Ben, let’s have a brief throwback to 2020 before talking about the present and the future of our cities. Are there any kind of ‘learnings’ you draw from this outstanding year from an architect’s point of view?
Actually, we can learn a lot from the last year and the ongoing situation which has been difficult for a lot of people all over the world. All of us have to cope with sudden changes, for instance with curfews, such as we have in the Netherlands right now, prohibiting us from being on the streets after 9 o’clock in the evening. As a result, we suddenly notice how much public space we are actually surrounded by, as well as how calm and peaceful the city can become. In Amsterdam for instance, millions of tourists are usually strolling through the streets and the city has reached the point of being too dense. Similarly, we know several other cities that are being consumed too much by tourism. The problem: Within such a surrounding you are not able to create stable communities or attractive city neighborhoods. The Corona crisis has initiated the growth of our consciousness for community, solidarity, common ground and the need to take care of each other. These are really positive developments or ‘learnings’. In my opinion, we should think about new concepts of control supporting these aspects and helping to relieve overcrowded cities. Cities belong to their inhabitants and not to Airbnb guests. When talking about lively neighborhoods, we should also bring back the green in public spaces, think of less cars in city centers and more electric driven vehicles, less parking spaces, and ringroads being developed into elegant streets like the boulevards in Paris.
Long before the Corona pandemic, you already talked about the urgency of setting a focus on topics such as ‘health’ in urban planning. What kind of aspects do you mean by that? Do you even think we could have been better prepared for a pandemic situation?
Yes and no. Corona is a big shock for our society. You can easily say we could have been better prepared but at some point, it is really difficult to look back and say what we REALLY could have done better. However, we will hopefully be better prepared for the next time. At UNStudio, we have defined three ‘layers’ of health: physical health, social health and mental health. Physical health is all about how you can activate people better in cities which is of greater importance nowadays when talking about our immune systems. If you consider the usage of elevators, for instance, you can hide them within buildings so that people rather take the stairs voluntarily. Within this context, we also begin to turn fire staircases into normal staircases with the result that people in highrise buildings use them to get easily from one floor to the other floor. This is just one strategy to activate people and to enhance social interaction. Social health is another ‘layer’: It is all about bringing people better together as mentioned above. We have to ask how we can enrich neighborhoods so that people can easily communicate with each other. To integrate top- ics such as sustainability within neighborhoods might be helpful because they probably initiate discussions among neighbors and how they can use and share energy. In the south of Holland we already combined these three layers of health in our Brainport Smart District project.The most important step towards such a development is to stop monofunctional city planning.
For a pretty long time, we have already been talking about concepts such as the smart city, the sustainable city etc. However, you once said we should primarily think about how cities become more resilient. Are there any ‘essentials’ that might help to reach that goal? And is it even possible to reach that goal since cities are naturally constantly changing?
You are totally right – a city is changing all of the time and you cannot reach the point of full control over it. This is actually a good thing! A city should always be an organic system, let us say an evolution of life and of the people who live there. With regard to your question about smart cities, many of our clients say: “Ben, can you please design us a smart city or a smart neighborhood?” And I usually ask back: “Do you know what a smart city really means?” And this is basically the problem: We do not have an exact definition of ‘the’ smart city. Some people think it is about efficiency – that you can better control your traffic etc. However, this is not the per- spective we follow at UNStudio. If we think about technologies, we like to use them as tools to help and support people to live a better and healthier life, i.e. forms of communication tools or service tools, which are obviously really helpful during the pandemic since lots of us have to stay at home. But we believe technology should support analog qualities! When it comes to ‘essentials’, namely what we need in our cities, it is all about good things: we all want to live in a better environment, in a better sustainable city, with less air pollution and energy consumption and the possibility to produce energy. We wish for better mobility as well as healthier food. All these qualities are essential – they are actually the drive of our cities.
Right from the beginning of your career as an architect you have not only concentrated on architectural form but also on its uses. Nevertheless, all of your projects speak a spectacular architecture language. How does UNStudio find the correct balance between ‘artistic external appearance’ and ‘reasonable use of space’?
This is a good question that I cannot answer. I think I always have certain images in my mind that maybe come from the endless number of books I had been reading long before I finally became an architect. I have always been interested in where architecture actually stems from; whether from art or utility. And I always believed that art, like architecture, should have a certain form. What I like most about architecture is that there is a kind of ‘uncontrolled dimension’ and this also holds true for art. On the other side of architecture, you have the classical, well-structured engineering, the technical parts, regulations etc. Throughout my life, I have continued to paint, read a lot of books about the arts and listened to music. I simply like ‘good art’ and I want architecture also to have many ‘layers’, i.e. many readings and experiences – so that you like to come back to it as you like to come back to a good book or a good movie; and that you never fully grasp what there is actually to be found in the space you designed. Additionally, you have to make sure that it is comfortable and highly functional as well as very smartly put together. The better you organize your building structure, the more space and financial resources you will have for the design qualities.
UNStudio does not only develop new attractive mixed-used buildings. Restructuring and repurposing existing ones has also become an integral part of your architectural practice. What is the underlying motivation?
What I like about repurposing is that you discover different forms of conserving. Out of existing buildings, you can take the best parts. I strongly support a circular approach because it has a relevant effect on CO2 emission reduction. If you take a look on our Hanwha HQ building in South Korea, it looks totally new while the repurposing process was not too time-consuming at all. Lately, we also finished our repurpose project in Eindhoven, 18 Septemberplein which also gives the impression of being a brandnew building. Reducing the carbon footprint due to the usage of new innovative materials etc. is a good thing, but extending the lifespan of a building is also very effective. This holds especially true when it comes to governmental buildings: Lots of government bodies ask us to do circular projects because – as politicians – they stand for and want to support circularity and sustainability. Companies do the same. They do not want a standard building anymore but one with a circular approach. In my opinion, lots of architects do not do enough testing of what we can actually do with existing buildings. In fact, we can do much more than we think – and I personally always love a good challenge.
Next to environmental issues, also the scarcity of space requires new concepts when it comes to city planning and questions of densification. You are currently working on the VAN B project in Munich which seems to be a new landmark in innovative housing in Germany. It is said to be the ‘kick-off of new urban living’. What is so special about this project?
On the one hand, the new micro living concept brings more young professionals to the heart of the city who do not want to live with five people in a small house anymore but usually cannot afford to live on their own in the city centre. On the other hand, the architecture in Van B concentrates on horizontal rather than vertical densification which is also very unique. Additionally, what is also very beautiful is that we make these Dutch inspired ground floor spaces which mix indoor and outdoor zones and literally bring your living room onto the street. Within the building, our room program brings a lot of flexibility to each apartment: Even though you may have an apartment which is quite compact, thanks to its flexible furniture you can slide away different modular elements and suddenly you have a two-bedroom apartment; a place to work etc. And since you can fold it away, you could even end up with one big room. These highly flexible different configuration possibilities are totally new.
It seems like new housing concepts are of even greater importance since the Corona crisis because people have to work in home offices and re-arrange their private and business life at home. Do you think we are probably at the point of a new era when it comes to housing concepts?
I agree with you. It is coincidental that all this is happening right now, because we had already arrived at that point two years ago, when we started designing Van B. The fact that everything in this project is so flexible makes it a very pleasant place to work and a nice place to live. And do not forget the shared space, because that is what I have mentioned before: Communal and interactive spaces on the ground floor enable you to live more compactly but without a lack of amenities. That is basically the other very new idea of the project: The building supports the idea of living in an attractive, healthy, lively community – a pleasant neighborhood.
From a German point of view Dutch people seem to be more open when it comes to living spaces or types of housing. Do you notice a comparable turnaround in Germany which might be initiated by the Corona pandemic?
You can definitely observe a shift in Germany which started before Corona. But the aspect of loyalty is something that I notice in many places in Europe: People understand that we have to see each other a little bit more to make sure that everybody is fine in our neighborhood. Look at the amount of people who are alone at the moment! This is shocking! If you think about what we just discussed about health, we should think about much more interaction in our urban neighborhoods. What I noticed especially in Germany is that the further south you go, the easier and the earlier people go outside on the streets.
Independent from the current situation, UNStudio puts emphasis on humancentric approaches. Do you think it becomes even more essential to put people back in the foreground when we are primarily living in a world surrounded by digitalization and new technologies?
Let us put it this way: The beauty of technology is that we come closer to people. Despite how virtual and difficult the ‘right use’ sometimes appears, we continuously learn how useful it can be. One essential fact is that you can better understand how cities are used with the help of such tools. For instance, you can observe where students or residents are or where people work. In terms of our deep planning, you can see where people use what kind of public spaces, and what they are doing depending on the time of the day or throughout the week. This is also called clockwise planning and it answers questions such as: “Do we plan efficiently in terms of sustainability, energy, mobility, good life quality and so on?” Technology actually offers us the chance to get to know cities better than ever before, and we can use our creativity to reinterpret these phenomena into new ideas and organizational systems.
Of course. At the beginning, we had to cope with a lot of discussions concerning data protection but we started the project with a lot of top specialists. Afterwards, even politicians from The Hague asked us to talk about our project. By now, we are supported by ministers as well. Our 100 Homes project proves that it’s possible to keep the data within the community and not send it to bigger companies. For instance, the financial world is already working with blockchains. But the most important observation is that you can use technology in order to support a better life for people living in a ‘smarter community’.
If you look at all these aspects and developments: How has the role of the architect changed over the last decade because of these enormous influences?
I think architects have turned into – what I call – public scientists. We still think about functional and aesthetical aspects of buildings but the whole field of technology has led to an expansion of our profession, which is really interesting and challenging.
Last question: Imagine your ideal future city. What does it look like? What are the ‘essentials’ to take up our title again?
That is a difficult question! I do believe that the future city will be more interactive, more social and greener, with less cars. It will need more flexibility with different program mixes which can be re-organized very easily. Questions of flexibility combined with questions of resilience will be important essentials in city planning. Additionally, I strongly believe that our planning will be more humancentric – and this will finally define the beauty of our future cities.
Thank you very much for this deep insight into your work.
BEN VAN BERKEL
studied architecture at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and at the Architectural Association in London, receiving the AA Diploma with Honours in 1987. In 1988 he and Caroline Bos set up UNStudio in Amsterdam and in 2018 UNSense, an Arch Tech company that designs and integrates human-centric tech solutions for the built environment. He has lectured and taught at many architectural schools around the world. Additionally, he is a member of the Taskforce Team / Advisory Board Construction Industry for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.