I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
My first encounter with the architecture of Ben van Berkel’s UN Studio was a visit on an early gray morning to his Möbius House, tucked away in a wooded area not far from Amsterdam. Composed of various forms that moved into one another in a fluid, seamless way, the building’s curved, angled and sloping lines, its reflective surfaces’ interplay with the landscape, made it like no other house I’d ever seen. Inside, the same phenomenon continued, as new dialogues were introduced—with light, the sculptural forms of the walls, the stairs, and with the shapes of the trees that surrounded the house. The materials van Berkel used were all juxtapositions of soft and hard, polished and textured, natural and man-made, in a space that was the shape of the number eight. This “figure eight” design afforded privacy in the residing family’s workspaces, while retaining a central, communal feel.
Since that initial encounter in the Dutch countryside, I have visited many other UN Studio projects and have had the opportunity to work with van Berkel’s team on their design for the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Van Berkel and his wife, art historian Caroline Bos, are the founders of UN Studio, and together they’ve developed an inclusive concept of architecture that incorporates designers, engineers and specialists in various relevant disciplines to collaborate on large-scale, ambitious projects. Möbius House was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition The Unprivate House and is easily one of the great houses of the 20th century. Other UN Studio projects include the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and a conjoined train station/bus terminal for the city of Arnhem, Netherlands, based on studies of traffic flow. Major current projects are the Ponte Parodi in Genoa, Italy, the new Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, and—their first American commission—the expansion and renovation of the Wadsworth Atheneum. A retrospective exhibition of their work, organized by Aaron Betsky, opens this spring at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.
Gabriella de Ferrari The names Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos are associated with a new approach to architecture that is less focused on a specific personality and more about team effort. What led your studio to this sort of architecture?
Ben van Berkel Practical experience brought us to the conclusion that it is imperative to incorporate the knowledge you would like to have right at the beginning of a design project. That makes it possible to define the essential principles you would like to work from later on. And incorporating that much knowledge takes a group of individuals with each one coming into it with a different expertise. Over the next few years we will be working with new techniques and methods—all to enrich our vision so that the end result is not one we have seen before. It’s not just about pushing boundaries, but fusing new techniques—creating a specific team for each project at the inception of a project and working collaboratively on design, in order to rethink the classical ingredients that architecture has always worked with.
GDF Would you pick the project you found the most challenging and guide us through the process?
BvB We can take two, Möbius House and the project for the Arnhem Station area. Let’s start with Arnhem: it’s a project for two stations including high-speed trains, a car park underneath, housing and offices. We had to work with eight clients. It was impossible to go first to each client and say, “What are your problems and how can we solve them?” It couldn’t have worked as an integral, linear model. So we had to develop this abundant strategy in order to get all the reports and data from each client on the table. We setup a master plan that incorporated international, national, and local governmental decisions, because Europe, Holland and the city each had specifications. If you go through a process like this, you learn how to work on many relational strategies to make sure that everyone benefits from the site and can work fully with us—this was the most important aspect to bring into the design process and it became the working strategy. And as a result, the design became very inclusive. Today it is important to proportion the way you work with your client with a knowledge of materials and construction. If you can bring all this data together under certain parameters, then any stylistic reference to architecture becomes less significant. This is an important development in how we think about architecture. Through working and design techniques, and with the help of computers, we can liberate ourselves from forms predicated on stylistic references.
GDF So you have a much broader set of references?
BvB I believe that one can more or less forget preconceived ideas. On Möbius House, that was what became really interesting.
GDF Your theory on organization sounds very close to what George Dyson describes in his book Darwin Among the Machines. I’m thinking of the French electrodynamicist André-Marie Ampère, who first coined the term cybernetique (based on the Greek for the art of steering). Is Dyson popular in architectural circles? I know he’s well respected at Princeton, where you teach.
BvB Our interest in organization, which developed over the years and culminated in the collection of diagrams that we published in our first book, Mobile Forces, was both inspired and deepened by the new scientific insights that became available to a wide audience in the ’90s; Dyson, Daniel Dennett, Ilya Prigogine, Stephen Hawking—they revealed, albeit on a more abstract level, how you can rethink questions of the universe, of consciousness, of the emergence of life as issues of organization. Many thoughts and theories pertaining to our world and our lives cannot be fully understood without an image of the apparatus that holds the concept together, which seems to me a very architectural notion.
GDF On the Möbius House project, you had a very small client group—in many senses a more simple challenge than the large Arnhem Station project. Yet the Möbius clients had a much more intensely emotional need.
BvB And their question seemed strange: How can we walk around the landscape? They had bought a beautiful piece of land with undulations in height and fantastic trees. Their requirement was for us to think first about the landscape. And then there was the question of working and living at home, the two owners wanted their own studios within a compact, and largely shared, multifunctional space.
GDF It’s amazing that you accomplished all that. The house seems very special; all these things happen in a seamless way, but in a space that is not incredibly large.
BvB That is a very important part of the design. It’s as if time were seamless, where you can walk into the landscape through morning into the afternoon and then into the evening, and the sound and the light walk with you, or against you. And where you always have what we call the kaleidoscopic fusion of the landscape into the house, which generates the feeling less of living in a house than of living in an environment. And in certain parts of the house, particular furnishings change their purpose. This goes totally against the Modernist model of making a very boxlike system. Flexibility and change are integral to the design: the dining table is also a meeting place for clients, and their working studios can also be used as individual living rooms. So flexibility is organized around very local moments within a seamless configuration.
GDF Would you talk a bit about your Manimal? The image is haunting and a real symbol of your architecture.
BvB I discovered this artist, Daniel Lee. His incredible amalgam of a tiger, a man, and a snake for me elucidates what architecture could become: a fluid hybrid of diverse ingredients. But the most interesting thing is that you can’t distinguish…
GDF One from the other.
BvB You don’t see where the information comes from. It’s an organizing principle that goes way beyond collage. Collage is still a fantastic technique to work with, but it’s totally over-exhausted, especially in architecture. Think about Modernist architecture where you have the floor, the columns and the ceilings, all as separate systems.
GDF You can distinguish various elements in a collage.
BvB Yes, and Postmodern architecture puts fragments together. Working now with digital information yields a new coherence. With Möbius House, for the first time we were able to make constructions where everything, programs and aspects of time, all of these elements that we have always worked with, were now incorporated into a coherent whole and expressed in the one continuing line of the Möbius structure, providing another parallel with the Manimal. Another thing about the Manimal is the almost monstrous effect of the face.
GDF It’s haunting.
BvB A lot of people don’t like it, it’s almost frightening. But in the history of architecture—Renaissance, Baroque—you have this world of paganism, the world of drama and the world of the grotesque. And this is the tension found in the Manimal; it’s so energetic because it exists between animal and man. That’s what architecture needs to do as well—become not a grotesque thing, but something between two worlds. It’s not so much the articulation of form and materials that everyone always talks about, it’s about the energy behind the structure. This is what I mean when I say that the formal qualities are less important than the organization of the building.
GDF Like the soul.
BvB Yes, what you find behind the form, so that you create a tension between the two.
GDF Tell us how you organize your firm and its process. You went from the eponymous van Berkel and Bos to UN Studio.
BvB When we started the firm it was essentially Caroline and myself. But then the bigger we grew—we went over 30, then 40 people—we found that we were losing too much time to management and organizational work and not really focusing on what we were good at. I have always been interested in figuring out how to liberate ideas and produce them without the disturbance of having to occupy your time with the wrong things. You have to develop a conducive setting to work in. After a long discussion with many friends, clients and colleagues, we set up UN Studio as a way to be more flexible with our own capacity, our own quality of work. At least 60 percent of my time I now spend on design. Caroline, too, spends more time writing than ever; we are working on a new book, for instance; it’s coming out in June. Early on, Caroline worked more as a writer and as an art historian; she is now one of the best architects in the office, in the sense that she is very critical and stimulates us to better conceptualize our designs. We do this in internal workshops. Through this working process in the studio, we have discovered that we can actually handle many projects of varying scales. For instance, we are now doing a very big bridge in Spain. And a new museum for Mercedes-Benz, and of course, here in America, we are enlarging the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
GDF You have 60 architects working for you?
BvB We peaked at 58 and are now a bit smaller.
GDF I’ve been to your office, it’s a very international firm with architects from Spain, Germany, America. Is that a part of your philosophy, to incorporate people from different cultures and architectural backgrounds?
BvB Everyone thinks that we did that strategically, but it just happened. Maybe because I studied in England and was living there for several years. I liked traveling a lot when I was younger, and I’ve always thought on an international scale. When I came back to Holland, I never focused on Holland alone.
GDF How does teaching fit into your architectural practice? Currently you are teaching at Princeton, and you’ve taught at other places. Does it inspire you?
BvB I need to teach. I need a few hours in the week to talk to others about architecture. At Princeton, the students are really bright and unbelievably open to experimenting. I have only eight students, so I can build a fantastic dialogue with each of them about how they can develop their own work. Maybe it comes from my personal history; I went to music school for two years to play the piano. And I had this fantastic teacher, he talked about music in the broadest sense and inspired me; music is still very important to me. Through teaching I have discovered that I can put a mirror up to my own work: I can refine it, reformulate it, rethink and sharpen everything through teaching.
GDF One of the things that one always hears about van Berkel and Bos is this ability to be holistic, to listen, to be engaged with the client as well as the site’s environment and a building’s essential function. I’m interested in the level of your engagement, when you are working on a museum and considering its art collection as well as its urban context.
BvB We believe in the total process, not forgetting anything that could be important for the building or the project. This might sound strange, but for me, working with the client is almost as important as designing the space, because it makes the design better. Not because I interpret the client’s ideas in my design, but because that sort of inclusion gets the project to the point where you both believe in it. There’s a shared enthusiasm. Even talking with acoustic people or to someone who can forecast into the future regarding new materials, all these views can sharpen up the energy for the design. It’s no longer possible to be singular in a world where projects have such huge budgets; there’s too much responsibility.
GDF There’s also a lot more expertise to be drawn on. You were telling me about way finders. That’s a concept that I had never thought of, but it’s very interesting that you can consciously plan to lead a visitor in particular ways.
BvB Today, environmental design is extremely important. I work with people who are able to rethink environmental aspects of the design in such a way that we can reduce budgets by 20 percent. Sometimes there is too much technique in a building and it needs to be applied more efficiently. Everything can be optimized—the design, the way you experience the space, what it looks like and how you construct it. My architectural philosophy is to be found somewhere between art and airports. Airports are highly networked, complex, abstract systems that move people, planes and goods, and nobody understands just how complex that is to organize. An airport serves. But art generates meaning, something that’s often forgotten in architecture: Did you look back at it, were you inspired by it, and does it contain multiple meanings or layers of readings? A lot of architecture isn’t doing that, a lot of architecture only serves. In airports, you go from A to B, and maybe you shop along the way, but the meaningful effect that art has is often missing.
GDF I think the airport idea is very interesting.
BvB I believe that architecture should be midway between these aspects of art and airports. Architecture can make an impression on memory, it can contain double readings and it can seduce, like art does.
GDF I noticed in talking to you that this concept of double meaning comes up a lot.
BvB Well, I don’t believe in iconic images. For instance, we just finished a power station in the city of Innsbruck. It has a basalt lava cladding which is dark gray and sometimes seems a bit blue—an unusual material to use for cladding. But lava is porous and refers to the essence of the building, lava is a kind of frozen energy. I like to let people ponder that aspect. What is energy, how do we use it and how is it related to nature? For me, it’s important to bring those double meanings into the project, it makes the user think about function but it’s also very poetic. In literature it’s the same, you can’t build a story with only one story line. There need to be partly overlapping, partly conflicting meanings.
GDF That’s true.
BvB They provide a texture and a kind of referential layer that allows for depth. I believe very much in this aspect of making a complex space rather than making images that communicate only one effect.
GDF If you could choose any project what would be your first choice, a church?
BvB That’s a very difficult question. I’ve had so much luck. I do the projects I’ve always wanted to do. I do public work and that’s what I like.
GDF What’s that wonderful station that you did in Holland for the bridge master? It’s a very pedestrian building, but you turned it into a piece of sculpture.
BvB It’s a very small bridge master’s house. The house is almost a repetition of the bridge itself, when it opens. You come into it over a footbridge, then enter into the construction of the high room where the bridge master sits. It holds itself up in a very simply engineered way, it’s a very simple construction, which is wrapped in corrugated steel. It’s the material that contains the double effects. You come to the building at an angle and you can’t see the transparency, but when you get closer to its front, you see that it is open. There is this play with effects and time-based aspects, which the material relates to. The bridge master was always telling me of Holland’s beautiful yellow and orange skies, and now he has a wonderful room up there where he is behind colored glass. We gave him blue glass, so he sees everything from a different perspective.
GDF You opened up a whole new way of looking at the world.
Ben, how are you going to keep your firm? If it gets to the point where there are too many people working and too many projects, you will lose this very unique approach you have. And even as you explain the streamlining you’ve put in place, overseeing all this must be very time-consuming.
BvB Well, over the last four years, I’ve been critical of the amount of work I do and how we structure ourselves around the work. I’m not so involved anymore in the full process of each design. I like to know the details. People are surprised that I seem to know up to 60 details, all of which I keep in my head, from maybe nine projects that I’m working on. But this is what I’m good at; I always remember the way we have put things together. But I’m more selective now and work on only four or five projects a year. We have Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays for design work, and then I jump, more or less, between different workshops for the projects. I go from one group to the next to see how people are doing, if they are working well together, if they did a variation that I asked them to do. I often ask for variants on a set of details. And when I’m out of the studio, that’s when I can sit back and reflect on my work: when I teach, or when I’m on the plane or the moments when I’m sitting in a hotel—that’s when I sketch, or think or write. I also have a place where I retreat to and paint.
GDF I think your watercolors are beautiful. How do they fit into the Ben van Berkel whole?
BvB I’m now going more public with my free work, as I call it, my sketches and my thoughts on architecture. I do my drawings to stimulate my own thoughts and beliefs in the way one can work with line, colors and textures. Stimulating the idea helps me find something beyond the pragmatics of the profession. In the MATRIX show at the Wadsworth Atheneum (2001), you see the combination of my freehand drawings as well as photographs of the completed architecture. But in a certain way, for me, the drawings are what finish the buildings. The Erasmus Bridge or the museum in Nijmegen are projects that started in ‘90, ’95; there is a history now and that is revealed in the drawings. What’s also interesting is that in manipulating and working with the photographs, I can reveal some of the layers of thought that went into each project.
GDF It means that the building is not finished when it’s finished, you are creating a new dimension by expanding the life of the building inside of your own work.
BvB It finishes the circle.
GDF How does it feel to work in America? You have your first American commission, and it’s a large, challenging one.
BvB It’s different. Communication plays a very important role in America. There is real support for how you make your architecture, a critical architecture, and a freedom in the way one can defend its best qualities. In Europe, sometimes clients will hire an architect and then proceed to do things over themselves. You can have the most terrible situations. In America, there is an interesting respect for the architect that makes it a good place to work. I like it; I always say it’s a better place to work than Holland.
GDF Americans seem more open to new ideas.
BvB Yes. In terms of the Wadsworth Atheneum, the building itself needs to be opened up to the public, and to do that will require restructuring. I think we can do something really exciting for the museum, something that is going to solve all the problems it had in a very fluid way.
GDF You wanted to talk about Caroline, your partner and your wife. Maybe this is the moment.
BvB Caroline kills me when I say this, but she studied law before she studied art history. And that’s an odd combination of being specific and technically very sharp. And her having that background in art history is a wonderful combination, it adds to the way we work together. I’m a writer, and I make my notes, but she’s a fantastic writer. She is the one who makes sure that we are not repeating ourselves and that we have a strong dialogue. I make my notes about the text, then we develop them together; she writes the text, and then I rethink it. It’s the same thing with the architecture. I show her the work I do, she comments on it, and in dialogue we make it better.
—Gabriella De Ferrari is a writer and art historian based in New York. She was the director of the international competition that chose architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos to design the expansion and renovation of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee