No doubting Thomas

Photo of Thomas Heatherwick: Elena Heatherwick

From the majestic London Olympic cauldron to the spiky Seed Cathedral at the Shanghai Expo 2010, the striking designs of hotshot designer Thomas Heatherwick have been lauded the world over. One of his latest works is NTU’s newest talking point on campus – the eight-storey learning hub. Chrystal Chan discovers how he came up with its design and what he would name it

One of your famous Spun Chairs is at our Student Activities Centre. How should students use it or would you rather it be admired?

It is absolutely not an art piece! [Laughs] The Spun Chair is for using, and I’m thrilled that NTU students have access to it. The design of that chair is inspired by kettledrums. It’s a serious chair with an unserious side to it, and completely for using like any other chair. Anyone can sit in it, have a chat with a friend, and rock around on it.

Your newest project, the learning hub, is quite an impressive building. How did you come up with the idea for it?

Since the digital revolution, I feel there has been less of a need to go to university to acquire new knowledge. The point of university now is really to meet other people and we wanted to move away from a box-like building with many long corridors and rooms leading off it – which makes student interaction difficult – and instead arrange tutorial rooms as a series of human-scale little towers. Our idea was to build something that would encourage interaction and not be a mere channel for getting people into classrooms.

How did you work around the design challenge to promote interaction amongst students?

The main feature of the learning hub is a large, central circulation area (below) where human traffic flows freely. But there are also plenty of nooks and crannies that are still visible yet not in the way. Students can pop to one side and have a conversation with someone who might become their future business partner… or even their future partner. I remember your Minister for Education joking about how he hopes the learning hub could increase interaction and the birth rate in Singapore when he spoke at the ground-breaking ceremony! [Laughs]

What other features of the learning hub are unique?

Once you walk in, you’ll notice 3-D drawings on the walls. We used concrete as a main building material but we didn’t want to use it in the conventional way, which is to paint it over. So we worked with Italian illustrator Sara Fanelli, who did 700 drawings for us. The drawings on the walls are deliberately ambiguous so your mind can imagine what it wants to see. We hope this learning space provokes students to be creative and original.

What are some of the sustainable features that contributed to its Green Mark Platinum Award for environmental sustainability?

Instead of a single door to the building, there are 12 different entrances, so the air flows freely through it. NTU is a pioneer in using an air-conditioning system that does not use fans to distribute air. I think that’s really innovative for a university, and we’re all excited by it.

Students and faculty have got creative coming up with nicknames for the learning hub, with some calling it the “dim sum building” as it reminds them of stacked dim sum steamers. What do you think of this name?

As a designer, it is lovely that people care enough about something you design to come up with names for it. We actually designed it for a practical purpose only, but it’d be an honour if it gets a good nickname. Here in London, there is a building called 30 St Mary Axe, but everyone calls it The Gherkin because it looks like a pickle.

Is there any nickname you might not agree with?

No, I genuinely don’t mind any name that students come up with. We’re very proud of the project as it is one of the first major buildings that we’ve worked on. And if, in the end, some amazing businesses and ideas happen in Singapore because of the building, we’d be really happy.

What would you name it yourself?

I’m boring. [Laughs] I would keep calling it “the learning hub” until someone comes up with a brilliant name.

How would you describe the building in three words or less?

Hand-made futuristic. I think this is how buildings will look like next time. The cliché of the future is of sterile-looking buildings matching our old-fashioned view of science fiction, but I hope the real future will have more human qualities and, at the same time, be intrinsically driven by science and ideas.

Are you looking forward to seeing the completed building when it’s officially launched in a few months?

Yes, I’m very excited about seeing it, because new buildings these days tend to look sterile and clinical, or are shiny and have lots of flat panels and glass. We’re glad that we’ve managed to achieve a building that feels handmade, like a collection of piled-up clay pots made by a potter. I can’t wait to come and see all the students using it and wandering around inside.

Finally, what’s next for Thomas Heatherwick? What projects are you involved in right now?

The learning hub has come at a really good time for us. It’s a big and interesting step for my studio that will influence many things we’re doing. We’re working on a bridge over the River Thames in London called Garden Bridge, and over in Cape Town, we’re converting a 1920s granary into a museum for contemporary African art.

Click to enlarge