Opinion: TedTalk Response: creativity as an interdisciplinary skill

Matt Peters

Architecture has always fascinated me. As purely a layman in the subject, I tend to just gawk at pictures of interesting buildings and unorthodox structures as I come across them. When I found a TED video playlist last semester titled “Architectural Inspiration,” my interest was immediately peaked.

One video I came across was especially intriguing. In a TedTalk entitled “Thomas Heatherwick: Building the Seed Cathedral,” renowned architect, Thomas Heatherwick, outlines four of his recent projects. He describes some of the thought processes involved in these architectural undertakings, as well as the general philosophy behind his work.

“The buildings that were around me… felt soulless and cold,” he said.

Heatherwick explained that when he was a child, he felt little emotional connection with the popular architecture of the time. He recounted childhood experiences of tinkering with craft supplies in his mother’s shop. Heatherwick says it was these experiences that inspired him to become an architect.

“There on a smaller scale, the scale of an earing or a ceramic pot or a musical instrument was a materiality and a soulfulness,” Heatherwick explained.

As an adult, Heatherwick found that approaching architectural projects with this same ‘organic’ mindset allowed him to solve complex problems in ways that conventional architecture simply could not.

For example, when commissioned to build a set of high-rise apartment buildings in Malaysia, Heatherwick’s team decided (quite literally) to turn conventional eastern architectural thinking upside down.

With the objective of “giving something back to the community,” Heatherwick’s team decided to shape the buildings like upside-down cones – with narrow bases and wide tops. This allowed 97% of the property to be used as scenic rainforest space, creating equal property value for all inhabitants (with pleasing views from all floors) and eliminating the need for clear-cutting rainforest.

This is only one example of Heatherwick’s innovative thinking, but it’s one that stuck out to me the most. It illustrates two important lessons:

Firstly, designers must realize that there is always room for artistic thinking in their work. It seems that, in the interest of simplifying and clarifying the message, many designers tend to “play it safe” with their projects. While simplification and clarification are often the “name of the game” in professions such as graphic and architectural design, the safest route is not always the best one. Heatherwick’s work is a prime example of how “breaking the mold” of conventional thinking can be extremely beneficial.

Secondly, professionals of all disciplines need to understand that ‘artistic thinking’ can lead to unlikely, often innovative solutions. Art can take on many forms – and one can be both an architect (engineer, botanist, etc.) and an artist. It’s no coincidence that major companies such as IBM and Google are incorporating principles such as ‘design thinking’ and unstructured work environments to boost productivity. I’m often reminded of ‘Renaissance Men’ such as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton, who drew from their creativity to advance science, engineering, architecture, medicine, and philosophy.

On the whole, regardless of our chosen profession, I believe we can all benefit from pushing the boundaries of our creative thinking. A honing of this skill is applicable to any career, and liberal arts students are often well equipped to employ this kind of problem solving.

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