Ben van Berkel
co-founder and principal architect UNStudio
& Professor at the Städelschule Frankfurt am Main

by Christa van Vlodrop

1. Background

Born in Utrecht. Studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, then at the Architectural Association in London. Along with Caroline Bos we founded the architecture office van Berkel and Bos in 1988. A new office was set up in 1998: UNStudio (United Net), a network of specialists in architecture, urban planning and infrastructure.

2. Why are you fascinated with
architecture / urban development?

Unknowingly the fascination was already there at a young age. Grew up in ‘Kanaleneiland’, then one of the most modern areas of the Netherlands, where houses were built to a design by Rietveld. Near to the area ‘Oog in Al’, an urban expansion plan by Berlage. At 14 I only photographed buildings. Through studying graphics and architectural design I developed an interest in architecture. Around the age of around 24 I decided to study architecture. At 30 my passion really developed.

3. Best city

Travel a lot, see many cities. I am particularly interested in specific aspects of certain cities. There are so many interesting developments taking place. Currently a lot is happening in Singapore, there is a large expansion taking place. The country/the city has grown from a couple of million to more than 6 million inhabitants: the discipline of architecture and urbanism, the control of the social and affordable housing, that’s what I find interesting. But also the public spaces in Barcelona. Or how NY deals with public spaces and the placement of public art works. How Battery Park has been revived. I find the HighLine spectacular along with the results of that public design.

4. Most beautiful building

Does not exist for me. I am always waiting for the most beautiful building. There are so many interesting aspects in architecture. The Pantheon, the Sagrada Família, the New National Gallery in Berlin by Mies van der Rohe: totally different styles, but the ideas behind the buildings, the motivation and meaning, the depth of that meaning. If I made a list of all my favorite buildings, with a very detailed description of what I find interesting in the buildings, there would be at least 20 buildings on the list.

5. Most beautiful park or square

Personally I find Central Park in New York spectacular. The radical division between an intense urban environment and an intense landscape. You are really outside if you're in that park, incredible for a metropolis like New York. That also applies to Hyde Park in London. But London is a landscape city and already has a lot of parks.

6. Best public facility / urban infill

Am fascinated by the richness of the spatial, urban fills of HafenCity in Hamburg. Strong quality between semi public and semi private, correct combination of living, working and recreational features, (therefore) always lively and innovations are well incorporated in the urban planning and architecture. In the Netherlands we have always set an example in the development of urban port areas. We are often copied, but now we are being overtaken by cities such as Hamburg.

7. Best 20th and 21st century innovations

In the Netherlands we are good in the field of infrastructure: logistics of subdivision, distribution of our traffic, directing and localization of pedestrians and cyclists. Attention for cyclists is better than anywhere else in the world. Also in the innovation in architecture and urbanism we have been good, we are expanding in that now. But in the Netherlands a big cleanup is needed. For example, think of bicycle parking ...
Junction design >>

8. Next groundbreaking innovation

'Architecture' will again need to reflect on what it can signify at this time. Sustainability, affordability, social responsibility that is what we have as architects. What does that mean for the practice? Knowledge management through innovation, not at the level of architecture alone.

9. About the future of cities

We must reinstate the classic values of planning and we must dare to learn to plan again. To think about which user groups, what kind of infrastructure, what kind of public spaces, and what instruments we are going to use: such as 'clockwise planning'.

10. Personal contribution to urban development

I teach at different universities at home and abroad. Since 2001 I have been the Dean of the Städelschule Architecture Class in Frankfurt am Main. In 2011 I held the Kenzo Tange Chair at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Also by writing and publishing. I am currently involved with the question of how we are going to design for the new economy. Since October I participate in the Advisory Board of Gehry Technologies.

11. Guerrilla in the city?

We think too little about new concepts with regard to control. We must introduce this in urban planning. At the moment there is not enough balance. I believe in discipline.