Arch2O has recently interviewed Ben Van Berkel, co-founder and principal architect at UNStudio (founded in 1988), an international architectural firm that presents itself as a network of specialists in architecture, urban development and infrastructure. Ben van Berkel studied architecture at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, and at the Architectural Association in London, receiving the AA Diploma with Honours in 1987. He has lectured and taught at many architectural schools around the world. He has led Diploma Units at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam (1992-1993) and the Architectural Association in London (1999). Berkel is also Kenzo Tange Design Critic in Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design and Professor of Conceptual Design at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt am Main. Central to his teaching is the inclusive approach of architectural works integrating virtual and material organization and engineering constructions.
In 1998 van Berkel and Bos relaunched their practice as UNStudio, the UN standing for “United Net”. UNStudio presents itself as a network of specialists in architecture, urban development and infrastructure. With UNStudio, van Berkel has built over 81 projects, including the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Ardmore Residence in Singapore, London’s Canaletto Tower (which is due to be completed in 2015), and more than 54 projects currently in progress.
How would you describe your style to a stranger recently introduced to you?
That’s very difficult to answer because we don’t like to talk so much about style , or about any kind of an architecture only in terms of aesthetics. . We argue for an architectural understanding of qualities related to organization , or understanding of the ideas about how you experience architecture , instead of thinking of a general gesture of how you can recognize any particular style. So if I had to describe it in a very brief sentence then I would also like to say that our new work centers on how you proportion smart information in order to make buildings both more fascinating and more intelligent.
How do you view your body of work? Is it an evolution, are there stages, has it been centered around one thing that you continue to seek?
Looking at the different scale work that we do and our interests, there is not a proper scale that we like to work with. It is more the ideas we like to bring into even the small projects , so that these that can be used for the much larger scale work , but which that were originally much simpler ideas. We work with these ideas in many different scales , which could includes furniture design, interior design, etc. but that , in a sense is how we marginalize or approach our project.
Louis Vuitton Flagship Store | UNStudio
Is there any one project that you place above the others you’ve done, in your mind?
Yes, it is always the project we are working on now. Most of the time that is my favorite project.
Your architecture has certain tranquility to it, how do you see your works in conjuncture to the surrounding chaos?
This is often related to how you interpret the context, like when you determine the height of buildings or the infrastructure or how you can bring certain qualities of the context into the project. But at the same time we like to look at the conceptual qualities of the surroundings , like how a museum connects itself to the rest of the city or the how we enter the city and how all these things can come together. We pick up conceptual ideas of the city and bring them into the project.
Is there a specific building element (façade, stair, floor, wall, fenestration…) which you feel a special affinity towards while designing? One that holds above the rest in the hierarchy? Is there a hierarchy?
We really like to work with all the ingredients in our architecture. We don’t work with a single approach. No. Sometimes there will be a certain principle that will make the project work. There can be elements that we may work , with such as a void space that can organize within the entire project. But sometimes it’s the project that dictates how we approach these elements as well.
Waalse Krook | UNStudio
“Unique knowledge developed through building practice is the new core value of architecture.” [taken from UNStudio’s website.] What ‘unique knowledge’ would you consider to be relevant to the practice of architecture?
Unique is sometimes when you have your own kind of inventions , like an invention we’ve come up with is to use particular information techniques to make buildings more healthy. We also use these ideas to attempt to make buildings more affordable. Even as an architect not all buildings are easy to understand in the beginning, so we have developed very simple ideas to make them more affordable.
‘Is architecture an actor or just a witness within the political game?’ What were/are some of the answers you were able to find?
Architecture in larger scales is actually always active , but even in some small scale projects , like a private house , it can have a political influence. But on the other hand, you work with built in regulations already when you deal with a particular urban setting , or you deal with building project , or if your architecture has to be particularly sustainable. In a way when you design you are taking on a formal responsibility for the surroundings , so architecture and urban planning are already political gestures. The fact that I am talking to you is also showing my interest in affirming politics. We have this drive as architects because we need to become immersed in culture. Architecture is a form of political culture, and it is not always your history or your background that matters , but how you look at another culture. We build with responsibility for how you can bring people together and how people communicate and make differently than they may have before, in those cases architecture is political.
Theatre Agora | UNStudio
Interactivity and the open sharing of knowledge and information crops up several times through out the various research projects found on your website. How far does this extend within UNStudio?
That’s a tough question. We like to do anything we can do in order to promote or to share knowledge, ideas, innovations etc. When something is close to an innovation clients could say “let’s keep this for ourselves” and if we can find a way to protect it, then we do that of course. But I do believe in a world where everything has become open and where we are comfortable sharing ideas, I think it is important to do that. I believe that in the end sharing knowledge will help you to make your system, the way you work your language, and the people you work with, become more intelligent, and you can make more intelligent projects with that knowledge .
Brahms, Bach, or Dvořák?
Mercedes-Benz Museum | UNStudio