate change. A poetic example that encapsulates his philosophy is the Seed Cathedral which was designed for the Shanghai Expo in 2010. It contained 250,000 seeds in its glass-like capillaries that formed the structure. Here, life, air, light, and humanity all collided.

Author Image

By Xuan Mai ArdiaMA Chinese Studies, BA Chinese and History of Art & ArchaeologyMai is a Vietnamese-Italian art writer and editor based near Venice, Italy, and sometimes Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Her passion and expertise lie in contemporary Asian art. She mainly writes about Asian artists, exhibitions, and events in Asia and around the globe. She has worked at international projects of cultural heritage conservation in Rome and in art galleries in London, Shanghai, and Ho Chi Minh City. She was previously editor of Art Radar (now ceased) and has written for Art Review Asia, CoBo Social, The Culture Trip, and Blouin ArtInfo, among others. In 2019, she founded Art Spectacle Asia.