Heatherwick Studio: Aberystwyth artist studios – buckled deformed mesmerising…

What a joy the Aberystwyth artist studios are to observe. 
Discover architecture as a one-off work of art which shows courage, foresight, innovation and relevance.

Every aspect of this design: materials, scale and impact have been distilled into a one-off work of art displaying the formidable insight of  the architects.

It has to be like opening a present each time you walk up to the studio; the ability to work in this progressive scintillating atmosphere.  The studios had to be at the vanguard for myriad reasons; not least to remain contiguous with the inspirational / aspirational impact upon the world the artists inhabit.

Heatherwick Studio

 …won a competition run by The Royal Institute of British Architects to design a complex of eighteen artists’ studios for the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. The budget was extremely low, but the client’s aspiration was to show that a low-cost project could still be special. To protect the precious woodland site, the studio chose not to build a single large building but instead to create a community of nine small buildings, placed between the trees and connected by a path.

The stainless steel foil means the pods dynamically reflect their surroundings

It is to the great benefit of the community at Aberystwyth that the project ended up in the hands of Heatherwick Studio.  The artist studio pods demonstrate the beauty of an expansive idea!  What would be the point of putting lovely wooden studios in a wood?  It would be like people who put pictures of the ocean on their wall when they live on the beach?

Nothing can compete with the beauty or reality of nature.   

If Aberystwyth had wanted studios of this kind they could have engaged a more traditional architect, but the message you would be sending to the art community in Britain would be the wrong message; the right message was sent.  It would defy reason and sensibility and in fact art history to have placed studios reflecting a more traditional bent on the site.

For this project to work and be worth all the effort and money, it had to have prescience; it had to represent a one-of-a-kind never seen again dam buster.  Putting aside the budget limitations it had to be experimental, it had to lead from the front otherwise how would the art world view it positively – big shoes to fill.

By definition artists both need and deliver inspiration; the value of artists is that they show us singular versions of the world around us; they show us there is not one reality but millions of realities; this means that by definition they show us the underside of convention at the same time; a salient point that Heatherwick Studio took on board.

We expect a lot from artists; we expect them to present the world to us in a way we cannot see ourselves.  Self-evidently when the occupants of the studios turn up each day they will see the little pods and be inspired anew; the struggle from the day before transforms into a challenge that can be overcome as the sun alights dynamically on their studio: they will see in front of them boldness, courage and educated conjecture; just as they hope of their work each studio will look a little different each day.   By their very nature the pods encourage lateral, inventive, revelatory thinking.

I keep coming back to this fundamental point; it would have been a waste of money, a waste of resources and a waste of the artists’ talent to have put lovely sedate studios in the woods; a bit like entering a cup cake exhibition – there is only so much you can do.  Or attempting to reinvent the thong.

Tranquil and beautiful, the woods will endure, they are ever changing, they are (hopefully) sustainable they go through cycles, the architect should not be competing with or attempting to emulate the woods.  If that is the best they can do…?  However, like the sustaining beauty of the woods themselves, so the studios had to be, and they had to be on a scale that would be accepted by the landscape around them.  They had to be on a scale in keeping with both the location and the raison d’etre – no point in grand “educational” buildings for artist’s studios – a certain way to kill creativity.  While the studio’s had to be diminutive they also had to be exceptionally impressive; an idea never glimpsed before.

The thin stainless steel foil: ground breaking methods

The beauty of this idea lies in the prescient innovative thinking of Heatherwick Studio; in the breaking of new ground.  It takes fortitude to work in an experimental area and it also requires daring to accept a commission which in relative terms is meagre by comparison for a leading international firm such as Heatherwick.  Work such as this displays a heart, a social conscious; the Bundt Shanghai was important for Heatherwick but in local, domestic or societal terms Aberystwyth is equally important.

The team developed the idea of wrapping each building in thin stainless steel sheet, just one tenth of a millimetre thick. At this thickness the sheet was not only one tenth of the price of conventional steel cladding but could also be made to buckle and deform and turn into something mesmerizing to look at. In the woodland it was as if a mirror had been crinkled, taking on the colours of leaves and sky. By creating a special crinkling machine and then coating the back of the crinkled steel with rigid insulation foam, the studio was able to make a cladding system that was lightweight, inexpensive and durable, but also soulful. 

Aberystwyth studios are so different and so unlike anything that has gone before, that people (like me) will want to travel to see them and in the process they will inevitably view the work and talent of the artists utilising the pods.  A great cumulative idea; a win for everyone…!

Work such as this focuses the architectural world on Heatherwick Studio (just as the Bundt Shanghai project does on a much grander scale), and it was necessary for that to occur otherwise the Competition and the Competition’s decision making process would have been compromised.

It was beholden on Heatherwick to throw precedent out the window; the studios will long be ahead of their time (they almost exist outside the continuum of time) and will always be a significant landmark.


Photography: Edmund Sumner

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