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[SPACE] Mar. 2012 (ENG./KOR.) Interview with Ben van Verkel

문화적 산물로서의 건축, 그 연구와 실행

Research and Practice of Architecture as Cultural Product

벤 판 베르켈 x 한은주

Ben van Berkel x Han, Eunju

2011년 12월 중순 「공간」은 벤 판 베르켈에게 2012년 공간국제학생건축상의 심사위원으로 초대하는 글을 보냈다. 그 후 한 달여 남짓 20여 차례의 이메일 교신을 통해 공간국제학생건축상의 주제에 관한 의견을 주고받았다. 이를 바탕으로 1월 27일 한은주 「공간」 편집장은 암스테르담의 벤 판 베르켈과 영상통화를 통해 그의 작업과 연구, 그리고 공간국제학생건축상의 주제에 관한 인터뷰를 진행했다.

Han: I’ve recently seen one of your latest projects, a highrise residential development in Singapore. Looking through diagrams of the project was very impressive. I can see that you use programmatic diagrams to develop spatial organisation. I can find it in your earlier works as well, like Arnhem Central, and the Mercedes-Benz Museum, and even as early as the Mobius House. Could you tell me about your design procedure, please?

Berkel: We are interested in a diagrammatic approach to architecture simply because this methodology reveals unexpected ideas and new possibilities. Sometimes the diagram presents us with multiple layers of information, which are often intertwined. This means that we don’t simply start with a sketch which follows a linear process from the shape, to the building, to the organisation. Instead we experiment with, on the one hand, the logistics of the architecture, such as facilities, utilities or logistics of construction, and, on the other hand, with the aesthetics of architecture, where we sometimes like to experiment with ways in which it is possible to work with diagrams. Diagrams can sometimes simply be inspirational models for real information.

Han: It’s really nice to see your small scale projects as well, such as furniture designs, pavilions, or exhibitions. Not many contemporary architects work on non-building projects. What do you get out of doing these kinds of small-scale, temporary projects? In what way are they meaningful to you?

Berkel: For us small scale projects are very important. I always like to design furniture. I’ve always been interested in furniture design, pavilion design and designing private houses.

These projects sometimes generate ideas which can later be extended to larger scale projects. They not only perform as a testing ground for geometric, material and construction-related considerations, but they are also invaluable when testing ideas on a conceptual level. Or even better, how to combine the two.

The concept for MYchair was based on the principle of reflection, how you reflect or think in a chair and what this reflection means. It relates to the idea of coming home, to having time for yourself, time for reflection. The idea of reflection is similarly found in the design of the chair. The top and lower parts of the chair have a linear articulation of reflection. This concept has also been further expanded in other projects of different scales.

For instance in the lobby space of a theatre, where you reflect back on what you have seen in the theatre as a mutated reality, we have extended this mutated reality into the architecture of the theatre building. The lobby space of the theatre, the foyer, is not as interesting as the theatre hall. It’s an in-between space, an in-between space for reflection: the moment between the fiction of the performance and the reality of you being the observer of this fiction. I see the chair as a similar kind of reflective moment; when you come to a chair and sit down you step into a new form of reality.

So this is one facet of how we work with small scale projects. We play with concepts, rethink them and articulate them and then look at the possible ways in which these ideas can be applied to other projects of various scales. So we don’t think so much in terms of scale at UNStudio. We think more about how our building, our object, our furniture or pavilion can be a cultural thought, more of a cultural product than just the object itself.

Han: I saw your proposal for I’Park City in Suwon, Korea. It was intriguing, especially because I have worked on affordable housing projects myself. How did you liaise with local architects or construction companies?

Berkel: We worked with the client on the many possible ways to reinstate and to rethink prefab facade elements, the organisation of the houses and the process of building. As you know Hyundai have fantastic building processes, so this project is going very fast. They are very efficient and have an enormous amount of knowledge about construction, interior design, everything. They have everything in-house. But we discussed new options and new variations for using particular kinds of design strategies in a more affordable way, but also in such a way that they could be flexible, and could generate a new understanding of how you can - with a smaller budget, maybe even 3~4% of the total building budget - do more than only standard building. So then you get more variation, and the arguments from all sides were that it’s much nicer to go home, to a place that is recognisable, which you can point to and say ‘this is my building, this is where I live’. This is why we used colours in the individual building types. We also used the streets as points of reference. The project is all identified by streets in order to give the feeling ‘this is where I live, this is my street, and this is how to come home, to the home I recognise.’

Many housing projects in Korea are very monotone, very much the same. We wanted to vary this and avoid the monotone.

Han: Is it successful?

Berkel: Very. It was a new experiment for us. I have done some affordable housing in Holland, but I’ve never done affordable housing in other countries. It’s very important to know that affordable housing can have more quality than just the standard quality that you usually find in Korea. When we did the model house of all the different flats, close to the site, we sold 70% of the housing within two weeks. So it was very successful. It’s still very quiet, not so busy yet, I think that only half of the people have moved in, so it will take another two months or so before everyone moves in.

Could you tell me how you feel about Korean regulations for highrise residential developments? Was strict housing regulation in Korea a barrier during your design procedure?

Berkel: No it wasn’t actually. But sometimes I like it even more when the regulations are stricter. Because that presents more challenges. It’s like playing a very difficult chess game. If you have an open brief, sometimes too open, it doesn’t give you enough guidance. I like it sometimes when the client is very clear about what they want.

Han: In what way does Korea differ from European countries in terms of housing developments?

Berkel: The organisation of houses is different. In countries like Korea, China, and perhaps Singapore as well, we discovered that there is an enormous fascination with the bathroom. The bathroom has better views than any of the other rooms. That’s very different to Europe.

We have other ideas, other principles, so the organisation of houses is little bit different. But when it comes down to regulations, even Holland - which is very progressive culturally with more freedom in design, in architecture and in fashion - also has many, many regulations.

Han: I’ve noticed changes on the UNStudio website recently. It is an interesting idea to have 4 divisions of research area. Could you tell me how these different platforms operate and integrate?

Berkel: Lately I’ve become highly interested in the idea that architecture is not purely about building. As I mentioned before, it’s more about producing a cultural product. It’s more than having an image of a building alone. We are not very interested in the image of architecture. We believe very much that you are trained as an architect; I’ve been training now for close to 30 years. So I believe that you should store this knowledge. You do consulting with the knowledge you have developed. With our research platforms, which we call Knowledge Platforms, we store the knowledge we have gained and group it in such a way that it is related to sustainability knowledge, material knowledge, knowledge around different forms of organisation, and knowledge of programmatic developments within the profession. For instance, in Asia, in general, such a development is the new interest in mixed-use programmes. We have also developed new computational design techniques, like parametric design techniques and building information techniques, where we combine programmes. So now we can be very efficient, very compact in our processes. At the same time highly intelligent people are introduced into our collaborations and this whole idea of collaborative knowledge is then also related to the idea of the production of space, so that you make buildings much more intelligent. And that’s how these platforms operate. Everyone in the studio is connected to one of these knowledge platforms.

Han: Contemporary architects retain an ambivalent position towards technological advancement. Many architects are trying to explore the possibilities of architectural evolution by digital technologies. At the same time, others think adoption of digital technologies could undermine the substantiality of architecture, which comes from physicality. Where do you position yourself on this issue?

Berkel: I am also ambivalent about how to handle technology, and very critical. But I am also very critical of architecture which is strongly based purely on structural and material effects alone. That would not be right either in my opinion. That would be to develop architecture for the public that is only related to how it looks, or how it is spatially organised. I’ve investigated recently how we can improve the quality of architecture on many levels. Architecture is broader than before. Before we talked about functionality and the technology of architecture on the one hand, but on the other hand about the aesthetics of architecture. Now I think this has expanded much more, so now we can talk about fashion, product design, art, movie scenarios etc. Architecture can now flirt with all these other disciplines as well. The whole cultural aspect of design has really grown. I would say the same about technology.

I’ve been trying new forms and new materials, new ways of bringing installations into the buildings. For instance, we use a lot of techniques used in hospitals in our latest office or residential buildings, because these techniques produce much healthier buildings. One example is a system we used to ensure clean air circulation in an office building we recently completed in the Netherlands. A high pressure ventilation system

in the floor sends air upwards where it is then extracted through the ceiling, so it no longer circulates around the spaces spreading bacteria. This creates a condition where you can step into the building but still feel as though you are outside. So these forms of technology are, in my opinion, also developments which we are responsible for bringing into architecture on a wider scale.

I’ve tried to deal with expanding the profession. Maybe it’s not so easy to say where the expectation and personality of the technology is to be found in architecture anymore. I don’t mind if someone says that a building looks more like art. Later they can discover that it is a very healthy building, that particular conditions have been created. Then it’s not art. So it remains ambiguous.

My work is not so easy to qualify in one simple term or typology, to say that this is a shopping centre, or this is housing alone, so it’s very ambivalent and paradoxical. I like it that you can discover a lot in the work. You might discover more technology, you might also discover certain aesthetic qualities that you didn’t expect when you first came to the building.

Han: Is what you say also related to ‘aesthetics of reception’(Rezeptionsästhetik)? Do you pursue these types of spaces?

Berkel: Yes. Spaces do get far deeper and have multiple interpretations of experience, like the new Galleria project that we did in Cheonan. A lot of people, when they come into the building and look into the atrium, often think that it looks more like a museum. The products that are on sale in the building look like art. You also get the sense of being very pleasantly present. It’s almost like you become part of the products, in the sense that you also get attention, the public also get attention, not just the building alone. You feel much more appreciated when you come to places like this. And that’s very much the effect I’m looking to create. I also like to create effects of perception. When you come into the building, in the beginning you think it’s really high and when you glance up, sometimes you think it’s 4-storeys, sometimes you think it’s 12-storeys, so this illusionary layered effect of the building gives you all kinds of different interpretations. And that’s what I believe in, that you have to enrich architecture rather than making it more simple.

Han: In a lecture recently, you mentioned that the object of architecture may not be so important in the near future. How do you think architecture will evolve in the near future?

Berkel: Maybe I explained a little bit already that the object of architecture IS important. But the most important issue is what architecture can do. I see architecture at the moment as a means to communicate and to operate: highly organic and highly adaptive. The facade of the Galleria in Cheonan is almost like a piece of art. Every day it can have another screen, so it’s a layered effect. It’s not so easy to grasp the building, it almost slips out of your fingers. You want to understand it, but you don’t get it so quickly. And that is, in my opinion, the future of architecture; we can give buildings more meaning, more understanding, more different qualities than, let’s say, only one typological argument.

I am very excited to have you as sole judge of the ‘SPACE International Student Competition’ this year.

I like that the way you are going about this competition. It’s interesting to be part of this. I like it also that young talent is recognised. I believe that today it’s much more stimulating to be promoted by people like you. You give more prizes, you introduce this competition so that new talent can flourish, and they can be recognised. Because today there are not so many platforms, for students or young architects, for architects in general in fact, to celebrate research. Like you said about my own research, I always teach, I always try very hard to do my own research. So this is a wonderful opportunity for everyone to enjoy this aspect of research. So I’m happy to be part of this.

Han: What is your topic of the ‘SPACE International Student Competition’ this year?

Berkel: It’s important for me to work with designing for the new, inventive economy. This is related to my belief that if you look now at all the new upcoming companies, new internet tendencies and all the social internet sites, that you see that this system is so new that it doesn't have any historical connection to the classical industrial model of how the democratic organisation of the economy has operated up to now . It is a whole new system. Today if you want to borrow money, you can even go to Facebook. These are new ideas.

So now I’m questioning this whole idea of how is it possible to find new ways to deal with these new upcoming organisations. What will they do to our society in 10 years time? How can architecture be inspired by these companies and how they are organised? I think it will possibly give new inspirational ideas for architecture on many levels. How architecture can be organised, how we will work, how we will travel? These are the things that will expand and will affect the future of how we produce architecture.

Han: Could you provide any reference?

Berkel: It’s important to research which are the hippest, most contemporary companies, which are the most active, new and upcoming web 3.0 companies and how are they organised. I often look to the ideas of the organisation of these companies. Their systems. I have this whole idea about the systematic aspect of these organisations and how you can instrumentalise this and turn it into an apparatus for architecture. What will this apparatus for architecture mean in 20, 30, or 40 years time when it comes down to this vision of the inventive economy? I believe you can find secrets here.

Han: Why did you choose that topic?

Berkel: Because it’s future-oriented. It’s like the iPhone. When I first saw it, I thought it was just a little radio. I didn’t know what it was. I saw it very early, in the first week that it came out. Today we believe that architecture is only connected to history. This is good, architecture has a beautiful history; but we must always work on a future for architecture.


Ben van Berkel studied architecture at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and awarded AA Diploma with Honours at the Architectural Association in London in 1987. He set up the Van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau with Caroline Bos in 1988. In 1998 Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos established a new firm, UNStudio. Currently he is Professor Conceptual Design at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt and was awarded the Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor's Chair at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Han, Eunju is an architect and innovation designer interested in the interaction between humans and the built environment revealed by trans-disciplinary approaches. She has recently been investigating locative interaction in urban space through telecommunicative intervention at the Royal College of Art in London and conducting a number of related architecture and design projects. She is currently editor-in-chief of SPACE Magazine.

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