Gabriel Sanchiz and Pawel Jaskulski of Heatherwick Studio, whose basement houses an extensive resource
Heatherwick Studio, now in its 25th year, employs 200 people in half a dozen premises around King’s Cross in London. Its main office sits within the footprint of a Travelodge hotel on Grayis Inn Road, accessed through large iron gates and the porte-cochère of the French baroque-style Willing House, built in 1909 as the offices of Willing Advertising. The space occupied by the studio is a later development, the concrete coffering of the structure exposed by the practice when it moved here in 2009.
The studio is busy with people, with warm aromas from its kitchen, and with displays of models and prototypes, natural and man-made objects, and books. Necklaces from the collection of principal Thomas Heatherwick’s mother Stefany Tomalin – who is a leading authority on beads– hang on a wall by the entrance.
The extensive materials library and archive occupies a very long room in the basement. Material samples – most specially developed by the studio – are organised in clear plastic boxes, primarily by project. There are more models, some dating back to Thomas Heatherwick’s student days, and the whole rich resource is regarded as intrinsic to the day-to-day life of the studio. The archive also houses the personal papers of Heatherwick’s grandmother, the artist, textile designer and art therapist Elisabeth Tomalin. Gabriel Sanchiz is the project architect for Draycott Gardens, a residential development in Singapore, while Pawel Jaskulski is the studio’s assistant archivist.
How accessible is the library?
GS Anyone can wander down there and look through it. The library is a live organism and what is not in use at the moment is down in the archive, but a lot of it is on people’s desks or in the workshop. The materials tend to be interesting ones that we’ve used on a project before at some stage, either as an experiment or in the finished work. We do have some boxes that are not project specific, such as a collection of metals that we’ve used on different projects, but it’s not a library in the sense of a catalogue of products.
It’s not a foolproof system but it’s a very democratic one”
PJ What’s quite unique about the studio is the emphasis on making, and on testing ideas. The second biggest series of items we have are the sketch and process models. Depending on the project there can be anything between 40 and 100 sketch models, produced in the workshop by project teams to test different elements of the design. These can be made out of almost anything – a piece of crumpled paper, the core of a tissue roll – as well also 3D prints or balsa wood. Materials are developed in conjunction with the workshop, where there is a team of 10 or more people. The main workshop is in this building, but there are two further workshops in other buildings
How do you work out whether or not something can go in the library?
GS It’s a collective sensibility and a discussion, and ultimately one person makes the decision about what can be kept. We have lots of materials that we develop and there is a natural filtration process. If we could have an archive ten times the size of what we have downstairs we would have a lot more stuff! Sometimes a particular person on a project argues that we must keep this because it’s very difficult to find. It’s not a foolproof system but it’s a very democratic one.
PJ There is a collections manager, who also looks after the strategy for archiving. We have a two-stage appraisal process regarding project material. At the end of the concept stage, and at the end of the detailed design, we schedule video interviews with the project leader and another team member. We discuss the brief, and lay out all the sketch models and materials – anything that was deposited in the archive – and they talk us through how important that sketch model was, and at what stage in the design process something was influential.
It’s recorded by the studio film-maker and photographer, which both assists me as a cataloguer and helps the collection manager to make the decision whether we should discard something or not. The film is also shared on our intranet.
Christmas cards; the studio used to create a new design each year
Do you get to a point where you think “we’ve got to make some more room”?
PJ If something is accepted as part of the archive collection we keep it. We do struggle with storage space and that’s why we also have offsite spaces in Yorkshire.
Since a lot of your materials are developed in-house, is there less online research ?
GS In an ideal world we would make everything but we also recognise that we have certain limitations and we can’t fabricate every single part of a building, unfortunately. We do a lot of research on materials online. We have particular preferences with regards to fabricators and we also work a lot on customising products.
Quite often the archive… acquires a piece of prototype, or something that was manufactured during the design process”
Do you make factory visits?
GS Yes, wherever we can. Sometimes the visit relates to a particular project, and sometimes it’s when someone in the studio meets a fabricator who might be interesting to work with; we also carry out some speculative visits where we’re not thinking of a particular project. On specific projects when we have an emphasis on a particular material we go to the factory and see what we can learn, to understand the process and have a dialogue about customising it, if that’s possible. Even companies that make standard products tend to get excited about the idea of making a little change.
Do you have CPDs in house?
GS We have several per week. Sometimes they are quite product based, another time it could be someone talking about how to introduce wildlife back into cities. While we would host one on the latest developments in fire stopping – that’s obviously important –they tend to be more about how to inspire the studio and raise awareness about things. So if it’s about products it’s often about the process behind the products.
PJ When a supplier comes into the studio, it’s mostly at the invitation of the project leader. Together they explain their relationship, how they worked together and what the challenges were on that project. Quite often the archive then acquires a piece of prototype, or something that was manufactured during the design process, that we can keep to represent the story of the project within the collection. That can also be helpful to us for any exhibition requests in the future.
Draycott Gardens, Singapore: early prototype for the texture of the facade
GS In Singapore, unlike in Switzerland or Spain, there isn’t an industry of refined concrete and in order to make it interesting we chose to develop a texture. We got a really high definition map of the Singapore terrain from NASA, and we abstracted it into a texture and scale that would be appropriate to a large wall, without it being too literal or too abstract.
We spent a lot of time calibrating the texture’s depth, width and spacing with the Singapore sun, which strikes very vertically because of its proximity to the equator. We only had a total of 25mm depth to play with.
After developing 3D prints in the studio, we worked with a company in Germany that makes rubber formliners to produce the pattern. They CNC’d the piece, but their tooling was different to our design, so we had to work very closely with them to achieve what we wanted.
The base master pattern is about 12 by four metres, so only parts of it were used for smaller walls and we had to ensure that each facade was unique. There was a substantial cost in producing the master mould, which took weeks of CNC milling, but making the rubber cast was much easier. We also had to work out how you could have a texture that would work when bent to fit around a corner, and again liaised closely with the Singapore contractor to get the right result.
Draycott Gardens, a highly-tailored apartment tower in Singapore with only 20 apartments, one per floor: model.
GS We’ve previously undertaken early concept studies for residential projects but this is the first one that we’ve seen through to construction. It’s been in the studio for about five years. We have somebody living in Singapore overseeing the construction day-to-day and we travel out every four or five weeks.
The 20 apartments are unique. One of the things we learnt early on when we looked at high-end schemes in London, Singapore and Hong Kong was that they were all terribly generic, although described as “luxurious”, and we felt that we had to do something radically different.
Singapore is a very small island with very high density living, yet it’s a beautiful garden of a city, full of greenery. Because people live high up in apartments where they don’t really have a connection to that greenery, the other aspect of our brief was how can we create a series of apartments that are surrounded by garden? Materiality has a big role in that, with natural, non-generic materials creating connections with the natural world.
Draycott Gardens: a near-control-sample of the fibre-cement used on the exterior of the planters
GS By incorporating fibres the material can be produced more thinly. This material doesn’t hold the earth – we tried that, but it became very complicated technically. There’s a structural pocket of concrete and this covers it.
We had two parameters to play with: the tint that we gave the cement and the colour of the aggregate. The panels had to work with the colour of the concrete walls and we tried to achieve the colour just by the aggregate. We had to find someone who supplied the Chinese River Stone aggregate in Singapore, then separate it out to remove all the black stones, take it to our cement producer, test it and produce ratios for the aggregate mix.