Revolutionary Architect Orchestrates Designs with Different Disciplines
Ben van Berkel, muses about current design philosophy and future projects
Issue: Jul 2010
Ben van Berkel’s work on the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam in 1996 led to his collaborative approach to practising architecture.
He designs, he writes, he lectures, he paints and he does it all with great aplomb. 53-year-old Dutch architect, Ben van Berkel, is director and co-founder of international architectural practice, UNStudio, the UN standing for “United Net”. His firm was set up in 1988 with his wife, Caroline Bos. Together, they have extensive experience in the fields of urbanism, infrastructure, public, private and utility buildings on different scale levels. The projects he undertakes reflect his interest in integrating construction and architecture.
Van Berkel studied architecture at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and the Architectural Association in London, receiving the AA Diploma with Honours in 1987. He has also lectured in several world-class universities and is currently Professor of Conceptual Design and Head of the architecture department at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt am Main (Germany). Besides that, van Berkel has co-authored a significant number of essays, monographs and books and has ventured into furniture design as well.
Although breaking with the then known stylistic typological references, the Karbouw office still works well with its location and desired function.
Picture courtesy of UNStudio
Six years in the making, the Moebius House is inspired by the Moebius strip which is figure of 8 without a beginning or end and features units that are linked based on the owners’ daily routines.
Picture courtesy of Christian Richters
INSIDE: You have accumulated such a large body of work in the over 20 years that you have been an architect. How would you say you have evolved over the years?
VAN BERKEL: Our ideas and solutions differ to a large extent with each building or project that we work on. One of our first buildings, the Karbouw office building in Amersfoort, broke the rules of the typology of small office design in the Netherlands at the time. It simply didn’t look like an office building. People compared it to a storage facility, or an electrical station. Some people even joked that it was a little like a small theatre.
Another milestone project for me was Villa Wilbrink, also in the Netherlands. Although it was quite a small and somewhat modest house, the nature of the site raised a number of fascinating design opportunities and challenges. If you approach the house from the road, it is almost like stepping into a hill rather than a house. This means that you then actually discover the house by almost carving yourself through the landscape.
The Moebius House was also important for us, as we worked there for the first time with the idea of endlessness and the concept of combining working, living and sleeping in a continuous loop.
INSIDE: What is your design philosophy? In what way does the image of the manimal (half beast, half human) reflect that philosophy?
The haunting half-man, half-beast image represents to van Berkel what architecture can become.
Picture courtesy of UNStudio
VAN BERKEL: The manimal is an image I discovered some years ago by the artist Daniel Lee. It’s a wonderful amalgam of a tiger, a man, and a snake, which for me elucidates what architecture could become: a fluid hybrid of diverse ingredients. But the most interesting thing is that you can’t distinguish one from the other. The manimal illustrates for us what we call the ‘inclusive principle’.
INSIDE: Your practice is built on inter-disciplinary co-operation, incorporating designers, engineers and specialists in various fields. How do you incorporate all these different elements into a seamless design?
VAN BERKEL: Fundamental to our practice is the idea that new concepts for architecture can be generated almost every day. We apply what we know from art to our work at UNStudio. We strive to create fully contemporary works and to be fully absorbed in the process. But we don’t do this alone. This is why we operate as a studio and why we call our practice a ‘United Network’, as there are always many experts from a wide variety of fields involved in our projects.
INSIDE: You have designed for different cities. Given your commitment to designing buildings with an interactive relationship with their surroundings, how does each city inspire and influence your work?
VAN BERKEL: I like to see every project within its own context and with fresh eyes, in the same way that I never look back at previous projects which may have been fascinating to me in one way or another when I designed them. This retrospective approach would impede me from seeing a new location or environment with a completely open and fresh mind.
Van Berkel’s design and restructuring of the Harbor Ponte Parodi in Genoa features a strong link to the historical aspect of the city.
Picture courtesy of UNStudio
Due to complete in 2012, Raffles City in Hangzhou is a mixed-use development that marks the site of a cultural landscape within the Qianjiang new town area.
Picture courtesy of UNStudio
One example is the Ponte Parodi project in Genoa, where there was a request to create a new public space for the regeneration of the harbour front there. The project had to include a very active public programme and to work with how the city is in fact sandwiched between the landscape and the water. In response to this setting, we kept the project low so that the relationship to the water was maintained and we included a wonderfully varied public programme in order to reactivate this part of the city.
INSIDE: How is your work on Raffles City, Hangzhou a reflection of both your practice and the city’s architectural style?
VAN BERKEL: The philosophy behind the Raffles City concept is to integrate mixed-use in an urban context but in such a way as to give this concept a twist; by focusing on where the urban context meets the landscape of the city. In the design of the towers the urban element of the project twists towards the landscape, whilst the landscape aspect, in turn, twists towards the urban context, thereby effecting the incorporation and consolidation of these separate elements in one formal gesture. The project is transformative in terms of its infrastructure, programmatic and formal qualities and the element of movement in the nearby river is reflected in the structural qualities of the project, which we see as containing a wave-like motion. These concentric waves increase in their dynamism, starting with a calm movement and building up to a more vigorous wave along the vertical axis. Elements of flow and motion are hereby incorporated into the building as an integrated whole.
INSIDE: Innovation seems to be the crux of your work. You have mentioned that your practice is founded on “a form of restlessness” and that “no sooner have [you] grasped, even almost perfected a certain mode than [you] feel compelled to abandon it.” Given this, what is in the horizon for your practice?
VAN BERKEL: It is important that we ourselves learn from our work; that we can advance and improve as a result of working on our projects. On the project level, the goal is to be able to undertake project types that we have not done before. We have never designed an airport for instance, so that would certainly be an aim for the future. Similalry, we are currently designing a football stadium and would like to grow in the area of sports facilities. University campasses are also of particular interest to us at the moment, as are mixed-use projects, also because the more complex the project, the more potential there is to learn from it. So these are the types of projects we hope to be able to design and build in the near future.
The exterior of the La Defense Offices in Almere capturing the golden hues of the sun’s rays with its specially treated material.
INSIDE: Could you name some innovations that you are most proud to be associated with?
VAN BERKEL: One of our most interesting innovations in terms of materials was the glass treatment we introduced for the La Defense Offices in Almere. This involves a reflective, coloured foil, which is incorporated into the glass sheets. The coloured foil in the glass sheets has the wonderful kaleidoscopic effect of generating a myriad of different colours. It also affects the heat load on the building, while the vibration in the changing colours creates the illusion of constant sunshine. Unfortunately in Holland, we don’t have so much sunshine but in the courtyard of this building it is almost as if the sun is shining every day.
INSIDE: You are a lecturer and a writer. What 3 pieces of advice would you give to aspiring architects?
VAN BERKEL: First, they must think for themselves. They must develop ideas based on their own beliefs and what they stand for in the profession. Second, they need to learn to deal with the future in a different way than architects have done up to now. They have to develop new concepts of control for the way information is handled. They cannot concentrate overtly on producing nice forms. Instead they need to learn how to proportion and edit information and channel it in the right directions. Last of all it is speed. The future will be all about speed, in a positive sense. We need to learn how to become quick, focused and to use to our advantage working with simple gestures and to do that well.