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Grow a Building from Seed

How to grow a building from seed

When Thomas Heatherwick competed to design the UK pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, he was sure about one thing: His team wasn’t going to showcase “the same cheesy adverts for Britain and promote some silly stereotypes of Britain as fog and rain and Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter and Beefeaters and phone boxes.”

Designing what to build instead presented some challenges. “An expo is a kind of bonkers event,” the London-based architect said in an interview following his talk at the TED2011 conference in March in Long Beach, California. There were more than 240 pavilions competing for the attention of the millions of visitors to the expo last year.

“It’s the equivalent of going to all the main museums in New York, L.A., London and every shop in Oxford Street in London. You’d be absolutely frazzled by the time that you might get anywhere near the UK pavilion. So we were very struck that in that context, one of the most important things a pavilion could be would be quite calm and experiential, simple and in some way be a kind of break from what other pavilions might be like.”

Taking a cue from the Expo’s theme of “Better City, Better Life,” Heatherwick decided to focus on how British cities, particularly London, had integrated nature into urban life. At Kew Gardens, London had “the world’s first major botanical institution. … And London for its size is one of the greenest cities in the world,” he said.

The result was the “Seed Cathedral,” a strikingly different pavilion that commanded attention from visitors with its 66,000 optical tubes, each embedded with a different seed from the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank, which is seeking to collect and preserve seeds from a quarter of the world’s plant species by 2020.

By Heatherwick’s account, the project required a different approach from designing a national pavilion. “Normally one person designs a fancy box and someone else scratches their head and says ‘Oh my God, what are we going to put inside it?’ We really wanted the main architecture that you experience to grow out of the content, but how do you grow a building out of seeds?”

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