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Architecture can be said to function on a plethora of tenets and impulses. Buildings, structures and design objects work to engage, inspire, evoke and, in some cases, overwhelm. Rarely, however, can it be said that a structure or object possesses the ability to seduce.
London’s Heatherwick Studio is one of the global design community’s few practices that can lay claim to such a proposition. Founded by Thomas Heatherwick in 1994 and known throughout the world for its iconoclastic approach to crafting multi-sensory environments and experiences – which span public infrastructure, architecture, furniture and design – the studio’s output enlivens and enacts not just the sensual, but the poetics of movement and transformation. If the mechanics of the seduction can be framed as a particular amalgam of intellectual, visual, sonic and aromatic cues, then countless Heatherwick projects could be accused of entrancing all who dare indulge in their presence.
Indeed, when commissioned to create a movable pedestrian bridge across a small waterway in London’s Paddington Basin, Heatherwick forged a dynamic, structure that – instead of retracting and extending in a more conventional fashion – rolls up into a perfect octagon to allow boats to pass before it unfurls at the will of its controller. Heatherwick’s kinetic Seed Cathedral created for the UK Pavillion at the 20120 Shanghai World Expo, defied convention with its 60,000 seed-tipped optical rods. The structure languidly danced in the breeze while serving as a towering pavilion.
Heatherwick Studio, Rolling Bridge, London. Photography: Steve Speller
It’s no mistake that in a recent interview with Architectural Digest, the 43-year-old – who in 2004 became the youngest designer ever to be granted the role of a Royal Designer for Industry – described even his most monumental work as something that “always comes down to the human scale…spaces that human beings feel comfortable in”.
Heatherwick’s assertion says much about his wider approach and history. Having trained as a designer rather than an architect, his structures have always harboured a particular tactility and direct relationship to the human experience. While experimental and curious in their employment of materials and forms, they are anything but edifices to be admired from afar. His aesthetic and design touchstones are magnetic in their tenor; they attract and entice people to approach, utilise and engage.
A smaller scale project, Spun, merged the conceptual nubs of the spinning top and the multipurpose chair. Made using the metal spinning technique (a standard method for forging circular metal objects), Heatherwick’s Spun chairs were essentially symmetrical, curved and contoured metal drums that, whichever way they are rotated, function as an ergonomic chair. His Extrusions were created by literally squeezing heated aluminium through a die-cut mould, resulting in one-piece bench seating that, while precise and symmetrical in its central portions, withered and waved into organic shapes and fluid patterns at it ends.
Heatherwick Studio, UK Pavilion. Photography: Iwan Baan
But of course, it’s Heatherwick’s larger-scale works – such as his striking redesign of the classic London bus and his Olympic Cauldron for the London Games of 2012 – that have really captured the imagination. The aforementioned, hydraulically controlled Rolling Bridge both amazes and delights in both its seemingly organic movements and its flawless functionality. In a similar way, the Seed Cathedral’s bio-diversity credentials echoed the foliage-like ripples and waves that made it so enticing and entertaining to the viewer.
While some have accused Heatherwick’s work of being overtly playful at the expense of functionality, he has long argued to the contrary. “I suppose my question is: ‘Is my studio’s work playful or is everyone else’s work too serious?’” he posed in Architectural Digest. Indeed, “the Seed Cathedral was serious. With 60,000 varieties of seeds, it was the most biodiverse thing in Shanghai, or in the whole region”.
If we want more from our cities – if we want our built environment to inspire and seduce – then we must free it from the shackles of conventionality and allow it to be a little more reflective of us. As Heatherwick put it so eloquently in a 2009 interview: “There’s something unpretentious in the spirit of experimentation.”
To read more about Heatherwick studio, head to heatherwick.com or grab a copy of their studio book, ‘Thomas Heatherwick: Making’, published by Thames & Hudson (2013).
Rogerseller’s Art of Seduction runs from May to September 2013 – read more here.
Cover: Heatherwick Studio, UK Pavilion. Photography: Iwan Baan