Designing the Seed Cathedral
Thomas Heatherwick discusses the UK Pavilion at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai
Architects: Heatherwick studio
Detail: The UK Pavilion really stands out among the more than 200 buildings at the Expo 2010 in Shanghai. What was the main idea behind your design?
Heatherwick: The big Expos around the world are all very busy, rich, complex and mind-bogglingly amazing events, but when you ask people what they remember, it always seems to be the pure, very simple things. So we thought we shouldn’t just design a building and then worry about what exhibition to put inside, but rather design something simple, where the exhibition idea determines the building.
That’s where the concept of the Seed Cathedral came from – the idea that the building consists of just these more than 200,000 seeds. What you see from the outside are 7.5-metre-long light-collecting rods that illuminate the inpidual seeds contained within them. These 60,000 rods constitute the building.
Also wrapped up in the building design was the notion of creating a piece that was soft, rather than hard-edged glass and steel; something that was not so much about form as about a very special texture – a building that could move. When the wind blows, the acrylic rods move like stalks in a wheat field.
Detail: What is the meaning of the seeds?
Heatherwick: The whole Expo is about the future of cities. The United Kingdom has a long history of bringing nature into its cities, as a way of making cities more humane. We discovered that London was the greenest city of its size in the world, that both the world’s first public park and the world’s first major botanical institution (the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew) were in the UK. Today, Kew is the pioneer of the Millennium Seed Bank partnership, an extraordinary conservation project in which seeds from 25 per cent of the world’s plant species are being collected, researched and stored. Many people know about this project but no one has ever seen it.
To me, these seeds represent something emotionally very fundamental; a seed might be the reason your grandmother’s life was extended by ten years, or the reason that a particular country’s entire economy survives. So there are many readings to the Seed Cathedral.
Detail: How is the Seed Cathedral supported on the ground?
Heatherwick: A timber main box forms the structure underneath. Each of the acrylic rods has a metal tube that supports it and is connected to that box. Some of those metal tubes are structural. So the load is spread over the metal part of the structure, not over the acrylic, even though, interestingly, engineers discovered that we could support it on the acrylic. We did a lot of tests for that, but the timing was too tight for us to be able to have that unconventional structural system validated and proven, so we simply used the metal elements.
Detail: The pavilion consists of two parts, the Seed Cathedral and a base that looks a little bit like a crinkled piece of paper.
Heatherwick: That sheet gave us a way to create one unified surface, a visual calmness. It simplifies the true complexity of the British pavilion and creates a canopy which protects visitors from sun and rain as they go up the ramp to the bridge leading into the Seed Cathedral.
We worked with an artificial-turf manufacturer to develop a surface that is like a miniature version of the building. The soft, silver “grass” has a very dark rich red underlying it, just as the Seed Cathedral appears to be a rich dark red inside when you look in from the outside.
To visitors who have walked over many kilometres of concrete and tarmac, the British pavilion will feel soft underfoot, just as the building looks soft. This sheet is deliberately designed to provide a big space in which events can take place. It’s inclined and the acoustics and visual sight lines are very good. It allows people a sort of social space where they can catch their breath within this enormous, amazing, hectic Expo.
Detail: Was the pavilion constructed in Britain or China?
Heatherwick: It was built in China.
Detail: What will happen to it after the Expo? Will it be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere?
Heatherwick: It will be dismantled, but fortunately we’ve had enormous interest in the pavilion; many people are asking where it could be rebuilt afterwards, which is lovely. Our plans at the moment are for the seeds to be distributed to hundreds of different schools in China and the UK, because as a resource they’re something that schools have never had before. The project has been given the nickname “the dandelion”. That was a post-rationalization, but I quite like that the seeds will be virtually blown away, distributed to become teaching aids.
Thomas Heatherwick was interviewed by Frank Kaltenbach.