Thomas Heatherwick’s studio specialises in problem-solving with a focus on the human experience.
More than simply making buildings, the design firm prides itself on making places – and that means considering effect, as well as aesthetics, to create a sensory richness that extends far beyond the usual form and function.
Public spaces are at the heart of Heatherwick’s current project roster. There is an airport, developed in collaboration with a New York practice, that combines complex infrastructure and high functionality with stories of far-flung travel and dreams.
There is Google’s campus building, brimming with dynamic inspiration as much as efficiency. There is a health centre in a South African township, and a cancer care facility in Northern England – projects that prioritise comfort and calm alongside medical and technical excellence.
For a century or more, architecture has been theory-heavy and aesthetic-led; the buildings that make history books are fierce in convictions of their own power and beauty – but how do they make you feel? Ego-driven structures that have defined our intellectual and social landscapes, but they have left very little room for the human beings they supposedly serve; Heatherwick is seeking to redress that balance.
Pulling the auditory aspects of spatial experience from asceticism's jaws is part of this. And that should come as no surprise – respect for sound, after all, runs in the family.
Heatherwick’s grandmother was a servant at Windsor Castle, which meant his father had access to piano training from a young age. At age 14, he received the prestigious Purcell Prize – and would later go on to share that love of music with his children.
Heatherwick remembers inviting his father to visit his first build and watching him stride through the space clapping loudly to test its acoustics. Happily, if accidentally, the space was pronounced sonically satisfactory – and it’s something that Heatherwick has never left to chance again.
Take his own studio as a case in point. Sand-blasting the uniform concrete walls, the smooth surface gave way to Thames shingle beneath. This uneven plane changed the way that sound bounced around the room and created an emotional phenomenon, as much as a physics equation.
That decision to remove, say, a millimetre of material does very little to change how the space looks. But it moves mountains, as far as it feels. The sensation of speaking and hearing in a room built to foster free thought, collaboration and creativity – and the experiential importance of self-expression – is impossible to overstate.
Heatherwick’s British Pavilion at a past world expo held in Shanghai exemplified the mutual, and sometimes surprising, relationship between tactile, visual and acoustic considerations. There, a specially commissioned silver-grey AstroTurf covered five-sixth of the space in order to soften the architectures’ hard lines – to invite touching, settling and sitting – and transform the surface as something to interact with as well as encounter.
But the material had another effect too: it brought winter to the humid Asian summer by echoing the absorption of the sound of snow-smothered streets. A curious phonic accident, rounding sharp structural corners into a full experience. Sound’s qualities and associations can be just as powerful as its details.
While acoustic considerations factor into every Heatherwick project, they are occasionally its central concern. Approached to find a solution to disturbing levels of noise for residents near a Yorkshire motorway, the studio was inspired by the recording enthusiast's go-to for improvised anechoic chambers – egg boxes.
Of course, cardboard wouldn’t stand up to the test of time, or the elements, but it was the shape that Heatherwick sought to repurpose. The team turned to another readily available resource to mimic the muffling effect – traffic cones. Visually striking and practical, the proposal was never implemented but stands nonetheless as a testament to their resourcefulness.
Back in London, and between those sand-blasted walls, Heatherwick’s office is set up to improve acoustics as well as relationships. The space fosters professional dynamics without the hierarchy of long tables or corner cubicles, instead lending itself to grouping and mixing in an organic syncopation of people and thoughts; the shared spaces were carefully considered and arranged in a way to achieve the right levels of sound wrapping and containment, and evoke a sense of connectivity.
When it comes time for inspiring creativity inside the Heatherwick studio, music is essential. Engaging some parts of a brain to let others take over, background noise works a similar way for Heatherwick.
He believes that the health of his studio culture can be diagnosed by its soundscape; happy murmuring the ideal, along with the occasional melody. Sound and feeling, one and the same.