Interview: architect Ben van Berkel of UNStudio was in London last week to launch Canaletto, a residential tower being built in the east of the city. He spoke to Dezeen about the project, about his plans to create the first open-source architecture studio and about the "devastatingly difficult" situation for architects in the Netherlands.
Inspired by research into how technology start-ups use the internet to share information, van Berkel will this summer relaunch UNStudio as a web-based knowledge platform. "It's going to be a knowledge-based organisational website or series of blogs where we communicate about the way we can improve our knowledge," he said, adding that architects have been slow to change the way they operate. "We all live in the iPhone 5 phase and architecture is still in the Walkman phase."
Above: UNStudio's Canaletto residential tower designed for London
Top: Ben van Berkel portrait by Inga Powilleit
Van Berkel also spoke about the situation in the Netherlands, where architects are suffering "psychological stagnation" due to political changes that have all but stopped the country's once-exemplary house-building and public architecture programme.
"There are not many cultural buildings coming from the ground, housing has been stopped, the economy more or less stagnated and most of the developers in cities are afraid to develop," he said. "Over the last four years many offices have had a hard time and even went close to bankruptcy."
UNStudio survived, van Berkel says, because of its busy workload in the far east. See all our stories about UNStudio.
Above: sketch for the Canaletto tower by Ben van Berkel
Here is the transcript of the conversation between Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs and Ben van Berkel:
Marcus Fairs: Tell us about Canaletto, the project you've just launched.
Ben van Berkel: It's a new residential tower here on the edge of Islington and Hackney. It's unusual to build a residential tower in London. Most of the time when you see architects involved in new towers in London it's related to office buildings. So it's a residential tower with particularly the aim of playing with the context and a new idea of how you can make wonderful different textures and scales. The idea of the traditional skyscraper interpreted in a new way.
Marcus Fairs: Your client told me the brief was to design a beautiful residential tower because they felt like there hadn't been a beautiful one in London for a long time. What do you feel about that and have you attempted to create a beautiful building?
Ben van Berkel: I've always been quite sensitive to the word “beautiful”. I hope that the building has a lot of sensualities and unusual aspects that you don’t normally see in residential towers. Maybe it's related to my fascination with furniture design and the idea of how one can extend an interior to the façade.
Maybe the beauty is related to a kind of refinement, an intentionality that we gave to the design. So the elegance is to be found in the texturing of the façade, giving it a more unusual scaling.
Above: sketch for the Canaletto tower by Ben van Berkel
Marcus Fairs: And it has an articulation on the façade, which looks maybe like lips or ridges sticking out. Tell us about those.
Ben van Berkel: I like your reference to lips! If you could kiss this tower it would be nice. There is someone who recently wrote about this actually; do you know this book by Sylvia Lavin called Kissing Architecture?
It's not that we refer so much to lips but more to the idea of framing. How could you frame, say, three groups of interiors in clusters so that you could maybe talk about neighbourhoods in the sky. If you look at the history of residential towers, they're [usually] so neutral and monolithic. If you walk away from the tower you cannot point to your own apartment.
So the idea is that you can say “well I'm living in the third cluster”. You know, that you can point at your own apartment. That identity is something that we were working on quite intensely.
Marcus Fairs: UNStudio works around the world: Shanghai, Singapore, places like that. But this is your first project in London. How does London compare?
Ben van Berkel: London is a wonderful, intense city to work in. I always get this question from my colleagues and friends here: “Did you not have difficulties with the regulations and the planning department?” But it was quite good actually [for us]. I don't know, maybe as a Dutchman I like restrictions and I like to play with the puzzle of restrictions. The more difficult, the more I am pressed to innovate. So I like that.
Also maybe because I was here for so many years at the Architectural Association and enjoyed so much being in London in the 80s, I always had this ambition to be in London and hoped to get the opportunity to do some work here, so I'm really excited.
Above: sketch for the Canaletto tower by Ben van Berkel
Marcus Fairs: You were talking earlier about how it’s a really tough time for architects in the Netherlands. You said that your office now has to rely on overseas work. What has changed there?
Ben van Berkel: It's quite devastatingly difficult right now for a lot of architects in Holland and it's related to a change of policies. The government changed the levels of cultural support. There are not many cultural buildings coming from the ground, housing has been stopped, the economy more or less stagnated and most of the developers in cities are afraid to develop.
If you look at the numbers, our economy is still number five or so in Europe; we are okay. But there is a kind of psychological stagnation going on whereby over the last four years many offices have had a hard time and even came close to bankruptcy. Colleagues who were lucky enough to have some international work, Mecanoo or OMA etc, could survive for that reason.
By luck we had opened an office Shanghai three years ago for a project we did there. We expanded it to a fully organised studio and now we survive also thanks to that. So it's that we wanted to expand; we are there also because we want to learn from Asia. Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and China are the places at the moment where we have an enormous amount of good work.
Above: UNStudio's Galleria Centercity department store in Cheonan, South Korea
Marcus Fairs: For a long time British architects looked to the Netherlands because of the policy of commissioning good architecture and supporting architects. Are you saying that that's over and that not just because of the economic crisis but because of a change of political attitude?
Ben van Berkel: Yes, but that doesn't mean that the intellectual policy making of housing and planning is totally lost. Of course we should still be happy with the rich history of architecture, urban planning and design we have in Holland. Now maybe I see a chink of light. We had this strange combination of highly right-wing governments who had to govern alongside left-wing parts of the government, sopolicy making didn't fit at all over the last few years. But now, luckily enough, that is over. There is a new form of rethinking about what the state can do to its planning in Holland and so it is a new interesting time now.
England and also other countries like Singapore look a lot to Holland still, in terms of how we have always engineered the country [since so much of it is below sea level], how we have dealt with infrastructure and housing in general. Singapore is a place where so much expansion needs to be further developed over the coming years. My role there is significant in that I can communicate these intensities of knowledge between these locations.
Above: UNStudio's V on Shenton skyscraper designed for Singapore
Marcus Fairs: So you're saying that things are looking more optimistic for the future in the Netherlands but for the time being everything has stopped?
Ben van Berkel: Stagnated, yes.
Marcus Fairs: You were talking about wanting to open up your architectural practice, to become more open-source and to maybe learn from architecture blogs and the online world. Can you tell me more about that?
Ben van Berkel: Before the summer we're going online and - you're maybe the first one I tell this story to - with the idea of knowledge communities within the offices. We have more or less moved from a network practice - the United Network practice of UNStudio - to a more knowledge-based organisation.
So whenever an architect joins the office you are not only purely an architect anymore, you are an architect who is developing an expertise with us. So you become part of the platform on new material research, or new ideas around sustainability or affordable strategies etc. We want to set up this onlineknowledge platform so that we [can] share this within an open-source system; not only internally within the office but also with the outside world.
What we are going to do is go more public with these knowledge platforms and communicate what we can achieve with our knowledge, and the knowledge others might have, about how we can build more intelligent buildings, for instance.
Above: the UNStudio Knowledge Platforms are formed around the topics of sustainability, materials, organisation and parameters.
Marcus Fairs: First of all, how will that work? And second, how will that benefit you?
Ben van Berkel: Well it will benefit me not in such a way that I will have other designers helping me to design my buildings, because that would never work. But what I am actually learning lately is that, with the knowledge we have developed around sustainable ideas, I can make more affordable buildings.
With these techniques you could become more efficient in the way you process not only design, but also the production of your buildings. It allows us to share with and engage the outside world in how you can improve that; how can you refine that. So it might be that even a student who did research on a particular part of concrete core activation for instance might in turn provide us with knowledge that adds to our own research.
It's not going to be a social website, it's going to be a knowledge-based organisational website where knowledge can be shared, contributed and collected and where we can communicate about the ways we can improve our knowledge.
Above: diagram illustrating how UNStudio’s Knowledge Platforms reach out to external partners for collaboration
Marcus Fairs: And do you have a model for that? Are you modeling it on an existing organisation?
Ben van Berkel: At Harvard I've done intensive research for the last two years on how the younger internet companies are now organised. I've learnt so much from how the digital generation develop new forms of collaboration, co-creation, outside-the-box thinking - also with the way even how companies are organised. Their business models look so much less linear than all the companies we have seen over the last century. I believe that I can learn from these companies.
Architects most of the time - and I was part of that too for a long time - have not learnt that if you can be more efficient in the way you distribute your strategies, how you organise your organisation, then you could create far more freedom for design.
So I’m doing this in order to create a far more cultural space for the projects we can do in the future. So it's not about the efficiency of the way we work or to be quicker, but it's actually to expand on the polarisation of the profession. On the one hand we can learn how to become smarter in the way that we organise ourselves and on the other hand make much more space for the quality of the cultural, spatial, organisational effects of the way we make architecture.
Above: diagram illustrating the potential applications and developments of UNStudio’s knowledge
Marcus Fairs: So basically you think that architectural businesses can learn from tech start-ups?
Ben van Berkel: Yes.
Marcus Fairs: And this has come out of research you're doing at Harvard. What is your role at Harvard?
Ben van Berkel: I'm very proud to have this position as the [Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor chair at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design]. It's for three years. With my studio there I can research how these new companies can have an effect on the way we do things differently in the future. How we might make workspaces for instance, or living spaces. Or I look at social sciences and human resources and new forms of business models and how these new companies have been operating over the last five, six years.
And they're highly innovative. Some companies have an open-source strategy for collaborating within 20 countries but have a company of only five or six people. But they do all their communication over the internet.
Marcus Fairs: And you think that architecture companies have not really evolved that quickly and may be behind?
Ben van Berkel: Yes. I sometimes believe that we all live in the iPhone 5 phase while architecture is still in the Walkman phase.
Marcus Fairs: What will the first manifestation of this be?
Ben van Berkel: Just before the summer, around May, we will go public with the online communication of our knowledge communities and also the full story around how we will be reorganising the studio.
Marcus Fairs: And you'll be the first architect to do this?
Ben van Berkel: Yes. I think we will be the first, yes.