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Learning Hub in Singapore by Thomas Heatherwick

Brand Heatherwick lands in Singapore with a towering student centre taking his Asian campaign to new heights

There is a long history of charismatic authority figures in Asia during the last century, from Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-Shek to Singapore’s recently departed autocratic founder, Lee Kuan Yew. Obviously, charisma alone is not enough to explain the rise of China’s Chairman Mao or North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, but love them or hate them, these are people who have done more than simply represent their respective countries on the international stage: they forcibly moulded the national image in their likeness. No skulduggery was too dastardly, including ‘accidental’ plane crashes, airbrushing, and enforced self-criticism to dispose of critics; and simple brainwashing in the form of ‘loyalty dances’ and parroted praise.

This year, a new cult of the individual is being transported in the other direction: from the West to the East. Thomas Heatherwick is that unifying brand image − the non-stiff- upper-lipped face of British foreign affairs.

A few years ago, Rowan Moore presciently predicted that Heatherwick would become ‘the go-to man for questions of public life and national identity’. And so it has come to pass, with a major touring exhibition of his work playing a significant part of the British Council’s uncomfortably insistent ‘GREAT’ Britain campaign that aims to ‘shape the way the world thinks about us as a nation’. Heatherwick is cast as the man who represents Britain through design. The man who unites Britain through design: he who unites the world through British design.

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An exhibition devoted to Heatherwick’s work in Singapore. Backed by the British Council, it will visit several Asian cities

With an impressive CV under his belt including the British Pavilion, the London bus and the London Olympic cauldron, Heatherwick is now one of those rare commodities that is almost gifted commissions. Whether on trade missions to China with London Mayor Boris Johnson, where he reputedly picked up a number of subway station appointments, or through governmental down-payments on his Garden Bridge project across the Thames, many of these private opportunities are publicly subsidised in the hope that they will pay dividends as national iconography.

In April 2015, Heatherwick himself was presented with a Design Icon Award in Hollywood and has been labelled a ‘rockstar designer’. Such pop plaudits were recently echoed in the Shanghai Daily’s headline: ‘Heatherwick kicks off his Asia tour in Singapore’, which heralded the glittering cavalcade that will travel thereafter to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei and Mumbai. The Singapore leg was timed to coincide with the country’s Design Week and presents not only a significant exhibition of Heatherwick’s works, but also the unveiling of his first architectural project in Asia.

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The British Pavilion at Shanghai Expo was a breakthrough moment in Heatherwick’s state-sponsored marketing campaign

The exhibition, curated by Kate Goodwin of the Royal Academy, is titled New British Inventors: Inside Heatherwick Studio and features stunning scale models, prototypes, sketches and photographs as well as authentic pieces such as the Singapore petal from the Olympic cauldron. Works on display hark back to the studio’s inception and even further back to when Thomas was a mere boy-wonder.

Since his acclaimed Shanghai Expo Seed Cathedral in 2010, it seems that he can do no wrong in China, garnering a substantial portfolio of construction projects, from bulbous housing in Suzhou to surprisingly low-key towers for Shanghai’s Bund Finance Centre designed with Foster + Partners. On show in Singapore’s National Design Centre is a superb model of his Moganshan mega-project in China, scheduled to complete in 2018. This scheme is typical of his approach to architecture as topography à la Teesside Power Station. Rather than a building, ‘the studio re-imagined it as a landform: as a park lifted up on columns that traverse the site’.

‘Many of Heatherwick’s private opportunities are publicly subsidised in the hope that they will pay dividends as national iconography’

The main event at Singapore Design Week is the opening of Heatherwick’s Nanyang Technological University Learning Hub, 40 minutes drive from the town centre. Approaching from the south, past Toyo Ito’s excellent student dormitory buildings, you are confronted by what looks like a phalanx of Bibendum Michelin Men standing to attention.

This multi-use student centre has been built to tight local regulatory standards and on an even tighter budget and try as it might, it doesn’t quite succeed in hiding those facts. That is not to say that the grey, pared down structure is not a likeable building. As in all of Heatherwick’s œuvre there is much to admire, clever tweaks, nifty surprises and inventive ‘why haven’t they thought of that before’ moments. However, effectively isolated on a traffic island, it gave off something of a forlorn car-park aesthetic. But in fairness, the press launch was held before students had been admitted inside to enliven it.

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Floor Plan of Heatherwick’s Learning Hub

On plan, the building is amoebic, with each pseudopod representing a tutorial room. Fifty-six, non-orthogonal pods are expressed externally as rounded projections that provide a unique perimeter form to the building, varying on every level. Gaps between pods are open to the external air so that natural draughts flow through the building to alleviate the worst effects of Singapore’s hot and humid climate, but also to break the knee-jerk use of air-conditioning in most public buildings in the country. It is an experiment designed to prompt local architects to consider taking up passive ventilation strategies, but also in order to save the client money.

Even though Nanyang Technological University is the 49th richest university in the world, the search for cost reduction has been relentless. Significant savings have been achieved by leaving everything bare: exposed concrete floors, surface-mounted pipework, ducts, rough cast soffits, etc. With such a value-engineered product, Heatherwick has insisted on several visual and tactile elements to combat the relentless feel of asceticism.

‘One wag has suggested that the atrium void at the heart of Nanyang’s Learning Hub is symbolic of the hollowing out of education’

First, the central atrium void has scalloped edges to provide some visual interest and forms a notional connection with the opposing balcony which is only 3 or 4 metres away. The wide balconies can accommodate large groups of students gathering outside classes, able easily to spot friends and talk to them over the central void.

Second, a flowing timber handrail-cum-planter provides a comfortable resting place for students’ elbows after a hard day’s work and forms an expressive ribbon around each floor. Third, Heatherwick discovered that he could play with the structural contingency built into the concrete thickness that covers the column reinforcement, suggesting that it could be reduced in places without having an adverse structural or cost effect. Therefore, the columns have been spokeshaved into gentle curves. Such sculptural forms, though not to my taste, point to Heatherwick’s tectonic sensitivity and material appreciation.

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Section of Heatherwick’s Learning Hub

The sculpted columns rake back at an angle at low level and lean forward - towards the atrium - at the top. As the only load-bearing structural carriers in the building, the columns look almost impossibly structural at such angles, but in fact they form two sides of the atrium and thus balance each other out, with the opposing forces reconciled at the very top of the building.

Finally, the concrete walls are patterned and peculiarly pigmented to something resembling flesh tones. Heatherwick had wanted to build this building out of brick, but local environmental performance targets dictated that it would be too labour- and energy-intensive and so concrete was the only choice permissible.

Artist Sara Fanelli was brought in to lift this potentially monotonous material. She created ‘deliberately ambiguous thought triggers’ (ie, doodles), which have been used throughout by imprinting patterns into the exposed concrete surfaces of over 1,000 cast panels. Each were made from the same mould but with unique quirks to create what Heatherwick calls a ‘modular but customised building’. He revels in the blemishes and imperfections saying that he wanted a ‘soulful building’ that ‘gives love to concrete’.

Students can access the building from any one of 12 separate entrances and the openness of the structure is intended to be a metaphor for student-centred, accessible learning. Indeed, this building is a series of alcoves where students meet with minimal face-to-face teaching presence (there are no staff facilities in this building, for example) and, instead, the learning tends to rely on external, technology-driven content. Here students will work in groups of four or five on the basis that ‘research shows that this is the most effective way of learning’. As the university’s representative told me,’the hub will provide informal learning techniques [because] you can learn all you need on the internet’. He continued: ‘People see MOOCs (massive open online courses) as a threat, we see them as an opportunity’.

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Heatherwick’s Learning Hub

When asked the purpose of a university, Heatherwick explained that while people used to go to university ‘because that’s where the books were, now it is a place that fosters togetherness and sociability, so that students can meet their fellow entrepreneurs, scientists or colleagues in a space that encourages collaboration’. The rounded shape of the pods is thus meant to be a symbolic gesture representing a ‘corner-less space, where teachers and students mix on a more equal basis’, says Heatherwick Studio’s press statement. The egalitarian nature of the public spaces within is similarly reflective of teachers being ‘a partner in the voyage of learning, rather than “master” executing a top-down model of pedagogy’.

This is clearly a university building for the 21st century in which the redefinition of students as ‘learners’ accidentally or incidentally speaks to the hollowing-out of the knowledge base of education. As Professor Dennis Hayes argues, nowadays ‘lecturers are encouraged to see themselves in a spurious equity with the “learners” in their classes leading to an infantilisation of university teaching’.

One wag has already suggested that the atrium void at the heart of Nanyang’s Learning Hub is symbolic of the hollowing out of education, but this may be a metaphor too far. There are some nice architectural ambitions in this building and it would be sad indeed if the building’s decorative surface treatment, for example, was seen crassly to symbolise the lack of educational depth − because hopefully architecture is more subtle than that, even if clients are not.

For Heatherwick’s first building in Asia this is an interesting start. All hail, Heatherwick, the second.

The Interlace

Design: Heatherwick Studio with CPG Consultants
Structural engineer: TYLin International
Photographs: Hufton + Crow

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