As a practice that prides itself on impacting on, but also extending beyond, architecture, the Dutch practice UNStudio has long had a resolute approach to the architectural discipline that stressed the importance of research and testing. What started as an art historian-architect collaboration between Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos 24 years ago has eloquently morphed into a practice that relies on its self-imposed ‘platforms’. While many themes radiate – a fascination with such notions as inbetween, objectivity and design models – the ideological understanding of the architect’s role fluctuates from the craftsmanship of arts-driven persuasions to the methodological principles of science.
When referencing projects in UNStudio’s practical portfolio – be it the Möbius House (1993), with its soothing angular form, large-span glazing and provocative cantilever; the VilLA NM (2000), which exemplifies a gradual progression towards more fluid forms and subtle facade twists; the New Amsterdam Plein & Pavilion (2011), where the biomorphic folds contort the full formal gestures of the building; or Raffles City (scheduled completion 2014), an implausibly large, mixed-use development project with sweeping geometric forms that emphasise a computational facade treatment – what becomes palpable is that an aesthetic sensibility continues conjunction to a recurring theoretical position. UNStudio’s ideological framework remains in refreshing flux.
When talking to van Berkel, what becomes apparent is that the practice functions as a research-based entity. The studio operates under four specific research platforms that feed into its built work. They are categorised as ASP (architectural sustainability platform), IOP (innovative organisations olatform), SPP (smart parameters platform) and IMP (inventive materials platform). Such research categorisations have made UNStudio one of the forerunners in technological advancement in architecture. Indeed, van Berkel was recently invited to become part of Gehry Technologies, an alliance founded by Frank Gehry that strives to apply innovative solutions to current or continuing architectural problems.
The group represents a new type of professional organisation that heroically attempts to empower design. In UNStudio, van Berkel alludes to the analogy that the office is spatially arranged and formatted akin to a science lab, whereby its built projects are the result of much research and testing from inside the ‘lab’.
‘We see these platforms as communities,’ says van Berkel. ‘When someone joins the office you are not a draftsman anymore – in the space of a year you can find out for yourself which platform you would like to belong to. It is all about how you gain knowledge and how you share it; the practice is used in order to educate yourself, so we educate ourselves continually through these platforms. Every two weeks, for example, we have an external consultant come in and give a lecture. This experiment came out of my own interest in science after I studied how science labs operate.’
Where research impinges on the architectural production is most notable in the studio’s recurring association with the pavilion, a typology that seems to hold great importance, oscillating through the lifespan offering a regular juncture for experimentation: ‘I’ve enjoyed the pavilions work,’ enthuses van Berkel. ‘They were an extension of earlier work on the diagrams in essays with Caroline [Bos] on the phenomenon of the “design models”. This is where they [begin to] work as a model of thinking, not as a pavilion.’ At the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, UNStudio exhibited The Changing Room, a pavilion that seems to emblemise the ‘design models’ concept where they combine the ideology of their new type of practice into a real-life model.
The pavilion as a typology allows UNStudio to begin to morph its theoretical musings into practice. The Changing Room (2008) at the Venice Biennale offered the opportunity for visitors to become voyeuristic, offering a multiplicity of views simultaneously. Similarly, at the Burnham Pavilion, Chicago (2009), the contortion of rigid geometry at specific locations created a multidirectional space that continually oriented itself to the city providing myriad urban vistas. It offered a different perspective of the city, under the premise of objectivity, allowing for continual urban transformation.
‘Like I said before, we had this simple duality between functionality and aesthetics, which is now stretching itself out. I like the idea that you can learn from the way scientists speculate. It is a sort of mechanical system that develops itself; a game between the subjective and the objective. But in this there is always the influence of translating techniques, how you transform, translate, discover and innovate. For me this is key.
UNStudio’s design integrates mixed-use retail, office and hospitality facilities in an urban context. The design of the towers – in relation to the urban element – strives to act as a landscape component that incorporates and consolidates apparently separate elements through one formal gesture. With plans due to be realised this year, the project represents a significant moment for UNStudio on a global scale.
China has recently offered UNStudio the opportunity to develop its research-based production on a grand scale, facilitating and cultivating architectural discourse as opposed to merely Western simulacra: ‘I noticed that in China there is a will to set up a dialogue from which they can learn, not purely through copying anymore,’ says van Berkel. ‘The bigger brands are now much more celebrated in China, maybe because the population is becoming more wealthy and they can accept such change, but also there is a new interest in gaining or being able to participate in exchange models.