Ben van Berkel, the award-winning, Utrecht-born architect, has designed more than 80 structures. Known for the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart and the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, he has also designed numerous residential buildings, from the new Canaletto tower in London to the rural Haus am Weinberg near Stuttgart.
In 1998, his holistic approach to architecture led him to re-found the practice that he had started with his then wife, Caroline Bos, in 1988 as UNStudio, a “united network” of engineers, architects, product designers and interiors specialists. The aim is for every project to be, as van Berkel puts it, “an experience”, whether it is a house, an airport or a piece of cutlery.
Why did you choose this profession?
At 12 or 13 years old, when I was given my first camera, my father asked me why I only took pictures of buildings and not people. But it took me until I saw the Katsura palace [constructed in the early 1600s] in Kyoto while I was working for a Japanese designer to decide to become an architect. That was when I first realised what was so powerful about architecture: it can do so much good in our lives, from the way that we move in the city to shaping the future of how we work.
How would you characterise your style?
I would call my architecture transformative. I have always said that you can liberate every style by thinking about how you can transform from one geometry to another, from a boxlike geometry to a more fluid line, say. Box-to-blob architecture would be an honest description of it.
At home, my style is more holiday home. I want it to feel like a retreat: a place for relaxation and contemplation.
Name your three most important influences.
Because architecture is so diverse I have endless influences, from neuroscience to art to literature. I am reading a beautiful book at the moment called The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf about Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century Prussian naturalist and explorer. He was one of the first people to understand issues of sustainability.
I also love music. I have periods when I am particularly interested in the work of Satie or Bach or Mozart, but I am also fascinated by popular music. Ask me anything about Led Zeppelin or Roxy Music and I’ll know it.
What has been your favourite project?
My next project is always my favourite project. I have at least four on the go at the moment in Frankfurt, Qatar, China and the UK.
If you couldn’t design your own home, who would you ask to do it?
Not an architect. I found my holiday home in Lanzarote 15 years ago and it was designed by a farmer 80 years before I bought it. I like the idea that you come into a place that has been moderated by non-architects. It means that I can keep my mind free.
What is the one object you would never allow in your home?
Sometimes in the 1970s you would see that people would have like a carpet hanging on the wall. What do you call that?
A wall hanging? Or a tapestry?
A tapestry! I would never allow a tapestry in my house. It’s not art and isn’t doing anything.
What do you look for in a client?
I like clients who have a fascination for architecture or art. It doesn’t have to be much but it does help if they understand the profession a bit. Luckily most of my clients are like that.
You said in 2013 that architecture was still in the Walkman phase rather than the iPhone phase. Do you think it has begun to catch up now?
We are catching up but still, if you think about any tech company today, it’s unbelievable how fast the world is moving. Although the smart home is coming out and the smart city, it’s not enough. If you look at the curve of how innovative companies like banks are today, the building industry is still so behind.
You also talk about making buildings healthier. Could you expand on that?
There are different levels to this. For example, I have been hiding the elevators in my buildings lately. People can still use the elevator, but to stimulate more people to walk at least four floors is a good thing for physical health.
In a home, which do you think is the most interesting room to design?
I can’t pick out a specific room because I am more interested in the overall organisation of the house and how this reflects the client’s needs and wishes. I like to approach rooms as flexible spaces where possible, to allow for changing needs over time.
What would you say is the biggest trend in architecture?
I’m not sure I would describe it as a trend, but in recent years the focus of the profession has moved on from a tendency to create buildings as iconic images. It is now much more focused on the end user and their needs. It is more about the performance of buildings and cities than merely creating impactful images.
Photographs: Inga Powilleit; Eva Bloem; Fedde de Weert; Iwan Baan
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