We are not making new buildings, but borrowing all the soulfulness from the past.

(Thomas Heatherwick (“The Science Behind our Emotional Connection to Architecture,” a+u No. 629))

“Form follows function.” The unshakable mantra professed by architect Louis Sullivan in the 19th century penetrated the minds of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Raymond Loewy, among a multitude of respected architects and designers. The theory connotes rationally designed structures that must adhere to functionality above form or ornamental beauty. Yet, when we look at buildings and products that obey this academic principle, we sense a notion of “determinism,” as remarked by architect Prof. Ruth Conroy Dalton (“The Science Behind our Emotional Connection to Architecture,” a+u No. 629)—a singular, boxed precept that may evade the potentiality of creativity and flexibility. In today’s age of complexities, hybrid technologies and cultures, one might wonder if pure functionalism is truly enough to reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of our times.

This is why the phenomenal works of British designer Thomas Heatherwick speak and connect to us in the most intimate ways that design has never done before. Finally, we breathe and walk through spaces that filter emotion and expression because we perceive and understand the profound generosity allotted to the value of materials, woven meticulously into natural elements; to the fearless curvilinear or irregular forms, freewheelingly echoing our undulating life rhythms; and to the unconventional colors and textures, concurring melodiously with our ever-changing mind patterns and life choices.

Breathtaking. Exhilarating. Stupefying. Mind-boggling. Simply arresting. These are just some of the emotions we feel when we experience the inspiring exhibition “Heatherwick Studio: Building Soulfulness” ongoing at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo until June 4th this year. The outstanding showcase presents, for the first time, twenty-eight major projects by Heatherwick Studio, including the Azabudai Hills Lower Levels in Tokyo, expecting its completion in autumn this year.

Heatherwick Studio founder Thomas Heatherwick established his design office in 1994 in London as a productive hub of architecture, urban and environmental planning, and product and interior design, all convened in one workplace. In a sense, his ideologies revive those of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) of the 1900s, which strived to integrate all facets of aesthetics as a “whole design.” However, Heatherwick delves into more far-reaching and robust dimensions. His defiance of orthodox forms and ideas results to sensitive creations that have won his studio numerous awards from all over the world.

What makes the studio’s designs eye-popping is the manner by which the inventive usage of materials and eclectic shapes and forms are able to translate a myriad of emotions so tenaciously, and mirror reality’s inevitable transformations. Emotional design and architecture embraces the vitality of natural elements, materials, and interactive spaces that touch people’s sensibilities, so that they are able to instill “soulfulness”—the essential human attributes of dialogue, recreation, enjoyment, and interpersonal connection, rather than keeping them fastened to the ground as merely “hard” structures. Heatherwick remarks:

The last few years have helped me clarify emotional sustainability. We have neglected making places that connect with people’s emotions. If something isn’t loved by people, it will be demolished…Emotion is an inseparable function of the built environment.

(“I’m an Imposter—a maker in the world of designing buildings,” Thomas Heatherwick in Conversation with Mami Kataoka, a+u No. 629)

This realization was no accident either to Heatherwick. As a child, he had always been fascinated by inventions, and artistic and engineering solutions. He immersed himself in the study of wood, metal, ceramics, glass, plastics, and all other materials, which explains his intimate relationship with them in the same way Japanese craftsmen respect their tools so reverently. He reminisces his encounter with a Japanese potter.

I came across the very powerful lifestyle choice of giving yourself entirely to your craft and finding meaning through it…There was precision and a totally unpretentious focus on craftsmanship; there was discipline, and there was beauty, even in the tools.

(“I’m an Imposter—a maker in the world of designing buildings,” Thomas Heatherwick in Conversation with Mami Kataoka, a+u No. 629)

The exhibition, encompassing innovative projects in the UK, USA, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Africa, evolves around six themes: Coming Together, Connecting with Everyone, Experiencing Sculptural Space, Feeling Nature in Urban Space, Bringing Memories to the Future, and Playing and Using. Upon entering the introductory hall, we immediately grasp the enormity and diversity of Heatherwick Studio’s accomplishments, represented by models, photographs, video clips, actual prototypes and visual banners within the perfect setting of the museum’s Tokyo City View Observatory Deck.

A full-scale (four-meter high) model of a part of the New Routemaster (2012) London double-decker bus is displayed, portraying an improvement of London’s public transportation lifestyle. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned the studio to reassess the bus design and lessen fossil fuel by forty percent. The team envisioned a lightweight and efficient vehicle, with three doors and two staircases for easy movement, windows that run up the staircase for better light, especially at night, and new upholstery design and materials. The result is a calmer and better coordinated design that spells maximum comfort for the passengers.

Adding to transportation design, the AIRO, designed for IM Motors, is a fully electric, driver-controlled car. It consists of a built-in HEP system to filter pollution. Realizing the small percentage of car usage in urban cities, the studio configured a multi-purpose space that permits maximum utilization of the vehicle even when parked. Fully-reclinable seats can be converted into a double bed, and rotate to face each other for social activities and dining. A four-leaf table can also be tucked away conveniently. AIRO received the New York Design 2021 Silver Award for the Better Future—Environmentally Sustainable category.

One of the engaging projects exhibited and recipient of the gold medal for Pavilion Design at the 2010 Shanghai Expo is the Shanghai Expo UK Pavillion (2010), also known as the Seed Cathedral. The theme centered on Britain’s history of urban parks and gardens and its botanical research heritage. To capture the environmental relationship between urban cities and nature, the studio built a cube-like kinetic exterior made up of 60,000 acrylic rods, 7.5 meters long each, with 250,000 seeds cast into the tip of each glass-like rod. Resembling a porcupine on the outside, the rods swayed with the breeze, transmitting light both outdoors and indoors. In the display, we can scrutinize the rods with the embedded multifarious seeds at close-up. This incredibly unique creation is truly an absolute marvel.

The studio places tremendous value on ecology and its synthesis with human living. Little Island (2021) in New York and Tian An 1000 Trees (2021) in Shanghai are both jaw-dropping large-scale development projects that create a lasting and positive impact by interweaving plants and trees into the building materials so that people can feel the energy and spiritual well-being of the natural setting, and therefore, love and enjoy the surroundings as an enriching experience, not merely viewing plants as ornamental fixtures.

The scale model of Little Island depicts an almost one hectare park and outdoor amphitheatre, which re-utilized the old wooden piles of the previous piers on the Hudson River. Reflecting on the hurricane that had severely damaged the pier, the team raised up 280 repeating piles out of the water, which contains over a hundred varieties of planters at the top, each connected in a tessellating pattern at different heights. The result is a unique topographical landscape through woven pathways, and multi-leveled viewing platforms for performances, as well as a spectacular panorama of the Hudson River. Little Island garnered the New York Design 2021 Gold Award for the Architecture—Mixed Use—Constructed category.

In Tian An 1000 Trees, the huge model on display is lit up to project 800 structural columns supporting large planters for 250,000 trees and shrubs. They are streamlined into two tree-covered mountains, and arranged orthogonally, so they appear to slope down the art district and park within the complex. A bridge also links to the historic buildings on the site, preserving the old and the new. The shopping center is topped with trees, emitting a sense of activation, instead of a sterilized facade. Heatherwick explains:

There's a tendency to think greenery is only for environmental reasons in terms of greenhouse gas emissions— and those are benefits – but a big part of the reason in this project is the emotional engagement, to humanise it.

Unsurprisingly, the project was honored with the Dezeen Awards 2022 and ArchDaily’s 2023 Building of the Year Awards in the Commercial Architecture category, among others.

Tokyo residents will soon be excited to witness the completion of Azabudai Hills/Lower Levels in the Minato district, between Roppongi Hills and Toranomon Hills. To respond to Tokyo’s mixed array of building heights in a dense land area, the studio layered scales together to amplify the topography of the valley. A green oasis will be seen free-flowing through the public space for a positive and strong environmental footprint.

In furniture design, the exhibit presents actual pieces of Spun (2007) in the final lobby area, which you can sit on while viewing Heatherwick’s TED talk on a projected screen. The design idea for this chair was to tweak with the metal spinning process. It is symmetrically rotational, but also comfortable and enjoyable to sit on. The finished plastic version with finely grooved edges was achieved with the collaboration of Italian furniture manufacturer Magis.

Heatherwick’s firm adherence to soulful buildings, spaces and objects in complex, meandering, or non-conformist forms is visibly clear in the other creations as well,. To name a few: the rock-shaped Temple (2001) in Kagoshima, Japan; ribbon-steeled East Beach Café (2005) in the UK; and multi-staircased Vessel (2013) in New York. Overall, the exhibition justifies the consciousness of living spaces existing not simply to be used, but inversely, to nurture our emotions and natural desire for human connection, and more importantly, to leave long-lived memories.