Ben van Berkel | Pushing the Bounds of Modern Architecture
His positive demeanor masks his proclivity for an unusual functional architecture which has attracted criticisms for being brash. Nevertheless, the serial design awardee and seasoned lecturer is not scared of experimenting to succeed where others can’t dare to tread. The Dutch architect has close to a 100 built projects around the world to his name.
I talked to Ben van Berkel about his formative years, best projects, and why he loves the music of dream pop sensation, Lorde.
In 1988 Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos cofounded their architectural practice, Van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau, which has completed iconic projects across the Netherlands since then. A decade later, the super architecture firm morphed to UNStudio emphasizing on urban development and infrastructure. Ben van Berkel’s idea of leadership and design evinces innovation and creativity. He is a proponent of collaborative effort to ensure design functionality.
On how he sees the future of travel developing, and architecture’s role in it
At UNStudio we refer to this as mobility+: an approach which also focuses on how we can stimulate the use of public transport. We can talk endlessly about making cars more sustainable, but we need to look at encouraging the use of other modes of transport in a far broader way. Arnhem Central, for example, was a whole master plan. It resulted in a new and vibrant part of the city where living, working, and leisure facilities are included to stimulate the use of the station and turn it into a transfer location: a hub for public transport of different kinds.
We believe that the phenomenon of the station should be changed as a typology into transfer locations with multiple programs. This means that we need to come up with new ideas for how we can support the users in these new environments and provide new types of comfort. We also need to learn to think about the whole passenger experience, not just the stations that start and conclude a journey, but also everything that happens in between, the whole network of travel.
The drive to be an architect
Strangely enough, it was graphic design. I started out as a graphic designer making magazine covers. I was always interested in producing something that could be directly connected to the public, which the magazine covers provided, but at the same time magazines are only there for a week and I never liked the idea that they were so temporal. But architecture had always interested me. I worked briefly for a Japanese designer and he advised me to go to Japan. When I was there I saw the Katsura palace in Kyoto and I decided almost on the spot that I wanted to become an architect. My visit to the villa was a very special, intense, almost indescribable experience. I also read a lot about it in connection to Bruno Taut and the understanding that modern architecture was seen to have started with the Katsura palace. It was tough to switch professions, but I have never regretted it.
How Ben’s background has impacted design philosophies
Traveling in my early 20s to various places, like Japan and the US, had a great impact and influence on me. I was really interested in art and design when I was studying at the Rietveld in Amsterdam and even though I was studying graphics, I had teachers from a variety of disciplines: from an artist to furniture designer and an architect, and this gave me a really rich and diverse education at the time. It was the same as the AA in London, when I was studying architecture there. I was a student of Mohsen Mostafavi, who taught me everything about the Viennese school – not only the architecture but the whole culture of that period. At that time I was reading everything I could get my hands on from Freud and Kraus to Adolf Loos. Zaha Hadid was also teaching at the AA and she encouraged me to be bolder and to experiment much more with geometry.
After I had finished studying I became part of a group called the paperless studio, along with people like Hani Rashid, Stan Allen, Jesse Reiser, Alejandro Zaera-Polo, and Greg Lynn. Within this group, we were primarily fascinated by the discourse that came about due to the influence of computation on design and it was a very important period for me in terms of shaping my thinking about parametric design. Critics like Jeffrey Kipnis and Sanford Kwinter were also an important influence when I taught for several years at numerous universities in the U.S. at the beginning of the 90s.
The Place of physical model making or sketch designs by hand in an era of computer visualizations
I still sketch every day and I paint whenever I get the opportunity. The computer certainly changed architectural production in extremely significant ways — as much as the smartphone changed communication, I would say — and I have no doubt computation will continue to impact how we work in ways that we can’t yet fully predict. I am also now really encouraging physical model making at the studio again. 3D modeling is of course so fast and it’s a language today’s designers automatically turn to, so it’s an obvious choice to use this process.
Until recent years there was also the danger in physical model making that people would automatically work with Styrofoam blocks, which ran the risk of limiting the results to box architecture. So for a time, I avoided model making because I wanted people to experiment much more with the geometry. But we have now extended the facilities in our model workshop, so model making is becoming popular again. In fact, for our latest internal conference, we focused the whole day on this activity (computers were banned), with really interesting results.
The future of transportation and architecture’s role
I think that with electric driving, self-driving cars in the future, although the main roads will be changed, people will have to go along the roads because the cars will go north and south. I think the infrastructure of trains will become better and there’ll be more competition. I think there’ll be more opportunities, stronger opportunities coming in to transport architecture. I think a lot of things will change. Good political ambition…as we’ve seen in some regions and countries like Scandinavia in general. Also in Holland, electric driving is stipulated intensely. This has to do with transport in general and not only train.
My next project is always my favorite project. The project I’m working on right now. That’s what I like. I’m a very forward-looking positive person. My next project will also be the best project.
Interests outside architecture
I’m interested in a type of adaptive design. I’m so fascinated that cars have so many assemblies. I’m interested in nature. My favorite musician is Lorde, she’s one of the most promising artistes around. I’m interested in music in general.
Best advice received and advice to young architects
Well, Frank Gehry once told me, ‘never borrow money’, which was excellent advice. So my advice to young architects and designers would be, ‘after you have paid back your student loans, never borrow money again!’
Ben van Berkel