Ever since he set up his own shingles in 1994, the London-based designer Thomas Heatherwick has been creating one startling silhouette after the other. Indeed, a joyful strand of DNA runs through his rather varied catalogue of work, whether a dramatic starburst of illuminated tubes for the UK Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo, a zippered handbag, or the sinuous curls of Google's new California HQ (designed together with BIG).
Now add to this playful mix his new Learning Hub, an audacious deconstruction of the traditional lecture room that's one of the key salvos of a £360m campus masterplan for Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. Three years in the making, the eight-storey building's silhouette - a low-slung cluster of twelve towers comprising 56 rough-hewn concrete pods - is a striking addition to the leafy, but somewhat staid, campus landscape.
Heatherwick's extraordinarily sculptural design - already nicknamed the Dim Sum by school wags for its resemblance to dim-sum baskets - is, however, more than just a quirky whimsy. The brief was to create a new learning experience for students, one that mentally and physically abandons the traditional model of passive learning.
As Heatherwick points out, the Learning Hub is 'an extraordinary opportunity to rethink the traditional university building. In the information age, the most important commodity on a campus is social space to meet and bump into and learn from each other.' Achieving this commodity has meant eschewing sterile corridors, closed-up halls, and rectangular rooms. In their place is a series of circular, glass-fronted modular pods - each a classroom - that opens into an internal, naturally-ventilated atrium that offers unobstructed views from any angle up to the sky and down to the plaza.
There are almost no straight edges, whether in the undulating concrete walls that are cast with almost Aztec-like designs of plants and animals; the bronzed lift doors; the slanted, load-bearing pillars that resemble giant tree logs; the garden spaces on the upper floors; or the curved white boards in the tutorial rooms that allow lecturers to move about and constantly shift a student's perspective.
'It was an unconventional brief,' says the local project leader, Vivien Leong of CPG Consultants. 'Managing this project was no mean feat as we had to work hard to retain the integrity of the original design, and the vision of the university.'