August 2, 2014

UNStudio, founded in 1988 by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, is a Dutch architectural design studio specializing in architecture, urban development and infrastructural projects. The name, UNStudio, stands for United Network Studio, referring to the collaborative nature of the practice. In 2009 UNStudio Asia was established, with its first office located in Shanghai, China. UNStudio Asia is a full daughter of UNStudio and is intricately connected to UNStudio Amsterdam. Initially serving to facilitate the design process for the Raffles City project in Hangzhou, UNStudio Asia has expanded into a full-service design office with a multinational team of all-round and specialist architects.

How has the architects role been in the past, and how has it changed now and how do you see it shaping in the future

Architects used to deal far more with formulating the design, talking to the clients, doing the drawings themselves and were referred to as the “master builder” because of the multiplicity of roles they used to play. But now this role has changed because the profession has expanded. Future architects have to develop newer concepts and find ways to understand how to be a specialist. The role of the architect has also changed along with the changing demands  of the client and that of public investors. Before, the Mayor would say to the architect to build the city and ONE architect would do the whole thing, but now that has changed.

In the recent past you have been talking about Interactive Knowledge Platforms. Where or how does it help you in the practice. Pls elaborate.

The key for the knowledge platforms is in finding new methods of introducing specialists into the organization who can be more than an architect or more than an artist – probably a scientist. I see myself as working on cultural effects in architecture or concentrating on new scientific advancements. The platforms are also discussion fora and a potpourri of ideas between different disciplines about how to experiment more and generate new ideas. So everybody who joins the office can experiment and move across platforms to choose their specialization as they work on progressive projects. This helps the team to act and react more than just as architects

So is that going to be an open platform where you are going to encourage people from outside in getting involved in the process of developing something within the office or is it going to be a completely introverted process.

To start with for now there are four platforms for knowledge sharing within the organization. We have now made a first step and I think it’s going to take another 2 years or so before we can truly work on how we can slowly connect this to the outside world.  Such as making connections with the academic world, or other interested designers, or people who are interested in top level research into new materials and how they can influence design. The platforms also explore ways to understand how communication can be improved. Issues on internal operational structures are also being discussed now: so how we share knowledge and also how we archive it for the others to benefit. We will soon be sharing a research that we had done at Harvard University for instance.

Architectural education is the other passion you have, how do you think the Architectural educational scenario is right now, is it in the right path or does it need to be tweaked, your views on it.

Doing research and working with students is very exciting at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt because these students are already architects and are pursuing their post graduates. They are eager to learn and are competent and open to exploring new methods, that’s what I like. We try to move away from the traditional ways of teaching and instead to discuss the tools and the techniques of design and the methods of thinking, which in a way enrich their ideas and reflect directly on the concept and the design itself.

Which of the unfinished work is close to your heart and have really felt yes this should have got built.

The Business School for Columbia University in New York is one un-built project that is important to us.  Though un-built we did project some of these ideas onto other projects so then these ideas do get built anyway. I always use the advantage of the things that I can’t build for other projects

With offices in Amsterdam & Shanghai and working on projects around the world. Is there a cultural angle to design that you incorporate or do your projects showcase a culture of its own.

We have a very prominent central group of people that have been at UN Studio for may be 10 or 15 years and they are a group of close to 20 people. They have grown with me in the company and know the protocols and the processes and they are the ones that work on location. The Associate Director in charge of our Shanghai office was also the project architect for the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, so he understands the whole building experience and can delegate very well to other designers. We talk over skype and discuss projects so that I can see and control the quality also. I don’t want to make the mistake of many of the offices that have branch offices separate from their central one and therefore are not able to maintain quality. We try to avoid that as much as possible. Speaking of culture in our design we have evolved a certain ideology which is reflected in our designs.

When you were a small practice your involvement into the design is a lot more, you put in a lot of your time into the design itself; now after so many years and wide range of projects. I believe it is not practical for you to put in so much of involvement into every design that your office does, which is why you have people working for you & who can in a way relate & transpose your philosophy. Even in this case there should have been an evolution from when you have done it individually & when you have done it 10 years later & how you are doing it now. There would be a transformation in the way the philosophy of the practice is evolving and as a top man you would be able to sense this change & how do you think this change has happened, what do you think is the evolution of UN Studios 15 years back & now

We have moved from a network organization towards a knowledge based organization so we now have so much expertise that I talk about ‘trained judgment’. In my team if you have built 6 to 7 projects, then you are trained. The key element of the changes that have taken place over the last 10 to 15 years is that before we followed just the 4 wall aspects of architecture, where we wanted to know everything about materials; we wanted to know everything about how far we could stretch complex geometrical forms in architecture – so we stretch till the top of the most complex boundaries., But that is not what we do anymore now. Today, the future of architecture needs to be smarter, much more intelligent and responsive. So that’s where you can see the changes happening in our profession and we of course try to adjust ourselves to that.

How do you see UNStudio growing in the next 10 years, what direction or what are the things we can expect in terms of the kind of research you have been doing & the kind of buildings you will come up with? Do you forecast your own work, involving your practice?

Yes I make plans. But of course I also follow a little bit the unexpected aspects of it as well. So it gets very interesting when a client comes up with crazy ideas for a particular building, as that means that sometimes my vision and that of the client can work together. I am not going to tell you everything (laughs) but I make plans also for  the future, so I think we know where we are heading now. But we still may have to make a few adjustments during the process before I can disclose our ideas. But yes, I always make plans, 5 year plans, 10 year plans etc.

So do you also try & translate this into the education stream as well, when you meet students, do you talk about your dreams?

Yes I try; I tell architects now that we will come into a phase were we will have to invent our own projects. Now we are still working for clients who are still operating within the old economy. Don’t forget they still work the way they used to 10 years ago. But the economy in Europe and the West has not been working very well so that is why all these new startup companies divert to set up their own kind of models of working and I am very fascinated with that idea. I think that’s the way the future will be and probably clients will work with us or collaborate with us in order to invent in architecture.

Designing for Sociality is a research project on retail. We understand it is an ongoing research. But to the extent that it has proceeded how do you envision retail spaces of the future.

If you look at the statistics, it is shocking, how many people shop online and that number will increase far more quickly than we expect. But that does not mean that we will not have any more retail experience or will not be physically shopping any more. But the culture of entertainment around the public life of the retail experience is definitely going to change. That’s why I thought that new retail spaces will be those that play with references towards the theater, or museums.  I am interested in the idea that these projects relate to new kinds of public life. But they need to be connected to the new forms of communication as well.

So that’s going to have a direct impact on the spaces that we come up with for both public gathering and social interaction.

Exactly …..Exactly..

Some advice for students.

Rethink the role of architecture and make sure that you keep developing your own personal talent, because architecture is a collaborative profession with a lot of challenges.

Favorite contemporary architect.

I don’t have one favorite architect.

A young practice that would make an impact in the next 10 years.

I have to be very careful with that because I like so many young practices right now and I have always liked so many different aspects of their practices. But I am very careful to avoid mentioning names because I might get into trouble with the other architects because they are all my friends (laugh, laugh!).




Photo Credits: Inga Powilleit, Christian Richters, Tim Franco.

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