Blueprint Innovation Interviews at Arper: Ben van Berkel

Filmed at Arper's London showroom, we asked founder of UNStudio Ben van Berkel what innovation means to him and how it has informed his practice

Ben van Berkel heads up the successful Dutch architectural practice UNStudio, which has 200 staff from over 23 different countries and offices in Amsterdam, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It has a 25-year history that has seen it complete 120 projects and currently has more than 50 in progress. Known for his fascination with form and geometry, evident from work such as the Mobius House, van Berkel takes a very human approach to parametric architecture, both in terms of control of design and the end user. Most recently the practice completed Arnhem Central Station that appeared on the cover of Blueprint 344.

For me innovation is not so much about inventing something new every day, as that would be unrealistic. Instead it is more about changing certain aspects of the profession, or changing the boundaries of the practice by looking at relevant ideas and advances in other fields. Over time this can lead you to new ideas. But as an architect you shouldn’t only be thinking about the specific design you are working on, or the client you are designing for, you should be focusing on how and where you can innovate on a practice level.

Ben van Berkel. Photo: Alice Masters
Ben van Berkel. Photo: Alice Masters

At UNStudio we focus a great deal on knowledge: how you can best distill and store it, so that it can be both re-used and developed for future projects. We have four Knowledge Platforms in the office that deal with sustainability, new materials, parametric design and how we rethink organisational principles. We have also set up a system for people who join the studio, wherein they can spend their first few months carrying out research in one platform and thereafter join a different one. This way, over time, they can get an all-round training in how we work.

Collaboration is also introduced in order to make sure all the different platforms communicate with each other, but also to ensure that the different project teams develop and apply this knowledge. Collaboration with external advisers, with the people we like to work with and with whom we can set up a form of cooperation is also very important. We organise it in this way so that all the members of the different projects don’t end up working on ideas in parallel, but instead are given a platform to exchange ideas and learn from each other.

The technology surrounding design is of course also very important when it comes to innovation. It’s essential that we keep on imagining what we can do within architecture. We make a lot of sketches and models of course, but we also have in-house programmers to help with very complex scripting. Today projects need to be built much more quickly than in the past and 3D models help with communicating problems to all the contractors simultaneously and getting these solved in the model on the same day. But aside from these practical applications, we believe that technology can support the imagination and help to introduce new kinds of spatial effects – not purely form related, but more about how to make architecture more interactive. That phenomenon is progressing very slowly in architecture we feel.

Arnhem train station was originally planned to be only a station but then we talked to the city discovered and that it needed to be a transfer location with all these different layers of infrastructural elements. It needed to become a transfer hub and that gave us the opportunity to create a strategy for everything around the station. Most of the stations in Europe have a tendency to become the backyards of the city and here the city wanted to re-profile themselves and stimulate public transport by intensifying the programme on the rail side.

Galleria Department Store in Cheonan, South Korea. Photo: Christian Richters
Galleria Department Store in Cheonan, South Korea. Photo: Christian Richters

The central hall just has one twisting column. You can see directly how and where to move through the train station, it’s all visible and that was the aim to make an architecture that is interactive so through the architecture you could find your way.

I am interested in parametrics in architecture. We started with it quite early, 15 or 20 years ago, and we thought it was important to group information together on a location. We looked at user groups on sites and connected them to public spaces or we thought about how these user groups would use the location over time. But I’ve learnt if you cross-combine digital information and let it self-organise itself, it can finds its own way in the form you are making, but you still have to discipline it and find a way to develop new concepts of control. You need an editing process, a guiding process and a disciplinary aspect that can make the parametric a bit more fascinating and be able to understand the way it can be useful for design.

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