The Seed Cathedral (Touch Part 2)
Last week I talked about Heatherwick Studio, which is moving to reintroduce a certain materiality and soulfulness that seems to be lost in the jump between small objects and big buildings. One of the criticisms of modern architecture is that it lacks any kind of tangibility, that it’s too cold and removed from our sense of the world’s intricacies.
With Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral, it seems the problem may have been solved. Simply put, it’s one of the single most powerful buildings of our time. For their pavillion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, the United Kingdom chose the studio to carry out the project on a relatively small budget, with only the premise that they represent the country as a center both for creativity and environmentally friendly.
Thomas Heatherwick is always drawn back to his childhood spent in his mother’s bead shop. He remembers the power held in even the smallest objects, learning their tiny beauties and appreciating them on the large and small scale. So, when he was looking for a theme for the pavilion, he chose another small object, the seed. Recently, there has been a massive movement in the UK to catalog and preserve the seeds of millions of plants from around the world. The seed was a natural choice to put at the center of his pavilion, because it embodied his idea of soulful materiality, as well as represent his country as a global leader in environmental preservation.
He had to look at the seed itself. Humans have always held a special relationship with these precious little objects. Without knowledge them, we would not be able to farm, and our society would never have developed. And in an age of Monsanto and Dow, it’s easy to forget the mighty power that has always been held in these tiny objects, with or without human intervention. Seeds are the culmination of a plant’s reproduction, containing all of the genetic and nutrient material needed to begin the next generation. Each plant has its own way of distributing its seeds, whether it be by wind, water, or animal ingestion. Each is unique, each is beautiful.
How to build a monument to something so vitally important to our past and future? Heatherwick could have put them on display in a pretty museum behind cases of glass, but that would not have done nature or architecture justice. Instead, he focussed his energy on making a singular structure that would be as powerful as those seeds, and as meaningful to both him and the buildings visitors as the feeling of small objects were.
The Cathedral is built unlike any other building in history. It is one singular rounded cube, with one opening. Every square inch of its surface is adorned with more than 60000 ten foot transparent acrylic rods that jut out of the building. Inside the building, the tubes each have a seed at the bottom, which can be seen by guests. The tubes are flexible and sway in the breeze like blades of grass. During the day, they carry light into the building, and at night they broadcast outwards in a dazzling fiber-optic light show. From a distance, the building looks like a mirage, its edges blurry and undefined. Heatherwick jokes that it’s the only building that looks more like a computer rendering than an actual structure.
There are no frills, nothing to distract the visitor from the personal feeling of the seeds and the building. There are no ads, no televisions, no fountains. It’s smaller than most of the other pavilions, but it’s surrounded by rolling and jagged hills of synthetic grass that mimic the texture of the building’s facade, creating an interesting and peaceful public space, with nature and architecture at the center. It invites the guest to first experience an open space for play and relaxation and then draws them in to have a personal and tangible experience with one of nature’s greatest wonders. Simply put, he’s made modern architecture more human.
And like the seed which it honors, the Cathedral has given itself up. The rods with the seeds embedded in them have been distributed to schools across China as a gesture of the UK’s care towards those children’s future and just how important the seed, and good architecture, truly is.