No cliches, please

Updated: 2015-06-12 07:44

By Sun Yuanqing(China Daily)

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British designer Thomas Heatherwick, famous for creating a seed dome at 2010 Shanghai World Expo, returns to China with a new show. Sun Yuanqing reports.

British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who is well-known in China for his work on the UK pavilion at 2010 Shanghai World Expo, was in Beijing recently to attend the opening of The New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio exhibition at an art museum.

Curated by Kate Goodwin, head of architecture at London's Royal Academy of Arts, the ongoing show is being held at the Central Academy of Fine Arts to display models of some finished projects the designer has so far undertaken. The centerpiece is the Seed Cathedral that was created for the UK pavilion during the Shanghai exposition.

While directing the project that involved 250,000 seeds borrowed from the Millennium Seed Bank and some 60,000 acrylic rods that were used to make a cube, Heatherwick focused on "better city, better life", the exposition motto. Seed Cathedral explored the connection between urban spaces and nature.

No cliches, please

But when his studio first won the contract, the British government wasn't enthusiastic about the idea of having their national pavilion styled with seeds and not with more representative figures such as soccer star David Beckham or fictional detective Sherlock Holmes or even British tea bags, Heatherwick recalls.

"They kept saying to us 'very risky, very risky'. I kept saying to them that it would be riskier to show cliches. It is the safest thing we can do to show something that even British people have never seen," Heatherwick, 45, told China Daily on the sidelines of his Beijing exhibition.

Interestingly, Shanghai World Expo Bureau agreed with Heatherwick and helped him persuade the UK government to agree to the seed venture, he says.

The exposition had some 250 country pavilions, most of which were built like museums with their respective national images. Heatherwick's strategy to make something different seemed to have worked. Visitors were drawn in large numbers to the Seed Cathedral.

The UK pavilion, built on a slim budget compared with other Western countries, took up only one-sixth the area assigned to it and left the rest for the gathering public.

It was judged the best pavilion at that exposition.

The project became a turning point for Heatherwick Studio, opening doors worldwide, especially in China. He is now doing two projects in Shanghai - the 420,000-square-meter Shanghai Bund Finance Center and a silk museum and workshop in Shunde in South China's Guangdong province.

In 2012, Heatherwick Studio designed a cauldron for the London Olympics.

The current exhibition in China also shows older projects like the Rolling Bridge in London, the New Bus for London and some furniture designs that Heatherwick and his teams worked on.

At the moment, Heatherwick Studio is working on four continents on projects valued at more than 2 billion pounds ($3 billion), including the Garden Bridge over Thames River and the Google campus in Silicon Valley.

He is also keen to find opportunities to work on socially-relevant projects such as schools, hospitals or prisons, Heatherwick says.

Born and raised in London, Heatherwick studied 3-D design in Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art.

His mother is a craftswoman and that motivated him to think about designs.

He founded Heatherwick Studio in 1994 in London. The studio covers architecture, urban infrastructure, and furniture and product designs. It employs 180 people, mostly architects and designers.

Since he was young, Heatherwick wanted to create things rather than dwell on theories. His interest in China is also growing.

"In China, the developers I meet are not stuck on the idea that a building designer has (just) one style. Instead, they say, 'You did the Seed Cathedral, what would you do for this project?", he says.

"In China, the challenge is how to invent ideas that feel particular for China and not for somewhere else. Often we travel, and the city you travel to looks similar to the city you came from. I find that very disappointing."

He says his mission is to not even copy himself.

Part of the 2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange, the Beijing exhibition will run through June 21, before traveling to Shanghai.

Contact the writer at

No cliches, please

 No cliches, please

The Seed Cathedral (top) is Thomas Heatherwick's bestknown project shown at 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The designer and his team have worked on other initiatives around the world, like Nanyang Technological University (above) in Singapore.Photos Provided To China Daily

(China Daily 06/12/2015 page20)