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There is one building that is very special to Ben van Berkel, and that building is the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. In the late 1970s, when he was taking evening courses in interior design and graphic design at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, the Dutch architect was also working in the office of a Japanese-born graphic and exhibition designer during the day. It was his employer who sparked van Berkel’s interest in Japanese culture, spurring him to visit Japan at the age of 21. In our recent conversation, the architect told me, “Visiting Katsura was an intensely emotional experience. I never thought architecture could communicate so beautifully. It was like listening to a symphony by Beethoven or reading one of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems.” Standing in front of the imperial villa, he thought, “If this is what architecture can do, I want to become an architect!”     

Ben van Berkel was born in 1957 in Utrecht, Netherlands. His mother was a soprano singer and his father a sergeant major in a military hospital. Van Berkel was already 25 when he finally committed to studying architecture; he applied to the Architectural Association in London in 1982. Zaha Hadid was his professor in his final year and they got along very well. He even worked for her then-small practice both as a student and for a few months after his graduation in 1987. He subsequently spent one year at the office of Santiago Calatrava in Zurich, where he was particularly involved in the design of the Stadelhofen Station in Zurich, completed in 1990.

The architect founded his practice, Berkel & Bos, in Amsterdam in 1988 in partnership with his wife, Caroline Bos. A decade later they relaunched it under its current name, UNStudio, which is now a 300-member office operating out of six cities: Amsterdam, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Dubai, and Melbourne. Among the firm’s most celebrated buildings are Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam (1996), Möbius House on the outskirts of Amsterdam (1998), Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart (2001), Ardmore Residence in Singapore (2013) and Arnhem Central Transfer Hall in the Netherlands (2015).

Portrait of ben van berkel by Inga Powilleit
Ben van Berkel sketches on a rendering. Portrait by Inga Powilleit

Vladimir Belogolovsky: How would you sum up the influence of both Hadid and Calatrava on your practice?

Ben van Berkel

Zaha taught me how to think big and be bold. She would see me sketching on a small piece of paper and say, “Get a bigger paper. Find a two-metre-by-one-metre sheet.” She had such a strong power to think big. Calatrava was similarly bold but on the level of engineering. He taught me very basic engineering techniques such as structural calculations — what ratios work, what don’t; where and how many cables you may need to support things; and similar mathematical tricks. I became fascinated by how architecture and engineering can be combined. That’s why I really enjoy working on designing bridges. He showed me how not to be afraid of uncommon engineering solutions. He was very experimental with how he could stretch engineering and turn it into an architectural proposal. And, don’t forget, I was always keen on developing my own language. Although both Zaha and Calatrava were very much interested in image-making, I have other beliefs.

Facade of Mobius House by Ben van Berkel
The exterior of Möbius House. Photo by Christian Richters

Could you expand on this? You took their ideas and you tried to move in your own direction, right?

For example, the Möbius House for me was essential for bringing an organizational strategy to an architectural proposal. It is not apparent, but the Möbius House came out of the four quadrants layout; it is a landscape idea. Every quadrant has a dedicated zone for each of the four people in the house. Those four zones are combined with a number 8-shaped path in the landscape. So, I wanted to combine clockwise the experience of exploring the four quadrants of the landscape into one organizational gesture. That’s still what I do in my architecture. It is the organization that is the absolute key to how we design our projects. Our architecture follows organizational logic and, in this process, finds ways to express itself.

You are saying that first, there is a particular organizational concept and then architecture comes out of that; architecture finds its appearance, not the other way around. It is not image-driven. In a way, it is diagrammatic thinking, right? 

Correct. My architecture is diagrammatic, logical and people-oriented. The idea is to create a kaleidoscopic experience of how people experience spaces. I always want to see where I come from. I never believed in the linearity of the organizational layout. I believe in the experiential quality of architecture.

Inside Möbius House by Ben van Berkel. Photo by Eva Bloem.
Inside Möbius House. Photo by Eva Bloem.

You compare your Möbius House to a landscape; it’s also been described as a fluid collision of different zones to suit two work-at-home parents and their two teenage children. In the brief, your clients said: “We want to see our kids but we don’t want to hear them.” How did that request manifest in your design?

The true Möbius strip is made up of two surfaces that effectively turn into one. The first surface is made up of the concrete wall that starts outdoors, comes indoors, turns into stationary furniture, and goes outdoors again. The second surface is the glass wall that becomes the internal façade. That’s what produced such moments where, for example, when you sit in the living room you see other parts of the house but behind the glass. So, there are moments in the house where you see people who are also inside but you can’t hear them because there is glass between you. That was part of the brief, it is true.

Arnhem Station, by Ben van Berkel's firm UNStudio. Photo by Hufton+Crow
Arnhem Station, by UNStudio. Photo by Hufton+Crow

When you talk about your architecture you use such words and phrases as non-linear, continuity, a continuous line, a line turning into a surface, complexity, the idea of a twist, like a flower, data-driven, liberating, learning from the building process, disciplined geometry, visual flow, and space-time condition. How else would you describe your work and the kind of architecture that you try to achieve? 

I always say that the essence of architecture is to be found somewhere between art and airports. [Laughs.] In other words, on the one hand, you have logistics such as all programmatic and functional elements down to the wayfinding signs that absolutely must work. And on the other hand, you have to have a cultural edge and art. Meaningful art always gives you more readings. A fascinating piece of art will always demand another visit to see many more layers of reading that may not be apparent the first time. That’s what good architecture should offer. There should be scientific richness on the one hand, and on the other hand there should be artistic richness. Architecture should strive for both.

Inside Arnhem Station. Photo by Hufton+Crow

Speaking about your design process you have said, “It’s like mixing music.” How so?

Soft Curves 01
Soft Curves
Ben van Berkel brings his love of twists, bends and all-white walls to his latest residential project in Germany.

The beauty of music is that it touches you so quickly and so powerfully. I hope architecture too could rise to that level. Experiencing my Möbius House is quite emotional. And contrary to people’s beliefs it is not as complex as it may seem. For example, there are only three different angles in the entire system of its elements: seven degrees, nine degrees, and 11 degrees. They are all repeated and organized into a system. And if you walk through the house, you feel and see geometric complexity but it falls into the logic of a system. Also, it may come as a surprise but people who have been living there already 25 years tell me that the house is very calming. This has to do with the repetitive nature of its geometry. I would compare it to listening to one piece of music. There is a very natural flow. I always try to achieve it by playing with the repetition of just two or three elements; they evoke rhythm. So, music is the right metaphor for architecture and you can feel it emotionally through movement. Of course, it does not work for everyone, only if you are sensitive to such things. But it does work really well.

Erasmus Bridge, Rotterdam, by Ben van Berkel. Photo by Christian Richters
Erasmus Bridge, Rotterdam. Photo by Christian Richters

When and how did the idea of fluid geometry first occur in your work?

I was always interested in curvilinear architecture, but it was Zaha who really pushed me in this direction. One of the people I always admired is Clorindo Testa, an Italian Argentine architect and artist. He was not particularly preoccupied with curves, but what I like is his idea of playing with architectural and engineering elements, so masterfully exemplified in his Bank of London and South America in Buenos Aires. I find it quite fascinating due to its nonlinearity. In particular, Zaha showed me how to work with asymmetrical curves. She learned it from the paintings of Kandinsky. However, I want to emphasize that I am not limited to one specific geometric order. The expression of architecture should be found in its spatial organization. So, buildings can manifest both as boxes and blobs. It depends. The form is not the point. The point is to liberate architecture from stylistic references. I am not bound to any one style.

As you have said, “I hope that style will actually disappear and that architecture will focus on its most essential aspect, how it operates internally as an instrument.”

Absolutely. I am more interested in how to generate new typologies. I have always been interested in pushing these boundaries. For example, look at the train station in Arnhem. There is no longer a typology of a train station there. It is really a hub. The remodeling we are doing now for Madrid-Chamartín Clara Campoamor Station and its urban integration is also going to be a new urban hub. In other words, a new station is a place where everything is happening. So, we are not focusing on style, we are trying to improve the actual experience for people. To achieve that you need to focus on different aspects every time. The Möbius House was the early experiment about discovering how people who live there are going to experience and enjoy living there. That was the key design principle. This is how we still work. And all the new technology that becomes available we also use as our inspiration to push our design further.

“I Want to Liberate Architecture from Stylistic References”: Q&A with Ben van Berkel

The Dutch architect and head of UNStudio looks back at seminal years with Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava – and the enduring meaning of his Möbius House.

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