UK starchitect Heatherwick calls for humanity, soulfulness in 21st century architecture

ARCHITECTURE/DESIGN: The superstar designer behind the triumphant completion of London’s new retail destination, Coal Drops Yard, plans to make people and the natural environment the essence of the £700m (US$917m) revamp of the city’s iconic Olympia exhibition centre.

Thomas Heatherwick (pictured, below), arguably the rock star of contemporary British architecture, has been appointed by private equity firms Deutsche Finance International and Yoo Capital to overhaul the now archaic Olympia, originally built in 1886, for the 21st century.

UK-based Heatherwick Studio will work with architectural house SPPARC to restore the six-hectare hub to include stores, studios, offices, events and exhibitions aimed at the creative industries. There will also be co-working spaces, plus hotels, restaurants, major music venues, performance-arts theatres and cinemas alongside large public green spaces.

Speaking at the recent 100% Design event in London, Heatherwick explained why it is vital to make the people who will visit the buildings centre to plans for reclaiming large-scale structures like Coal Drops Yard and Olympia.

“We’re very focused on the human element in the monster scale of today’s global developments, which can sometimes leave something soulful behind.”

He hinted at why that made him add architecture to his original design-only business: “We thought we would never be involved in architecture, and I thought we would be left in obscurity thanks to the digital revolution and the gadgets in our pockets.”

Historic hulk
In their 130 years, the constantly evolving Olympia exhibition halls at London’s affluent Kensington district have housed internationally renowned events, conferences and even concerts (Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and the Chemical Brothers made some noise there).

Deutsche Finance and Yoo, which lead a consortium that bought Olympia in 2017, hope Heatherwick’s famous visual flair will modernise the currently outdated landmark and prevent business from going elsewhere.

At 100% Design, Heatherwick argued that the existing Olympia has lost its appeal as a leisure destination.

“Olympia has been a place you don’t feel welcome; it is not really making a livelihood in London and it is the last major exhibition hall in Zones 1 and 2 in the capital. It is like a hulk of a beast on the edge of Central London with all the lights off,” he stated.

By making it people-friendly again (renderings, pictured below), he believes it will compete effectively against rivals like the ExCel London convention centre in East London and other accessible exhibition hubs in major European cities like Frankfurt and Paris.

“Our goal is to improve Olympia’s exhibition offerings, which is currently fragmented. We want to make the public come here without necessarily having to buy a ticket to a show or exhibition.”

To make it a people-first experience, the masterplan also proposes a tech-controlled garden bridge installed on the site and the pedestrianisation of Olympia Way, an adjoining main road that is currently besieged by traffic.

People first
Heatherwick admitted that his people-centric approach to architecture has its challenges.

Bringing the antiquated into the digital age or converting concrete into greenery require an obscure way of thinking that might not make sense to clients until the projects are finished, he said

“Our projects are based on logic and intuition. It is logical to make somewhere special to make people come there. But most of the time, we’re wrestling with things that don’t make sense. At the end of the day, however, it will make a compelling case for itself.”

He does not believe in obliterating the past to construct a future. For example, he and his clients are determined to preserve Olympia’s historic Victorian façades, especially as they are listed, which means they are legally protected for historical reasons.

Nor does he think our digital age means we should forget people’s need to be physically in touch with each other and natural surroundings.

Modernising heritage
At 100% Design, Heatherwick also discussed how several other commissions are being created with humanity, heritage and natural materials in mind.

Coal Drops Yard (pictured, below) is a prime example. It required joining two separate Victorian industrial buildings with warehouses that had originally stored imported coal and other goods delivered by horse and cart when constructed in the 1850s.

For the client, the property developer Argent, Heatherwick Studio had to consider the regeneration of the formerly bedraggled King’s Cross district, also in Central London.

The goal was to create a destination where people could find the latest in commerce, culture and art in an area where new-tech giants like Google have also located their UK headquarters.

To build South Africa’s biggest art museum, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – Zeitz MOCAA, which opened in September 2017 in Cape Town, his studio had to persuade clients that it was worth hollowing out the inside of a historic grain silo in order to preserve the original outer structure.

“No one would let you build that silo today. So when they wanted to knock it down, we said ‘No’. But it meant we had to justify the benefit of something that would not exist anywhere else.”

For the Tian An China Investments Company, Heatherwick’s team has been invited to create a 300,000 sqm multi-purpose complex next to Shanghai’s art district.

The mission is to produce a building supported by 800 large columns and surrounded by a public park on one side and concrete tower blocks on the other three sides.

The end result is the 1000 Trees complex (pictured, below), with a Heatherwick design that integrates the natural environment by building plants around and on top of the columns, which would normally be inside the building.

“It was a concrete-only development but there was also a precious art district nearby. We are making our project an extension of that. The plants are a natural extension that is necessary to make people feel that their world is not over-designed.”

Heatherwick was speaking at the 100% Design event, which took place during the 2018 London Design Festival