Talk by Neil Hubbard from Heatherwick Studio

Today, we had special guest Neil Hubbard, a designer at Heatherwick Studio in London, come in to give a talk. Neil spoke about himself, the studio, projects they’ve worked on and gave us some design tips.

Neil Hubbard opened by introducing himself and how he came around to work at Heatherwick Studios. He claims that he never really knew what he wanted to do in school, except for that he wanted to make things. He decided to go do an arts foundation which helped him realise that he liked 3D design. He went to Goldsmiths, University of London, where he worked on one particular project featuring Thomas Heatherwick, and fell in love with it – he was inspired and knew there and then: “I want to work for this person.”

Who are Heatherwick Studio?

British designer, Thomas Heatherwick founded Heatherwick Studio in 1994 – he wanted to bring a mix of craft, design, architecture and urban planning, all together in a single workspace. Today, over 200 architects, designers and makers all work side by side in a combined studio and workshop at their King’s Cross studio, in London. Heatherwick Studio is known for its methods of working – they explore and test responses in order to create and produce a design that fulfils the brief in an inventive way. They use the same process of collaborative inquiry and experimentation, no matter who for or what they are designing, whether it is developing a chair or a masterplan. The studio’s completed jobs include a number a range of incredible, award-winning projects, including the ‘Learning Hub’ in Singapore.

Some of Their Projects

The London Buses:

In 2010, Heatherwick Studio joined the London Mayer’s commissioned design team to design a new London bus. The current buses at the time, which had not been redesigned in over 50 years, were inaccessible to wheelchair users and caused great difficulty for pram users too. The new buses are 3 metres longer than the old ones, with 2 staircases and 3 doors. The geometry of the vehicle has rounded corners to minimise the perceived size and the front window is angled towards the pavement so the driver can see any nearby small children. The side windows form two ribbons of glass that wrap around the bus, giving it it’s key unique look. After all of these modifications, of course, the bus remains red.


Al Fayah Park, in Abu Dhabi:

The studio were set the project of recreating a major piece of public land in Abu Dhabi. As the city’s rapid pace of urban development increased, so did the desire for a local park and public space. Designing a park in the middle of the desert is not a straightforward task – the main obstacle that they struck was how to protect both visitors and plants from the hot desert sun. Inspired by desert land patterns, particularly the cracks in the earth caused by the heat of the sun, they created the incredible structure. The 20 metre high structure is made from a series of cracked raised pieces of concrete on columns, forming a gentle dome across the site. The cracks are filled with palm trees to create partial shade, allowing the sunshine to creep through and the garden beneath to grow.

The Rolling Bridge, in London:

The brief was to create a pedestrian bridge to span an inlet of a London canal – crucially, the bridge needed to open to allow boats through. The aim they took was to make the movement the extraordinary aspect. The rolling bridge opens by slowly and smoothly curling until it transforms from a straight bridge into a circular sculpture.

rolling bridge.jpg


UK Pavilion, World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China:

The World Expo is an international fair in which countries participate by creating themed structures/buildings. The brief that Heatherwick Studio was given to create the UK’s pavilion was simply that, it must be one of the expo’s “top five” most popular attractions, meaning it had to stand our from the other 200 pavilions being created. Rather than use digital screens and technology, Heatherwick wanted to create something that shone through simplicity and clarity. Instead of focusing on outdated stereotypes like London fog, bowler hats or red telephone boxes, they wanted to represent inventiveness and creativity in Britain. The theme of 2010’s Expo was ‘the future of cities’, so they began to look into the relationship between cities and nature. Looking at nature and texture, they played with the idea of a Play-Doh figure that grows hair when you squeeze coloured paste/goo through the holes in his head. With this in mind, they created a cathedral to seeds. The Seed Cathedral is a ‘box’ about 20m tall. From the surface of the structure protrude 60,000 clear acrylic rods – there are then 250,000 seeds cast into the glassy tips of those rods. By day, the inside of the pavilion is lit up by sunlight entering through the rods, which lights up the seeds too. And by night, LEDs inside in each rod illuminate the seeds and the inside of the structure. The awe-inspiring structure stayed up for 6 months before being dismantled.

Coal Drops Yard, in London:

This projects is based around the historic Coal Drops buildings in King’s Cross, London. Coal Drops Yard is now being turned into a public space and retail park. Rather than tear down the existing buildings and start building afresh from scratch, Heatherwick decided to take down and pull apart bits from the existing building and develop the structure from what it already is. This is a prime example of one of Neil Hubbard’s top tips, ‘find new from the old’.

Learning Hub (The Hive), in Singapore:

This project was to create a Learning Hub for a university in Singapore. Designers at Heatherwick picked up on the shift in how student’s approach education facilities in recent years – it is no longer a necessity for students to be on campus thanks to the development of the internet and low cost computers. University buildings are no longer the only site where students are able to source educational texts and have become unappealing spaces with endless corridors and no windows or natural daylight. Noticing this, Heatherwick wanted t0 redefine the ambition of a university – togetherness, sociability and collaboration. They began by breaking down the traditional square forward-facing lecture theatres and classrooms, and replacing them with rounded pod-like learning environments without corners where students and teachers can mix on a more equal basis – doing this has created a new, incredible quality and texture to the building itself.

Pier55, in New York, USA:

Pier55 is a public park and performance space, where visitors can wander, finding places to eat and relax. The island will be made of a mix of both natural and artificial features, including lush lawns and pathways, offering beautiful city skyline views. The new performance space, which will be designed to serve as NYC’s premier venues for music, dance, theatre, public art and other community events. They are currently in the process of constructing the structure, building it on a series of stilts in the water – the architecture has an industrial, concrete feel about it.

Pacific Place, Queensway in Hong Kong:

Heatherwick was asked to find ways to improve already existing shopping complex, Pacific Place. The brief was to carry out huge and vast improvements to the centre, while still keeping its shops and restaurants all open. Everything from the lifts and escalators, to the toilets were modified, including increasing the natural light into the building and making it more energy efficient. Heatherwick designed them new restaurant and café buildings, the exterior of a new hotel, a new pedestrian bridge and even added large public spaces and gardens to the entire structure. They created an outdoor area which is situated on top of the shopping centre, and inserted skylights into the roof of the building, allowing more light to enter – the skylights are 7-layers thick, making them strong enough to be both walked on and driven over, but also have 3-dimensional patterns embedded within these layers. The project was all about the little detail, but on a massive scale.

Vessel, in New York, USA:

Vessel is currently under construction today. The brief was to design and build a new public landmark, but rather than just being something beautiful to look at, Heatherwick Studio decided to create a landmark that one could quite literally explore every inch of it – you can climb it. They wanted to create something that would elevate you, offering a new impression of and way to look at New York. The finished design was inspired by the Stepwells, in India – it will be a series of steps and balconies that come together to create a copper-coloured sculpture which opens up towards the sky, looking almost like a rounder beehive. The complete structure will stand at 150 feet tall and will be 150 feet wide at its top too.

Bombay Sapphire Distillery, in Laverstoke, UK:

Heatherwick Studio lead the master plan and design of the UK’s new distillery. Some of the 40 buildings on the site were Grade II listed buildings, which were a bit of an obstacle – on top of this, the River Test ran through the grounds, making the project even more challenging. They wanted to bring clarity and coherence to the diverse and contrasted site – they chose to unhide the River Test, which was then hidden by steep-sided, concrete and dangerous channels, and to build a central courtyard. The initial brief had included the creation of a visitor centre, however, the studio became convinced that the vapour distillation process itself, that the distillery use to make gin, would be much more interesting to any visitor. They looked at the process of making the gin, particularly the way in which they infuse 10 tropical and mediterranean herbs and spices, and decided that they could build ‘the world’s first botanical distillery’. They developed two intertwining botanical glasshouses to house the plant species used in the gin – the curved houses spring from one of the historic buildings, recycling the spare heat from the machinery to make the perfect tropical plant conditions. The houses are actually sat embedded in the River Test itself.

Zeitz MOCAA, in Cape Town, South Africa:

The project was to reinvent a historic Grain Silo in Cape Town, as a cultural institution housing a collection of African contemporary art. The main obstacle was the physical facts of the silo’s structure – there was barely any open space. Rather than rip the building down, they wanted to celebrate its industrial heritage. Their solution was to carve galleries into the silos concrete structure, creating a cathedral-like central atrium, complete with a glass roof. Looking at an actual grain of corn, they decided to carve out a giant-scale mould in the central gallery of one – this was how they created the cathedral feel.

The Olympic Cauldron, London 2012 Olympics:

The project to create the London 2012 Olympics, Olympic Cauldron, was kept so secretive that it was even given a code name: “Project Betty“. They wanted to create a ver human creation, because the Olympics is all about the people – they wanted to focus on that personal moment when the flame of the Olympic cauldron is actually lit. Their end creation involved each country bringing in a petal section of the cauldron during the opening ceremony, each of these petals fitted onto the 204 long stems of the cauldron. The athletes themselves then lit the torch in each petal and once lit, the stems rose up to create one giant flaming torch – this represented the coming together of all the nations.

Final Top Tips:

  • Find new from the old – develop what’s already their, don’t just ‘rip it down and start again’.
  • The brief supplies both the problem, and the solution.
  • Know your context.
  • Create theatre.
  • Zoom in, zoom out, zoom in, zoom out – keep zooming out to look at the bigger picture.
  • Avoid cliché.
  • Not just an idea; the idea.
  • Make it real.
  • The importance of making – produce, produce produce! – make prototypes.

Published by

Amber Lloyd

Graphic Communicator

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