Since 1988, Ben van Berkel and his business partner, urban planner Caroline Bos, have championed a collaborative approach to architecture, first through the Van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau, and then through UNStudio, which they set up in 1998. UNStudio is a network of specialists in architecture, urban development and infrastructure, with a focus on innovation, sustainability and efficiency.
Projects include the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany; the Ponte Parodi harbour project in Genoa, Italy; a new metro system for Qatar and the Theater de Stoep in Spijkenisse in the Netherlands.
Van Berkel’s position as a leading theorist, author and professor – he is Kenzo Tange Chair at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and professor of conceptual design at Städelschule, Frankfurt – shows itself in the layered intelligence of his high-tech buildings. Here the Dutch architect explains why we should aspire to find flexibility in function, and how design in the cultural arena influences his approach to other typologies.
You recently completed Theatre de Stoep in the Netherlands, and you’re working on the Lyric Theatre for the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong. Do you enjoy designing theatres?
I’ve always found the theatre an exciting place. My mother was a singer so we often went to the theatre when I was young. Our visits were always followed by discussions about the music, the show, the acoustics and how the environment related to the performance.
My love of theatre has developed. For me, it’s about stepping into a different reality, but whether you see it as a form of escapism or as an enrichment of your own reality, what matters to me is that richness. That’s what I like so much about designing theatres.
What insights can you share about theatre design from these two projects?
In these two projects lots of ideas came together. Theatre de Stoep features a huge open foyer. The idea is to celebrate going out. The foyer – which is unobstructed by columns, and features a huge sculptural staircase – celebrates the visitor as though he is an actor in a scene from a play. He can be seen from viewpoints on all different levels, so the foyer is like a stage as he steps out of his everyday life.
There are a lot of pragmatic considerations related to both theatres. Each has two auditoria, so you have to deal with the acoustics very carefully to stop sound from one travelling to the other. We created a ‘box within a box,’ so there’s no acoustic interference between the two spaces. In another project, the Theatre Agora in Lelystad, the Netherlands, we had to split the foundations to make sure there were no vibrations moving from one auditorium to another.
The latest request from clients is to factor in a 24-hour lifecycle for the theatre. Clients want the theatre to be used by the city and the public, for cultural and commercial activities – we have to make it more than just a theatre.
Can you tell us about the Mercedes Benz Museum?
The building cost E150m (E100m for the structure and E50m for the interior). When the client first approached us there was talk of creating a showroom for the car collection, but we suggested that it should be more of a museum space; a space that would appeal to the public, where industrial products could be seen in the same way artworks are viewed – from many angles and perspectives, and from close up and far away.
Did you look at any other brand-focused architecture projects for inspiration?
Actually we looked more at museum architecture. Our interest was more about creating an experience for the visitor that would go hand in hand – conceptually, visually and spatially – with what was being displayed. It was very important for us to go beyond brand-focused architecture.
UNStudio is a global practice. Do you adjust your approach to take account of cultural differences?
We always try to understand a new location. At the moment, we’re working in two new countries – we have a lot of work in Australia, and we are currently working on a new metro system in Qatar.
We have thorough discussions with the client and with our local advisers; we also like to work with local engineers and architects to enrich our knowledge of the area.
We refer to the location, the history and the context of every project, but we always add new insights, and reinterpret it so that it’s forward-looking.
What kind of things are you looking to incorporate into your designs?
I look at everything from historical examples of form to the way the light falls or to the way people are dressed. I’m inspired by the many levels of culture you can find in society.
I’ve learned so much from working in so many places, so I’m also able to cross-combine different cultural qualities to give our architecture a global feel. That doesn’t mean we’re totally global in our ideas however, as we also believe in being highly local. With a global network and local experiences you can be truly innovative.
Your work strikes a powerful balance between interior and exterior. How do you approach this?
We’ve done many projects where this ‘inter-quality’ between exterior and interior come together. I think it comes from my experience in product design and interior design, and I’m also very influenced by art. I always strategise a holistic approach.
You can see this approach in theatres we’ve designed like Theatre de Stoep and Theatre Agora, in the Museum de Valkhof in Nijmegen in Holland, and in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.
In the Mercedes-Benz Museum, a major design element is the void space in the centre of the building, which became one of the biggest inspirations for the façade. It’s almost as though the façade and the central void have a direct dialogue with each other.
You often talk about intelligent buildings. What characteristics do they have?
We want to bring all the values of a building – the materials, construction, acoustics – together to make buildings that are smarter and more interactive. Buildings will become interactive machines that react and respond to people. We have just completed a smart house that operates on this level.
The idea of intelligent buildings also relates to the design process. At this stage we can create buildings that are as efficient and intelligent as possible, and we consequently save money. We make more exciting architecture by using new design techniques.
Intelligent buildings can be highly flexible. We’ve designed an office building for example – the UNStudio Tower in Amsterdam – that can be transformed into a residential building. By incorporating maximum flexibility into the design, the future use of the building can be changed without any structural alteration.
How do you predict building design will change in the future?
I believe the idea of comfort will change. Comfort will be much more connected with health, so buildings will be healthier. We’ll be much happier to walk around buildings and use staircases because we know it’s better for us. We’ve also been using a technique used in hospitals, where the air is extracted vertically from the room instead of flowing from one person to the next. Making buildings healthier is definitely the future.
What has been the greatest change to the architecture profession since you started your career?
The widespread use of computers and new technology. I was brought up with hand drawing and the drawing board, and I do still sketch, but the computer gave me new insights and a belief that new design techniques can stimulate our imagination.
Computers are knowledge machines that can help us achieve smart, interactive, innovative buildings. They also help us deal with the many building codes and requirements that have been introduced to the profession over the years.
In the past, architecture was segmented and fragmented – you had the column, the ceiling, the floor. Now, with computational techniques you can hybridise these ideas; a ceiling can turn into a column, for example.
Which UNStudio leisure building are you most proud of and why?
Sometimes quite unusual projects become the most fascinating ones for me. We designed a shopping centre in Cheonan in South Korea called Galleria Centercity [completed in 2010]. The project came straight after a run of museums and theatres, which meant I approached it in a totally cultural manner. I asked the client why we couldn’t see the objects that people buy in this building as the art, why we couldn’t use the lighting effects we use in museums, why we couldn’t make a fantastic atrium and a lobby space and make everything white. I approached it from a totally different standpoint than I had before.
It’s a fascinating building. I always notice when people stand in the atrium and look up, they can’t work out if the building is 20 metres high or 60 metres high – it’s full of illusions.
What’s fascinating about this typology is how and where we see commerce and culture overlap. What is their relationship? Sometimes friends ask me how I can work on a department store. Yet half of my work is cultural, and I like what I learn from the cultural typology so much that I want to translate it into my other work.
Andy Warhol was an incredible shopper. He believed that when we die we go to Bloomingdales. Artists have always been fascinated by the world of display, and I’ve always been fascinated by the combination of art and commerce.
Which leisure building by another architect do you most admire and why?
An architect who inspired me in the early days was Clorinda Testa. He did the Banco de Londres y América del Sur in Buenos Aires. When you step into that bank, you feel like you’ve stepped into a museum. That project really inspired me.
What sets your practice apart from its rivals?
We are very collaborative and open. We liken architecture to art, and we want to make buildings that people will remember and want to come back to. Like a good book or a good movie, you should want to return to a great building because there’s more to discover. We believe in architecture where many different meanings can be applied.
In architecture, we need to add something so it becomes a bit more coherent, a bit more surprising and innovative. That’s why I’m always searching for new ways to approach architecture and its typologies.
Why is leisure architecture important?
This is where we have the thrill of going out; of stepping into another world.
These places are a mirror to the world we live in, and it’s important that they are there. We sometimes forget to think about the social implications of what architecture can do. We should bring that much more strongly into the discussion of the role of architecture.
It’s also about people coming together, sharing knowledge and enjoying public moments. That’s the beauty of leisure buildings.