Thinking Outside The Box
Susan Welsh -- Interior Design, 11/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Guy's Hospital is one of London's most important and most historic medical establishments, but its 1970's building couldn't be more nondescript. Confronted with the task of making the main entrance look distinguished, anybody besides Thomas Heatherwick might have delivered a result that was merely less nondescript. But Heatherwick Studio hasn't become the U.K.'s hottest design sensation by putting people to sleep. The young firm has plunged into public view with jaw-dropping projects including a Manchester monument that looks like a 20-story steel explosion and a London canal's fairy-tale bridge, which rolls up like a pill bug whenever a boat needs to pass by.
The centerpiece of the Guy's Hospital job, which came with a $4.1 million budget, is the expectation-defying Boiler Suit, an undulating skin that conceals the squat bunker of a boiler house sitting next to the hospital's front doors. "We had to keep the concrete shell," Heatherwick says, "but I was trying to soften it somehow and, rather than just playing with materials or finishes, fundamentally take it a step further."
Musing on other 20th-century monoliths, Heatherwick found his inspiration. "On Corbusian tower blocks, quite often there will be really interesting tiles near the entrance, but they're only a foot square. I always used to look at them and think, It's a shame—when you go up close, the tiles are gorgeous and quite sculptural, but the wall is still a big, flat wall." So he supersized those Corbusian elements until they became the main event.
Two sides of the boiler house are sheathed in 8-foot squares woven from stainless-steel braid. On each panel, two opposite corners bulge out, while the other two are pushed in. "I was interested in the geometry of the repetition," Heatherwick says. "If you put four panels together, they make a giant shape. If you put even more together, they create a building. The texture of the panels turns into architecture."
He retained existing windows, which allow a view of the industrial machinery within, but framed them in purple powder-coated steel that stands proud of the mesh surface. On another side, he used the same powder-coated steel for portals framing a row of doors.
A masterpiece of multitasking, the Boiler Suit goes far beyond hiding something ugly while signaling, by sheer specialness, that the hospital's front entrance is near. In addition, when heavy equipment needs to leave the facility, the panels can be removed and later remounted. Finally, their braiding helps ventilate the equipment inside. "Normally, boiler houses have louvers everywhere," Heatherwick observes, then adds matter-of-factly: "Louvers have a very. . .louver-y look."
Less spectacular than the Boiler Suit but no less important overall was Heatherwick's reorganization of vehicle and pedestrian approaches. Before, he says, "If you drove your granny to hospital, you would drop her in the middle of a car park." He rationalized the flow of traffic through the narrow streets nearby, moved most of the parking elsewhere, and expanded walkways.
Given that Heatherwick's burgeoning reputation is winning him commissions on a grand scale—the latest being the British pavilion at the Expo Shanghai 2010—what made him take on a relatively humdrum National Health Service hospital entrance? "I love public spaces, places on this planet where you are allowed to roam without paying," he says. "So much effort goes into art galleries and the obviously important places. I feel there's just as much culture in a hospital as anywhere else."