Humanising our Cities

The Seoul Design International Forum 2023 has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

Humanising our Cities 

- Thomas Heatherwick, Founder of Heatherwick Studio

We are passionate about the environment and the buildings that surround us. I believe we are living in a very interesting era in the history. We actually have choices (rather than not having them). We can achieve very interesting transitions, if we were to make choices. However, such transformation cannot be achieved with the developers or the architects alone. We can only accomplish such changes when we all talk about buildings and the structures together.

Strolling through the city

Now, I would like to ask all of you to stir up an imagination. What do you experience when you are walking around in a city that you know of? How do you feel? I remember having been very surprised when I visited a new city in the past. It was because it didn’t have any character. In some sense, it felt as if some kind of boredom had spread through the entire city space like a disease.

Against this backdrop, today, I would like to talk about public spaces rather than about inside of buildings or architectures. In truth, public spaces are currently dominated by cars. However, imagine that there are less cars and that we are in that place instead of cars. We need to think about the types of emotions and sentiments that flow within us. Generally, when we consider buildings or architectures, we don’t particularly talk about ‘sentiments’. Thus, talks about architecture also feel like talks among scholars. So, I think it is very good to use sentimental language such as ‘joy’ in the design guideline of cities. 

If I were to ask you whether you would like to go to the old city or the new city, most would answer old city. People have become smarter and the society has also advanced tremendously. If we were to meet a woman from the Victorian era 150 years ago and show her satellites, smartphones and airplanes, she would be shocked. However, if we were to show her the current city, I think she might say, ‘What happened to the city? Why has it been destroyed?’. All people I know of want to go to the old part of the city in a city. However, how is it that we have come to this? Why are all buildings in a city so flat and what happened to all the uneven sides of buildings? Why is it that all buildings in cities look the same? Why did we think that is the right direction? Is this right for the citizens and the society? 

We are too focused on the inside of buildings. There aren’t that many people who spend time inside of buildings as we might think. In contrast, there are thousands of people who experience things outside of buildings. Therefore, buildings can provide something to us, and vice versa, it can also take something away from us. However, unfortunately, until now, buildings were taking some sort of an experience away from us. 

Impact that buildings have on us

We have an opportunity. We have an opportunity to transform this. The theme that I proposed today is not meant to talk about what looks good or simply about aesthetics. There are scientific grounds emerging from various research results. The result showed that the buildings I mentioned are actually harmful to mental health and would cause stress. There is research that also shows that it takes longer to be healed in such an environment and it can cause crime rate to rise with increase in anti-social activities. In sum, spaces that people cannot be affectionate about and spaces that are not visually interesting may lead to fatal outcomes. As we all know, climate change is a serious problem now. On the contrary, you might think that my story is not as serious as climate change. However, that is different from reality. We are all connected. Why don’t we take a look at the aviation industry? 

Globally, airplane rides would lead to a large emission of carbon dioxide. This harms the environment, and hence, there are debates about whether it would be environmentally right to be boarding planes. As of 2019, carbon dioxide emission of the aviation industry accounted for 2.1% of the entire emissions. Surprisingly, the construction industry emits 38% of carbon dioxide emissions, which is 15 times that of the aviation industry. However, we do not have such public debates here. That is because people do not have affection towards buildings. There is no sentimental connection. Average lifetime of commercial buildings in UK is 40 years. If I were a building, I would have been executed 13 years ago. In US, 1 billion square feet worth of buildings are demolished every year. This amounts to half of Washington D.C. Buildings are demolished and non-humanized buildings would be newly built. It is not as if the newly built architectures would have human character. 

City landscape that people really want

Heatherwick Studio is currently holding an exhibition at Culture Station Seoul 284. It was said that 60,000 people visited the exhibition already (As of September). I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude. Heatherwick Studio is very pleased to have an opportunity to showcase works to so many people and also have an opportunity to be connected through this. There is a section in the exhibition where it asks the visitors for their opinion. When we construct buildings, we usually talk to architects and there are many cases where we receive awards because we are recognized by other architects. But we wondered about the thoughts of people who use the buildings instead of the expert group in this exhibition. We received thousands of comments to the questions that we asked. There was a commonality to the answers. Among the questions, there was one that asked, ‘What type of buildings make you happy just to pass by it?’ Most people answered, ‘Place where history and story coexist’. A lot of answers also mentioned buildings that are connected to nature. As for the buildings that I mentioned previously, we cannot see the connection to nature, history or stories. 

Let us take a look at another question. On the contrary, I asked, ‘What types of buildings make you feel bad or feel empty when you pass by them?’ Most answered, ‘buildings without uniqueness’. Respondents were rather curious and asked, ‘Why do all buildings have to be serious, grey in color and not fun at all? Why does our society think that it is necessary to have expensive buildings? Why are we constructing buildings that can be demolished forty years later without a second thought?’ I understand the lifetime of commercial buildings in Korea to be about 30 years. There were times when the average lifetime in Japan was 20 years. Ultimately, removal of these buildings would emit an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, and also, an immense amount of resource would be required to build new ones. Therefore, this issue is also connected to climate change. Let us think back about the theme of today’s forum, Humanizing City. For the past 5 years, Heatherwick Studio contemplated about how to change the city in terms of genuine meaning. I think that works like the building projects of the Studio will be able to change the city. ‘Humanize’, the book to be published by Heatherwick Studio next month embody the process (I am not promoting the book). 

Humanizing city 

We started thinking again about the sentiments of people after Covid-19. With the rise in remote work, we started thinking about ‘Why do we go out?’ This is because of emotions and sentiments. Buildings from several hundreds and several thousands of years ago give out a feeling of connection with artisanship, idea, intelligence, emotions and sentiments. I think that is why people believe such structures to be unique. Of course, I am not trying to propose that we should be constructing buildings through the ways of the past. However, I think we need to think about what adds such connectivity to buildings. 

The most important part of the design book that I brought from the Heatherwick Studio is the ‘human eyes’ rule. It signifies that buildings should be able to draw interest and attention at least when people are passing by the buildings.



In truth, numerous buildings that you all pass by are buildings that you don’t really need to look at because they generate neuroscientific stress. Human brain evolved in nature. Therefore, our brain desires complexity. Many people say that the attentiveness improves again when you gaze at nature or fire. That is because the brain requires them. However, if such complexity were taken away and if we were to only continuously look at a single plane made up of glass or aluminum, brain will not be able to find a media to be connected to. So, we need to grant complexity while not imitating or repeating the past, examine factors that can lead to the construction of better buildings and construct buildings that can connect with the greatest number of people. 

Many companies build large headquarter buildings. Then, about a thousand people would be experiencing that building. However, 20 years later, that building would become the background of a city that several billions of people pass by. Therefore, Heatherwick Studio has a principle. We look at and evaluate a building from three different streets. First, we examine to see whether the building can draw interest in the entire landscape of the city when seen from a street in the city, secondly, the building is looked at from the street on the other side, and thirdly, we see whether the building is interesting when we see it from in front of the door. 

Learning Hub of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

This was a project that was carried out for the first time in this campus after digital revolution 20 years ago. It was a project to build a learning hub with 57 lecture halls. The first question we asked about this project was, ‘Why would we go to this space?’ In particular, since we can earn degrees through online courses these days, we started from why we would insist on going to this space. Ultimately, we take the pain to go to such space ‘to meet people’. One other request we received was to make a building that is open and operating for 24 hours. If so, we have to consider more deeply about safety and security issues. There is the problem of whether the parents would be reassured to send their children to this building. Above all, we did not want lecture halls that emphasize the teacher-student relationship where teachers would stand at the front to unilaterally teach children. We also wanted to exclude corners that were ambiguous in terms of its usage. 

That was how we came to create a round, circular lecture hall. We also intentionally placed a small space that could be accessed in various places. This is because the most efficient communication and learning coincidentally occur in unintended circumstances. As for the exterior, we focused on the buildings of the 1980s that were based on the modernism mindset of the 1920s. As a result, the outcome consisted of 12 buildings in total, and we did not apply doors in order to reflect the characteristic of a tropical climate. Naturally, users can freely enter and exit the building. Above all, we wanted to make a unique building that was different from those of the surroundings and we also tried to form a new learning environment at the same time. Consequently, the classroom became a space for collaboration instead of a space with a clear division between teacher and student, and we could also establish a space that felt warm and welcoming while piquing curiosity. The unusual part of this building is that there is no back side. As mentioned before, it is open in all angles. In addition, it is encompassing many natural elements. I wanted it to be able to convey warmth and make people want to enter the building even when observed from the street. 


Of course, the project could not be carried out perfectly. In truth, the budget for this project was too small. Moreover, environment-related regulations in Singapore are very strict. Thus, use of concrete was contemplated in consideration of two cases. Buildings made with concrete are not lively and would remind people of dead buildings. What was worse was that we were not in a situation to use high quality concrete. So, we thought about how to add meaning in using concrete, and we were inspired by the pottery of Japan and Korea. We made the mold and the mold was applied in each panel. It was as if we gave texture to the surface of concrete. As a result, we could have a shape that looked hand crafted. It feels more like a theater than a general university building. This place uses natural ventilation system without air conditioning. Air would be ventilated in between 12 densely placed buildings. The ambiguity of indoor and outdoor space also played a part. 

We thought about the materials and the budget while pondering about the characteristic of the building. Therefore, the unique character came to be exposed naturally. The concrete wall that uses 700 ink drawings applied through the collaboration with artists or bumpy concrete pillars that were made by adding curves to the mold shows such uniqueness. This method was an effective design factor that hid stains, stones or bubbles that form when using cheap concrete. As a result, it became a very three-dimensional building. As we passed through the industrial revolution, all buildings became flatter. We say that the space goes after functions. That is good as well but I think emotion is a function as well. What triggers emotions? Buildings would not be able to make emotional connections if buildings cannot trigger the emotions of people. 

Renovation of Pacific Place in Hong Kong

Pacific Place is a huge shopping mall. When it became about 20 years old, it couldn’t be demolished and it couldn’t be built as a new structure. Pacific Place from the ‘humanize’ perspective was a well-made building made from stainless steel. Here, we thought of our podium. We thought about the emotions that would emerge in a shopping mall. We contemplated about how the emotions of people could be triggered through elements such as elevators, restrooms, signage and paving. We also considered having a three-dimensional feel. There used to exist a hotel called The Upper House, as you can see here. We removed the glass pyramid that existed for light and aimed to create a public space. We applied seven layers of glass and enabled people to walk behind the 12cm thick glass. We made it so that it could withstand weather and fire. We also applied the ceramic print method. It gave the feeling of being trapped in a frozen lake. We pondered about how to connect the handrails of shopping malls and escalators and how to connect them emotionally. Most buildings would have handrails. However, you would be perplexed if these handrails were connected to escalators. We considered how it would be like to connect these two elements and created wooden handrails. So, we came up with a shape where one would disappear inside and the other handrail would be pulled out. Elevators were also transformed to increase connectivity. Given that elevators are where people would have ‘tactile’ experiences when using buildings, we designed elevator buttons in consideration of that. I remember the elevator buttons that boasted of the best value-for-money because I was directly in charge of it. 

The restrooms were also transformed. I believe restrooms are important. There were many rectangular and rigid restrooms in the past. Most restrooms do not apply detailed designs. We thought deeply about how to turn this restroom into a symbolic space, and therefore, we reached a conclusion to create space with curvature that does not use steel. However, this would, in particular, lead to issues in the use of hinges. So, we re-designed even the hinges. Consequently, we could make restroom cubicles that were made out of wood after researching for 3 months. We designed them so that the walls would be bent in curves without using hinges. It is as if a single door was made using a single piece of wood.  

Another detail that we especially looked into was related to accessibility. Most curves are cut off in consideration of wheelchair movement and so forth. We need to follow the regulation but we designed it so that it looked like rolling carpet instead of cutting the carpet. Such design can resonate with the users even if they are not conscious. Once such things accumulate, people ㄴstart to become connected in that space. 

Mori Building in Tokyo

Heatherwick Studio planned to build a single tower and create a public space in this land. Against this backdrop, we contemplated about the ways to connect the space with earth and nature instead of just with the building. 

Japan is historically famous for gardens. Therefore, we focused more on creating green spaces in the city using nature. We aimed to blur the boundaries among nature, buildings and space using design. There are spaces with various functions such as schools, temples, small and big pavilions and parks in the buildings. It all started from one consideration about connecting people with such a large building. The grid that can be seen from one point might seem small and low, but at another point, the grid expands and grows. In one sense, it might seem fragmented and disconnected but there are public spaces and streets at the center of all elements. Through this, we could configure visual layers of the old city of Tokyo. I think urban buildings should have many spaces where people can feel a sense of attachment. It can be a type of diversity. For this to be possible, we need cooperation of various departments and we need to cooperate with both the past and the partners. 

M15 Project

This is a 3.5 million square feet art complex located in Shanghai, China. It was meant as a complex including office, residential space, kindergarten and so forth. It was a huge project that was large enough to lay down the Empire State Building sideways. In truth, physical dimensions of people did not change much but the size of the urban projects are growing gradually. I think that may be why we have many boring and soul-less buildings being constructed. Since buildings grow in size, they become soulless and dull. As such, the key part of this project was contemplating about how to create humanized buildings in this huge piece of land. Above all, we had to work rationally with the given budget. Our Humanize consisted of 1000 pillars. Imagine bamboo trees. 

Architects are often asked to construct appealing buildings, and most do not prefer such exposed pillars. So, we thought deeply about how to use such pillars well. We approached these 1000 pillars from the human scale perspective and we focused a little more on texture and nature. On each of the 1000 pillars we planted one to three trees. The project that was conceived from this was the ‘1000 Trees’. This project that is planning to be completed two years later is a project that connects with the land and respects the river. Space has various complex elements, and some spaces were re-interpreted while carrying out collaborations with artists. In addition, some spaces were newly formed. Pillars became unique by applying visually complex factors. 


True landscape of cities

Most people in the field of architecture think of themselves as experts while not knowing sufficiently about architecture. However, we need to live in buildings in our entire lives. Therefore, I believe your instincts and intuitions are correct. Therefore, I believe we can make more requests and demands about the buildings that we live in and the environment that we live in. 

I believe we now need a new movement. We need to be conscious in humanizing cities. In order to humanize the cities, materials can be used and emotions between cities and people can be identified through various types of data. Heatherwick Studio is planning to start the humanizing movement in earnest in October. I hope in addition to the citizens that live in cities, various experts will also participate to actively carry out discussions. 


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