Thomas Heatherwick, 2020 Winner of the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts

Finding Connection in Isolation Through Design

How can we be together? This is the question that designer Thomas Heatherwick asks. The winner of the 2020 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, renowned for his large-scale public projects around the world, Heatherwick is interested in how design, during what he calls “an epidemic of loneliness,” can facilitate human connection in our shared common spaces.

Most public infrastructures—the hospitals, schools, transportation, and municipal buildings often designed with only cold utility in mind—are not known for their aesthetic charm. What Heatherwick is after instead is an “emotional architecture,” a built environment that triggers moments of interaction and joy. So far, Heatherwick, alongside his studio of 200 designers, makers, and architects, have transformed civic spaces in New York, London, Shanghai, and elsewhere, with their inventive approach to architecture and urban planning. I think that there is a joy to being together and the moments that we share that I’m always looking in our projects to amplify,” he said. “I believe design can break us out of ourselves.” 

McDermott residencies allow artists to engage with ongoing teaching, artistic creation and scientific exploration across MIT’s campus. As part of his residency, Heatherwick posed a design challenge for the course 4.022 Design Techniques and Technologies led by MIT instructor Jeremy Jih, part of a popular new design major and minor at MIT offered through the Department of Architecture that caters to students from a range of disciplines, with and without any formal design education. Conceived before the pandemic, the course sought to explore this question of physical connection—what Heatherwick calls “hyper-physicality”—and how design objects like furniture, buildings, objects, and spaces could better facilitate togetherness in an era of increasing digital isolation. As the many spaces of public life, from shopping to education, have migrated online, how might design lure people from their virtual cocoons and into the real world, with one another?

Togetherness in the Age of COVID

Just before the course was about to begin, COVID-19 hit. With the global spread of the virus, the MIT campus closed, and new terms like “social distancing” entered into the common lexicon, this condition of digital isolation was suddenly unavoidable. Like so much of social life, the course moved online. What might have been a place where students imagined and experimented side by side in the studio was now reconfigured as a grid of faces from around the world, each one a virtual portal into a private space. We were all, as Heatherwick said, on an “unknown voyage of depleted experience.”   

COVID-19 had presented the ultimate design challenge. “I see a problem, not as a negative thing, but as an incredibly inspiring thing,” said Heatherwick. Now, his original question—how can we be together?—is more urgent than ever, and has only acquired greater nuance as we all find ourselves navigating new and shifting boundaries between virtual and physical worlds. Can the digital be an intimate space? How might different kinds of connections be made through the new rhythms of life in quarantine? How can design in the digital dimension relate to craft and technique in physical reality? In short, what is the hyper-physical now? 

Designing Connection in Digital Spaces

In the first weeks of the spring semester, Heatherwick’s interpretation of “hyper-physicality” expanded and deepened. The concept encompasses not only the idea of an intensified or excessive proximity, he says, but also the more radical definition of “hyper:” that which exists within a network, extending into three-dimensional space. How could hyper-physicality not merely act in opposition to hyper-digitality, he wondered, but in conjunction with it? 

With this second definition in mind, teams of students were challenged to produce a form of hyper-physical connection for the age of COVID, whether through light, sound, touch, smell, orientation, or movement. These projects aimed to collapse our sense of distance, or redefine the ordinary surfaces of digital interactions. The course reflected the creative, inquisitive ethos of Heatherwick Studio, where craft-scale experimentation—everyday making, tinkering and play—reigns supreme. The resulting projects ranged from a giant tessellating structure that functioned as an acoustic backdrop to a poetic hand-washing choreography. “I think I knew that there was going to be experimentation. I didn’t know there would be that much experimentation. And I did predict that there would be ideas. But what I didn’t predict was that there would be beauty. The students did things that were beautiful,” Heatherwick said in an interview with SA&P Dean Hashim Sarkis, curator of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, which will feature work by Heatherwick Studio. 

Heatherwick is an ideal recipient to carry on the legacy of Eugene McDermott, the founder of Texas Instruments who built an empire producing new technologies but above all prized people over machines. Presented by the Council for the Arts at MIT, the award was first established by Margaret McDermott in honor of her husband, a legacy that is now carried on by their daughter Mary McDermott Cook. The Eugene McDermott Award plays a unique role at the Institute by bringing the MIT community together to support MIT’s principal arts organizations: the Department of Architecture; the Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT); the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST); the List Visual Arts Center; the MIT Museum; and Music and Theater Arts (MTA)

By the end of the residency, Heatherwick found that, despite being physically isolated, the experience of collectively enduring a once-in-a-century crisis had forged new kinds of intimacies. “The wartime spirit was quite amazing because every student was working at home. There was the immediacy of, ‘What do you have around your house?’ Maybe we had a more meaningful interaction in some strange way by not being together because we were together in the adversity of the situation.” Even though we are physically separate now, he says, we find new ways of connecting. “Togetherness,” he says, “is the magic of existence.”


Written by Anya Ventura
Videos by MIT Video Productions and Ask Labs
Edited by Arts at MIT

Posted on January 13, 2021 by Arts at MIT