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This building is what happens when architecture is too literal

Heatherwick Studio unveiled a building inspired by Indigenous basket weaving. It looks a lot like a basket.

This building is what happens when architecture is too literal
[Source photo: NOD/courtesy Heatherwick Studio]

Say you’re an architect, and you have a client who asks you to design a building that represents their country’s creative culture. This country is known for its remarkable artisanship—colorful basket weaving is among its specialities.

What would you come up with?

If you’re London-based Heatherwick Studio, the answer is quite literal: a building that looks like it’s made from baskets. That’s the premise of the studio’s new design for Universidad Ean’s design school and maker space in Bogotá, Colombia.

Heatherwick Studio is known for designing the famously loathed Vessel in New York City. Its Bogotá project is the studio’s first in South America. Similar to the Vessel, this new building is—to its credit—unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

[Image: NOD/courtesy Heatherwick Studio]

With a front facade of colorful columns inspired by Indigenous basket weaving, the proposed seven-story building looks like something Midjourney might spit out from a prompt for a Wonka headquarters. Its multicolored basket columns are an homage to local Werregue basketry, according to the firm, and terraces overflow with greenery.

“Creativity is intrinsic to the city of Bogotá,” Heatherwick Studio partner Eliot Postma said in a statement. “You see it everywhere. We want students to feel proud of their campus before they even enter the building, arriving through a public square that offers passersby a welcoming communal oasis amidst the hard urban surroundings.”

[Image: NOD/courtesy Heatherwick Studio]

Commenters on Reddit’s architecture subreddit were brutal, though, comparing the building to a habitat for pet hamsters or something you’d build in Minecraft. Several characterized the basket weaving element as pandering—“a white guy’s idea of a Colombian facade.” While paying homage to local tradition can help tell a story and integrate a piece of architecture into a local area, there are ways to do it that are less ham-fisted.

[Image: NOD/courtesy Heatherwick Studio]

And yet the design is par for the course for founder Thomas Heatherwick, who believes architecture should “be more interesting.” Last year he even started a database of what he believes are the most boring buildings in Britain.

While Heatherwick’s fanciful work has its fans, “interesting” doesn’t always mean “good,” and critics have called out his architecture as “gawdy,” “architectural gaslighting,” and “offensive on so many levels.” Trained as a designer and not as an architect, Heatherwick sometimes seems more interested in the meme of it all than in form or function.

In a panel discussion on the building, an official from Universidad Ean’s design school admitted that Heatherwick’s creation will not be for everyone but he, for one, welcomes the interest that drama brings. The negative attention the building attracts is a feature, not a bug.

“This is a building that is going to be controversial because it is different, and so it will fill people with questions and curiosity,” said Hernando Salazar, a member of the university’s council. “I believe this building is going to make people come inside. This is a building that is really for passersby.”

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