The Dutch UNStudio co-founder and designer of the Erasmus Bridge decided to be an architect 'on the spot' when he first saw the Katsura Imperial Villa in Japan aged 21
Ben van Berkel, 66, studied at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and the Architectural Association in London before co-founding Van Berkel & Bos (1988) and UNStudio (1998), both with Caroline Bos.
Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect?
I have no regrets - I really love the profession. At art school in Holland, we had an interdisciplinary group of teachers and it was easy to move around across product design, exhibitions, furniture, interiors and architecture. I spent a lot of my time in the Fine Art department. Then I became more and more interested in architecture and I also travelled a lot to see architecture. When I was 21, I went to Japan and saw the Katsura Imperial Villa. I decided on the spot to be an architect. It’s a beautiful place and I was fascinated by the influence that Japanese architecture had on architects like Frank Lloyd Wright.
You’ve built an international practice and have taught extensively. What has given you the most satisfaction in your work as an architect?
I most like working with other people to bring knowledge together and maybe steer it in a particular direction. I’m quite an open designer. I like working with people and I don’t mind challenging myself with difficult issues. I like to think I’m a good troubleshooter.
Looking back, what do you regard as your breakthrough projects?
I was only 34 when we won a major project in Rotterdam for the Erasmus Bridge (1996). There were others, like the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart (2006), which was a big international project. After that, we gained an enormous amount of international work. But others may have a different view - some students have said it was books such as Move [with Caroline Bos], which was really a manifesto for how UNStudio came about. A breakthrough project that isn’t built yet is the ‘Green Spine’ (STH BNK by Beulah) proposed in Melbourne. Sometimes the breakthrough isn’t as obvious as a building, but is instead about an approach, a way of working.
What buildings are you most proud of so far?
I’m proud of all the things I do. Certain projects have an advantage in that many ambitions that you may have had for years can suddenly come together in one building. I constantly change how I appreciate my own work. I look back a lot, but I love to look forwards too. I like to be 10 years ahead of everyone else.
Who or what have been your biggest influences and/or collaborations?
My fascination goes from art to science to literature to music. I love to get a new and unpredictable view on things. If someone comes up with a new way of thinking, then I really like to go into it intensely. I’m currently interested in the life and work of Thomas Mann. I read The Magician [Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of Mann] and it inspired me to delve deep and compare that with other biographies about his life.
What have been the biggest obstacles to overcome?
How to run a company. When I think about my own architectural education, I was not well educated on corporate financing and the operations side of things, but we are now a practice of 300 people in six locations. Over the past 35 years, the amount of time I’ve been able to have for creativity and inspiration as opposed to the operational side of things has varied. Sometimes it’s been 50:50, but currently I’m in a much better place of 80:20.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Never! I’ve no desire to stop. My best time is still to come.
What changes have you experienced in the role of the architect over your time in practice?
Many things - paper to computer, the digitalisation of architecture, BIM (Building Information Modelling), the emphasis on sustainability… I’m always interested in new tools. I was educated on paper, but I use computer technology, even AI.
Have these made it easier, or harder, to get high quality buildings built compared with when you first started out?
Easier as it's much more efficient. For instance, with BIM you can now work in federated 3D models. This means that all the consultants working on the design can make changes in real time and the model will instantly flag any conflicts. This mitigates risks during construction and speeds up the whole process. But you can also now feed in so much information related to materials and carbon footprints, so BIM is also really important for the progress of circular design. It also makes the choice of materials easier, as you can analyse which combinations work best based on the various possible analyses. But in the early years, parametric design also had a huge impact in terms of being able to test different geometric approaches to a design. It really changed so much about the design process. In a way, AI is starting to do that now also.
Do you think the profession was too slow to grasp the need to design more sustainably?
It may have appeared to be slow, but in fact architects were doing all they could do with passive design strategies from a very early stage. The problem was that it takes all parties to be on-board, principally because of the costs involved. New regulations and certification systems helped in the beginning, along with financial incentives and governmental policies. But it really wasn’t until recently, when ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) became so important to investors, that things really took a turn for the better. But we are ready and I believe things are really going to speed up now. Finally.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently over the course of your career so far?
No - I’ve no regrets. I’m someone who believes in ‘cooking’ time - I’m quite a patient person. I believe that everything will come together eventually.
What more would you still like to achieve?
I like designing infrastructure and wish I could do more airports and transport - railway stations in particular because of what they can contribute to the city and because they promote sustainable transport.
We’ve just won the competition for the Madrid-Chamartín Station – as well as a station it will be an urban hub and will be part of the city in the way that some of the wonderful stations of the past have been.
We’ve just finished the Echo Building in Delft. This is very much a prototype for where we’d like to go in the next few years, the door to the future. It’s an interdisciplinary faculty building that is energy-producing and designed to promote social, mental and physical health.
To see more reflections on architectural careers see ribaj.com/hindsight