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A New Approach to Designing for Education

Creativity and imagination are given free rein in Woods Bagot’s design for the Cyrus Tang Foundation’s headquarters in Suzhou, China. Godfrey Lam, the project’s Chief Designer, talks to Tamsin Bradshaw about finding new solutions.

A New Approach to Designing for Education


May 25th, 2016

Inspire, said Cyrus Tang when he tasked Woods Bagot with creating the new headquarters for the Cyrus Tang Foundation in Suzhou. Tang, a Chinese-born American businessman and philanthropist known as the “King of Iron and Steel”, is the octogenarian force behind the eponymous foundation, which is dedicated to enhancing quality of life for disadvantaged communities in China through education and public health. According to Godfrey Lam, Senior Associate at Woods Bagot in Shanghai and Chief Designer on the project, Tang wanted the foundation’s new headquarters to appeal to university students, and to act as a space in which they would be encouraged to innovate.

When global design firm Woods Bagot came on board the project, which they undertook on a non-profit basis, the building was already in place, and design work had been done but much of the work on the 5,000-square-metre educational facilities needed to be rebuilt from scratch, says Lam. “Mr. Tang’s new mandate was, ‘I don’t want it to look governmental or ornamental. Do it for the young people’,” he explains.

Cyrus Tang Foundation walkway
Visitors are encouraged to stroll through parts of the foundation, such as this park-like area, which is home to a sculptural bench made from a single tree trunk

Lam and his team followed this mandate wholeheartedly, creating a space that innovates not only in terms of its look, but also in the way materials were crafted and applied throughout the space. Lam was determined to take this project in new directions, applying methods and materials in ways he had come across in his time in New York, but he had not seen applied in China. “The designers at Woods Bagot said to me, ‘Are you sure? What are you doing?’ They were skeptical, but I said, let’s try it,” he says.

It’s an approach that comes through from the moment you step inside the foundation’s headquarters. The lobby is spectacular, with soaring ceilings and dynamic, sculptural columns. Now a striking centerpiece, the columns were initially a challenge: they were heavy pillars that dominated the reception area – and not in a good way. Woods Bagot needed to find a way to work around these, so Lam came up with the idea of wrapping them in a design inspired by spinning tops. “I was mesmerised by the motion and energy [of spinning tops] and came up with the strange idea of conveying that sense in the reception [area],” says Lam. After going through several iterations, these columns found their final form, set in artificial stone, which was chosen for its stability and durability.

Cyrus Tang Foundation lobby
A dynamic spinning structure wraps around one of the columns in the lobby

Also grabbing attention are the curving, wood walls and reception desk, which give energy to the space, and the cosy lounge areas carved into the walls of the lounge area. These carved-out areas were already there when Woods Bagot came on board, so the design team chose to make use of them by applying by turning them into seating rather than wasting these spaces.

The library and exhibit boxes also demonstrate Woods Bagot’s playful approach to the project, and they encourage new ways of looking at ideas. Rather than designing a series of heavy bookshelves in which to house Tang’s collection of books, Lam and his team created acrylic boxes inspired by Lego blocks. Like Lego, these boxes are stackable, allowing students to sit where they like, when they like. “Young people don’t sit still,” says Lam. “They have to move. Let them play.”

Cyrus Tang Foundation library
Students can manoeuvre the acrylic boxes that make up the ‘library’ at the foundation, adjusting them to suit their needs – whether that’s collaboration, study, reading time or contemplation

The exhibit cubes, meanwhile, house donations from the 21 universities that the Cyrus Tang Foundation sponsors – among the displays are a real satellite, art works and photography. “Instead of just doing display cases, I designed these acrylic boxes that hang on the walls at different heights,” explains Lam. These are made from clear, coloured acrylic, and they are lit from within – a bit of a design feat and a different approach for everyone working on the project.

“Every single area was a challenge because I wanted to do something new,” says Lam. Despite the challenges involved, however, it was this exercise in experimentation that Lam enjoyed the most about the project. “To me, the most interesting thing was that I bonded with the team, and that we opened up new horizons,” he says, explaining that the whole design studio also changed in the process.

It’s exciting to see that a project designed to foster collaboration and innovation in its target audience ended up having the same effect on the people who created it. As Lam points out, “Design may not cure cancer, but it can inspire people.”

Cyrus Tang Foundation
Playful design in the lounge area

The Woods Bagot team on the project included Godfrey Lam as Chief Designer, Shawn Guo (Senior Designer), Ian Fang (Project Manager), Bryce Cai (Senior FFE Designer), Tracy Lu (Senior FFE Designer), Yaling Zhang (Senior Technical Designer) and Guo Lei (Technical Designer).

Woods Bagot

Cyrus Tang Foundation

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