Ben van Berkel, co-founder of the Dutch UNStudio, talks about his way of ‘doing architecture’ and his thirty years of activity with Caroline Bos. Starting with the recent projects in China, where he has explored his visionary concept of ‘superliving’ in the context of a sustainable, livable and socially integrated city
Photos courtesy of UNStudio – Article Laura Ragazzola
‘All-in-one destination’ is the slogan that accompanies the latest major urban projects by the Dutch firm UNStudio (United Network Studio): micro-cities that present themselves as new metropolitan destinations for contemporary living; places conceived to improve the life experience of residents but also visitors, bringing together housing, work and recreation in a single sustainable place.
It is happening in China, in the city of Hangzhou and in the very central Putuo area of Shanghai, just to name the latest UNStudio achievements. The Dutch firm based in Amsterdam has completed two large projects in 2017: Raffles City, the big mixed-use area of 440,000 square meters, and Lane 189, a mall-spaceship of the new generation. “Because we always design with the future in mind,” said Ben van Berkel, co-founder of UNStudio together with Caroline Bos, at the start of a recent lecture at the Milan Polytechnic. We met with him to ask a few questions.
The last two years have been very important for your firm, bringing many international prizes and honors. What makes your architecture special?
It is always hard to talk about yourself… But I cannot deny that we are very pleased with the result achieved in recent years. The architectural profession always implies having lots of patience and great tenacity, because it takes a long time before you see your works being completed, and even more time to gain recognition: unless you are a designer of products, which have a smaller scale and much more immediate results.
Today, for example, I told the students about a project on which we began working 20 years ago, which was not completed until 2016 (the Arnhem Central rail station in Arnhem, Holland, ed). Often you find yourself working on something that will see the light of day only many years later. I have almost 30 years of work behind me, and I feel that the best period for our studio is just beginning.
In your projects you respond to the complexity of the undertaking (I am thinking about the Arnhem Station you mentioned, or Raffles City in China) with a network of collaborators, and therefore a wide-ranging flow of different kinds of know-how. Is this the key to making a successful design?
The advantage of having many collaborators is that in this way you can gradually delegate the work, finding the necessary time to concentrate on the design activities: today I can devote about 70% of my time to those aspects. Furthermore, perhaps because I also teach at the university, I have learned to organize my activities very well, and I also ask my team to do the same.
Apart from the method of my studio, in any case, which perhaps is not even so important, what I really concentrate on, also spending lots of time, is the activity of research: I do it at the university (on various topics, like the future of work, the future of mobility, etc.), and at the same time I implement it in my studio, where we also explore other themes, more connected with the world of design.
For example, we have developed platforms from which all the members of my team can take information and knowledge: the goal is to contribute to modify, update, improve the ‘language’ of UNStudio, to avoid repeating ourselves. I like the idea that our way of ‘doing architecture’ changes and evolves, expressing always different phases, like passing – if you will – from a ‘blue period’ to a ‘pink period.’
The range of contributions and the versatility of the solutions are also reflected in the different jobs your studio approaches: you shift from the design of a set of flatware to the big infrastructure of a rail station. How does your way of designing change in relation to the scale of the project? Is the effort always the same?
That’s an interesting question. You should know that before studying architecture I was in a degree program in product design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, though afterwards I never worked on products. Nevertheless, over the years, when I gained a certain confidence thanks to the completion of large-scale projects, I realized that I liked the idea of getting back to my roots and thinking about product design.
So we began to work on objects for various brands – one name will do, from Italy, that of Alessi – and we designed a flatware service (Giro, ed) and other tableware accessories (the Ribbon bottle rack and the Alba truffle slicer). Nevertheless, I have never had precise preferences: I know myself, and I know I will also prefer the next project on which I am working, in spite of the ‘effort’ (but also the great fascination) of passing from the small scale to the large scale.
Sometimes we develop small ideas, with a particular geometric form, originally created for an object or a small building, like a house, and in the end we adapt them to larger projects like a train station. We simply enlarge the small details of a particular project, and then development them in a serial way, we might say, boosting the scale.
So for you there is not a big difference when you work on different scales…
No, and I would like to add something important on this subject. When I studied architecture in London I had the good fortune to have Zaha Hadid as a teacher, a fantastic person who in spite of my background in design, immediately encouraged me to design houses, buildings, whole cities…
You began your activity together with Caroline Bos in 1988. What has changed in these three decades? What, in your view, is the outlook of architecture for the future?
As I said at the start of our conversation, my career began 30 years ago, and I think the best period is just beginning now: I have the sensation of having just gotten started, because now I have experience and confidence. It often happens – though it is not a rule – that the best projects in architecture get done after a certain age. And while I think our best period is still to come, I also concentrate on the fact that we have to pay attention to the future, always thinking of it, especially the factors that are about to change it…
I am thinking, for example, about technology, which will have an increasingly important role, and about the specific field of architecture, which will have to avoid discriminating against women, operating in a politically correct way, while paying attention to the health impact of spaces, especially interiors.
All this is the future. In the 1990s the client, even the enlightened ones, almost always asked architects to create new icons of style, more iconic than their predecessors… they wanted captivating, striking buildings that would grab attention… Today, we cannot wager only on aesthetics, overlooking function, because the future needs to be rich in meaning.
What I try to do together with my team is to combine the history of architecture with the use of new tools that technology makes available.
You practice architecture but you also teach it: what is the most important thing you can transmit to your students?
I always urge my students to search with conviction for their own personal approach, just as a writer has to find the ‘subject’ of his novel. In short, you have to cultivate your own interest, your own passion: this is what counts most. I tell my students to also pay attention to the society and be responsible in its regard, open to innovation and the practice of research. Finally, I urge them to be curious, to look beyond their own field, exploring other cultural realities: dance, for example, or music. Because innovation and creativity are closely connected: the first cannot exist without the second. This is what I always tell my students!