Ben van Berkel: “I want an architecture that generates a cultural effect” 03.03.16

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The UNStudio founder talks to Debika Ray about Arnhem Centraal station and why architecture can still shape our way of life

Opening to the public in November last year, UNStudio’s vast transfer terminal in Arnhem forms the centrepiece of the practice’s 20-year masterplan to overhaul the Dutch city’s main transport interchange. Covered by a dramatic undulating roof that blurs the boundaries between inside and out, the project is expected to establish Arnhem as a major node between the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. The practice’s founder Ben van Berkel told Icon more about the project, and how it fits into his wider practice.

ICON You have been involved in the Arnhem masterplan since 1996, designing several elements of this large-scale infrastructure scheme. What are the challenges of working on such long-term and highly visible projects?

BEN VAN BERKEL The most important thing is to find some kind of continuity – I’ve tried hard to find people who will be there for the long term and to make sure the project is well documented. As time passes, a city’s mayor might change and then all of a sudden there are arguments that might affect your project, but if there is continuity within it you can still save your early vision. Another difficulty is the constraints that come up over the lifetime of the project. For example, after the financial crisis it was hard to find some contractors. An advantage of having so much time is that you can test the more challenging elements of the design. For example, we tested the twist in the middle of the transfer hall on our music theatre in Graz. One of the biggest changes was the move from a concrete to a steel structure. I had already done this on the Erasmus bridge in Rotterdam and that was such a positive experience, as it meant we could make the bridge much more elegant and sharp. Similarly, on Arnhem, using steel meant we could make bigger spans and build faster.

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ICON When talking about UNStudio, you often emphasise the value of multidisciplinary, collaborative working. That must be particularly crucial on projects like this, with so many actors?

BvB Clients don’t come to the table alone on projects of this scale – they bring their own advisers, sometimes even design advisers. I am interested in how different design disciplines can learn from each other. My friends in fashion, art or music, for example, tell me about the techniques they work with – whether it’s 3D printing or new computer programs – and this can help you find other ways of solving problems. UNStudio is a network of collaborators, exchanging knowledge at all levels in order to make a project more intelligent.

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ICON Your first UK project, the Canaletto residential tower on London’s City Road, has also recently completed. In relation to this, you’ve referenced the Smithsons’ concepts of “neighbourhoods in sky”. Could you explain how that works in a luxury development like this?

BvB I am interested in how you create new forms of community in vertical structures. We tried to think of amenities that would create a form of social cohesion for the residents of the building, which is quite unusual in high-end apartments. So the people who live there can meet in the club, the gym, the cafe or the cinema. I picked up something of that ambition from the Smithsons, but tried to bring it to a new level.

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ICON But how do you envisage Canaletto’s relationship with the surrounding area?

BvB I hope we’ve communicated through the building’s looks that it is a residential development, and not an office, which I think will attract a contemporary form of social cohesion. In London, developers have to build an element of affordable housing next to such buildings, but I don’t think that’s the most important part of what you can do to the social environment around a new structure.

The most important thing is to create a form of life in the city. That’s why we built a restaurant and cafe on the ground floor, so that after 7pm the area doesn’t feel desolate or unsafe. That’s something that needs to be solved in many parts of London.

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ICON How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to architecture?

BvB I am very interested in how and why we organise life – why do we live and work differently to how we did five years ago?

I am most fascinated by public constructs, places where people come together – infrastructure projects, theatres, airports. How can architecture bring people and events together in a beautiful and interesting way? I haven’t designed a full airport yet, so I hope to do that one day. Or an opera house – I love opera. I don’t want to talk about aesthetics – rather, I want an architecture that generates a particular cultural effect, where people who’ve been in your building want to come back to better understand it. To do that well, you need to bring more layers to your work, so people have more to discover.

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ICON Why are you reluctant to talk about aesthetics? Do you feel there is too much focus on the “iconic” in an effort to make a public impact?

BvB Icons don’t just exist – they grow over time. Of course you have to have talent to design an iconographic building, but this needs to come not only from its image but rather what I call the “after-image” of architecture – when people have left a building and want to talk about and go back to it, like a book you want to re-read. Architects often think they have less influence than they used to, but architecture projects are highly public – for example with Canaletto, everyone sees it, it’s published, it’s talked about. I think architects need to talk more about their work and be open, make better contact with the public and learn from critique.

This article first appeared in Icon 154




Debika Ray


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