On design, the environment, and more

The work of Thomas Heatherwick is central to the hotly anticipated Azabudai Hills mixed-use complex. Despite his busy schedule, the acclaimed designer sat down with us at his London studio to discuss everything from the source of his creativity to his recent projects.

TEXT BY Megumi Yamashita
PHOTO BY Yuki Sugiura
Translation by Soli Consultants, Inc.
edit by Kazumi Yamamoto
illustration by Geoff McFetridge

At Heatherwick Studio in King’s Cross, London, an architectural model of the firm’s Azabudai Hills design sits on a table.

Ever since I was a boy, I have been interested in the places that people create. I would walk around town, wondering why people would make places that felt so very dull. Some buildings were exceptions to the rule, of course, but mostly I felt that they were all similar and unimaginative. I grew up here in London. Even in the city, you can sense nature all around you. When you walk outside, you can smell the soil and feel soothed by the trees and other greenery.

On creating places

The studio is filled with prototypes and completed works. From left to right are Spun, a chair that spins like a top; Extrusions, a bench made by extruding aluminum like toothpaste from a tube; and Plank, a stool whose five hinged panels allow it take on various shapes.

That’s what made me begin to think about the relationship between “nature” and “places.” If you take a close look at a tree, you can see that it is itself architecture on a small scale, with its own complexity. In contrast, buildings have been losing complexity over the past 80 or 90 years, becoming increasingly monotonous in design. That’s why places have become boring—they’ve lost their individuality.

The first time I tried using plants in my work was for a public square in Newcastle when I was just out of university. I included the largest trees I could plant. That project taught me a lot, but most importantly I learned that planting trees was a way to transform what was once a roadway into a space where people are invited to relax. Today, we know that trees can capture carbon dioxide to offset our emissions, but at the time this wasn’t a consideration of mine. I simply wanted to create someplace meaningful.

This is a model of 1000 Trees, a development in Shanghai.

I once spoke with a policewoman who patrols on horses at a police station near the studio, who told me that horses have the power to calm people. Even tense situations like riots can be brought under control once the police show up on their horses. Just like horses, trees are living beings that are larger than humans. They engage us and put us at ease. At the same time, we are seeing buildings getting bigger and fancier and even exceeding human scale, by which I mean a size appropriate for humans. That’s why we are losing our emotional connections to these places.

A verdant Azabudai Hills

Heatherwick holds a model of the grid-like structure that composes the nature-rich landscape of Azabudai Hills.

It was truly an honor to be approached by Mori Building for the Azabudai Hills project, which is, in essence, a verdant plaza-like space that brings people together. That concept is in line with what we’ve always done, but we had to figure out how to bring nature into the heart of Tokyo while giving the complex a unique character all its own. The support of Mori Building over the course of the project was key to making that happen.

In many cities, buildings of the same type—tall buildings or low-rise buildings—are clustered together in the same neighborhood. But Tokyo has a different rhythm, one of tall buildings next to low-rise ones. It’s unique. It is difficult to get natural light in places where high-rise buildings are grouped close together. Putting low-rise buildings in the mix means that light can come in and you can create things on a more human scale.

The placement of the three towers in Azabudai Hills was determined only after we decided on the landscape design. The topography of the site is quite hilly, which is reflected in our design. We wanted to create a seamless landscape with a cohesive tone and atmosphere of the place, which includes spaces for living, working, and shopping as well as a gallery, a temple, and a school.

Specifically, our idea was to build a grid-like trellis or pergola structure to be covered with plants. I thought it would be wonderful to make the entire lower district green, even the rooftops and facades. People could start in the courtyard and, from there, walk both over and under the buildings. The covered walkways make the design continuous—where is indoors and outdoors? There is also an orchard and a vegetable and herb garden. I think the amount of nature helps make the space feel human.

I was also inspired by Japanese craftsmanship, which we incorporated especially in the interior details. It’s a large and complex project, so you can see that inspiration all over. About 20 years ago, I was asked to design a temple in Kagoshima, Japan. I found the Japanese approach to natural materials and craftsmanship to be truly inspiring. They have incredible skill. The temple was never built, but I’d hoped to collaborate with Japanese craftsmen ever since, a dream that finally came true with Azabudai Hills. Compared to other countries, the local engineers are amazing in both the quality and speed of their work.

Experiences that connect

Heatherwick also displays a collection of beadwork created by his mother, an expert on beads and a founding member of the Bead Society of Great Britain.

When bringing people and places together, it’s important to think about the experiences you want people to have. When you watch a performance or theater, different experiences come at you one after the other. We wanted to recreate that in Azabudai Hills. You might experience one thing as you walk along a covered walkway and then something else further up the path. Walking over the stores and pavilions or strolling through the landscape are opportunities to think and feel. I hope that is how people will experience this place.

During the design phase, we created an incredibly detailed 3D computer model, which we shared with the Mori Building team. We strolled virtually through the space together. These design tools allow us to simulate the feeling of being somewhere, even if it’s only virtual. I hope that we’ve been able to recreate our favorite aspects of the model in the real world. Some things might be unexpected, but often those surprises can lead to things that turn out to be better than you thought.

The benefits of nature

The 1000 Trees mixed-use development in Shanghai is a building designed to look like a hill. Photo by Qingyan Zhu

When I first heard of biophilia (the theory that people have an innate desire to connect with nature, introduced by American biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1984), I thought it was pseudoscience. However, the more I learned about it, the more I realized that contact with nature stimulates all of our senses, not just our vision, and our emotions as well. I’ve come to believe that emotion is a function. I think many people forget this and even think it better to create places without emotional connection. What we do in the studio is highly driven by functionalism, but I have become more interested in seeing emotion as a function.

EDEN, a high-rise residential building in Singapore, has a garden in its lobby. ©Hufton+Crow

Each apartment in the 20-story building includes a balcony with a large green space. ©Hufton+Crow

Let me give a few examples. First, there’s 1000 Trees, an enormous mixed-use development in Shanghai. The project required as many as 800 structural columns, each of which we topped with a planter. The trees and other plants absorb tons of carbon dioxide every year and produce oxygen. But more importantly, they give the building a human dimension. They sway in the breeze, cast shadows over the building, and impart a sense of motion. Some people accused us of greenwashing with that design, but I don’t think they understood our true intent. If our goal were to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, we wouldn’t build anything at all. But we created a place that was needed, a place that would become a focal point of the community, that would be loved for years to come. With each project, we observe and learn more about how people react to the buildings and landscapes around them.

The six modular table legs of the Stem table double as planters and can be reassembled into any number of configurations.

Then there is EDEN, a residential tower in Singapore that again includes plenty of plants. Stepping inside the lobby is like entering a garden. From there, an elevator takes you up to the apartments, each of which includes another garden. It uses cross ventilation so you can open the windows on three sides to get the breeze going through. Not much air conditioning is needed.

In the 1980s, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan introduced the Attention Restoration Theory (ART). It suggests that time spent in nature refreshes our minds and restores our attention. The closer we are to nature, the sooner we feel refreshed. I think there’s truth in that. It’s probably why houseplants are so popular nowadays. We have quite a few plants in the studio too, and we even designed this Stem planter.

Little Island, a free public park pier within Hudson River Park, New York, opened in 2021. Photo by Timothy Schenck

The design consists of 132 gigantic pot-shaped structures planted with 114 trees and some 350 plant species. Photo by Timothy Schenck

I also want to mention Little Island, a park built on a pier in Manhattan. At first, they commissioned us to build a pavilion in an existing park, but we wondered if that was really what New Yorkers wanted. We didn’t want to build something that nobody had any use for. We came up with an idea to build something of the same size, but to build it over the river. We proposed a lush green park on a pier, complete with an amphitheater.

1/4The Woolbeding Glasshouse opened in 2022 on the grounds of an 18th-century country house in West Sussex managed by the National Trust for England. Situated in a Silk Road-themed garden, the glasshouse features a roof that opens and closes like a flower. ©Hufton+Crow
2/4It takes four minutes for the ‘sepals’ to be fully opened using hydraulic mechanism. The glasshouse then transformed into a crown like form. ©Hufton+Crow
3/4The Tree of Trees was erected outside of Buckingham Palace in June 2022 for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. After the ceremony, the sculpture was dismantled, and the 350 saplings in the pots set along its 80 branches were replanted across the United Kingdom. Photo by Raquel Diniz
4/4Maggie’s Yorkshire provides support for people affected by cancer. It sits on the campus of St. James’s University Hospital in Leeds since 2020. Filled with plants inside and out, the center offers the patients to feel the power of biophilia. ©Hufton+Crow

However, politics got in the way and delayed the project for several years. The same thing happened with Garden Bridge in London. You always have to deal with politics, especially with the public projects. In the end, it was two local politicians who ensured that Little Island was built. Cities need strong leaders who prioritize experience for their citizens and not just their own political career. It’s always easier to say no to things and to criticize and stop things than to make things happen.

Now, Little Island is bustling—the plants are growing, and people love it. Volunteers have organized a variety of programs there, such as a women’s jazz festival. We created a platform, but it was the locals who brought it to life. That’s what we were trying to do, so it’s a real joy to see it happen.

Environmental considerations

Heatherwick Studio renovated a 1924 grain silo in Cape Town, South Africa, into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA). A hotel occupies the glass-walled floors on the upper floors. Photo by Iwan Baan

In the United Kingdom, buildings built after World War II are twice as likely to be demolished as those built before, even though the post-war ones are newer. Why? Because no one loves them. There are exceptions, of course, but I think it is a consequence of the growing number of terribly mediocre buildings. And now we are facing a serious environmental problem because of it. Architects talk a lot about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they misunderstand the root of the problem. If people don’t love a building, it is more likely to be torn down and end up causing higher emissions.

The large atrium at the heart of Zeitz MOCAA was carved out of the 42 storage tubes of the original silo. Photo by Iwan Baan

Add to that the shift to online shopping, and the city centers—especially in regional cities—have been in decline. Loneliness is widespread, and people are isolated. There was a 1970s-era shopping center in the center of Nottingham. The company decided to rebuild and began demolishing the building. However, they went bankrupt during the pandemic, and the demolition was paused halfway through. So, rather than knocking down the rest, we proposed a plan to reuse the remaining skeleton to create a place with a green space that would get people together.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to demolish a building and build a new one from scratch, so you end up emitting a lot of carbon dioxide. It may look new and cool at first, but is it what the local people really want? Why do people go to the store or to school when they can shop and study online? Why do they go to the office if they can work from home? It’s because they want to see other people. When people get together to share ideas and emotions, something new happens. If we want to encourage people to interact with each other, we need places that are more human and intelligent.

Designs that resonate

Google Bay View, Google’s California headquarters, was designed to be flexible and long-lasting.

I believe in “long life, loose fit”—the idea that we should create things that can be used flexibly for years to come. That was the concept behind Google Bay View in Mountain View, California, which we designed in collaboration with Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Google made it clear that they may not be in these building in 20 or 30 years time. That’s why we designed the building to be as flexible as possible. It can be adapted for different purposes in the future instead of being torn down. We also built it to be environmentally friendly, with heat pumps that extract geothermal energy from the ground and solar panels that cover the whole roof.

A prototype of Airo, an electric vehicle that cleans the outside air as it moves. The interior can be arranged into a number of room-like configurations.

In designing Airo, we envisioned something more than just an electric vehicle. It was also an opportunity to rethink the purpose of public spaces, modes of transportation, and roads. At any given moment, there are more than a billion cars parked around the world, unused. At the same time, urban areas don’t have enough places for people to spend time in. So, our design allows Airo’s interior to serve as a multi-functional space while parked, where people can eat, work, play, and even sleep. It also has a filter to vacuum other cars’ exhaust when you’re on the move.

Some people think of me as a designer who over-designs, but what I’m interested in is how to make objects, buildings, and places more human-centered. I begin each project by considering what the true need is. Some people argue that you don’t need to be overstimulated, but there has to be some element that is interesting enough. So the question is, what is the essential factor for human engagement? A design that looks great in architectural magazines does not necessarily engage people. I see myself as on a journey to learn, along with my incredible group of collaborators, how to create something that truly engages.


Thomas Heatherwick
Heatherwick was born in the United Kingdom in 1970. He founded Heatherwick Studio in 1994 and has since led a variety of projects related to architecture and urban, product, and interior design. The studio currently has about 200 employees and is renowned around the world for its flexible approach to design. For Azabudai Hills, the studio designed the 60,000 square-meter low-rise district.