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Heatherwick Studio Finds the Soul in the Machine

Digital design and fabrication methods can generate otherwise unimaginable forms. But what will be missing if human minds and hands are expelled from the process? We ask Heatherwick Studio in Cubes 87. Here’s a preview of the article!

Heatherwick Studio Finds the Soul in the Machine

Rendering of an upper-level view through Vessel. Image courtesy Forbes Massie / Heatherwick Studio

What criteria should we use when we judge emerging design and fabrication methods? What are the qualities of our material realm that we deem most valuable and worthy of preservation as we enter a new digitally enhanced era of design and coordinated machine craft? Will we continue to uphold the shepherding influence that the human mind and hand have always had in shaping our world?

I was intrigued when I heard that Heatherwick Studio’s New York project named Vessel was conceived, developed and documented with a heavy reliance on new visual scripting software. In fact, as the studio’s Group Leader Stuart Wood describes, “The project was only conceivable through the use of a computer.” Heatherwick Studio is a bastion of craft-driven design and forms tailored to the human body’s proportions. So what would a digital design process mean for the experience of the project?

Vessel, which is currently under construction at Hudson Yards, will be an extraordinary public landmark as well as a piece of infrastructure – a complex three-dimensional lattice of 2,400 steps and 80 landings in a cup-like shape reaching over 45 metres in height. It was conceived as a means of attracting and gathering people.

“It’s such a complex form that even numbering and sequencing the components would have been impossible without digital data,” he says. “But ultimately we’re interested in the real material. The digital is fascinating, but the point at which the steel is cut and the welds are created – that’s when it becomes real. That’s when you need to deploy your sensibilities of look and feel, touch and quality,” says Wood. “A computer can’t give you emotion, feel, representation.”

That’s why Wood and his team are on the factory floor making critical decisions about joints, finishes and more. “It’s been an amazing odyssey of the philosophical, the conceptual, the digital and the physical,” he says.

Read the full story in Cubes issue 87 Aug/Sept, on sale now!

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