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Reinventing Architecture: Ben Van Berkel

Ben Van Berkel discusses hybridising objects and buildings and lets in on why it’s a good thing that more students are choosing architecture as their field of study.

Reinventing Architecture: Ben Van Berkel


February 14th, 2013

With high-profile projects like The Scotts Tower and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) on our soil, Dutch architect Ben Van Berkel is no stranger to Singapore. His latest project is V on Shenton in the Central Business District. Beyond his signature language of sleek, organic forms, the Co-Founder and Chief Architect of UNStudio shares with Luo Jingmei how he takes every opportunity to explore new ways of advancing typologies and making buildings, as well as objects, function better.

Ben Van Berkel

The mixed-use V on Shenton building replaces the iconic UIC building on Shenton Way

Tell us about the design of V on Shenton.

I tried to get away from a single-glass facade and the vertical form. This building is sky high but it looks more horizontal. It’s like a cactus with a flower coming out [here] and another one coming out from [there]. On the one hand, you find in the city a little bit too much concrete, and then sometimes you find too much glass. This building is a combination of the two, but intertwined in a textural way [on the facade].


The hexagonal module shape of the V on Shenton facade varies in angle, size and function for the office (shown here) and the residential tower (next image)

Ben Van Berkel

Sky gardens in the residential tower provide lush relief at V on Shenton

Is that also the way you try and tackle scale in skyscrapers?

Exactly, and also to identify a bit where you live because it’s not so nice if [buildings are] the same everywhere.

Ben Van Berkel

The Scotts Tower takes the concept of a vertical city incorporating neighbourhoods in the sky

Ben Van Berkel

The organically shaped buildings of the SUTD campus in Changi are connected by interlocking axes

You have coined the term ’attainability’ to describe your firm’s design direction. How would this translate to smaller-scale projects, such as product design?

I would like to [term them] ’socially attainable’ projects, attainable maybe not so much that everything has to be affordable, but hybridised into one object that can do many things. For instance, the Circle sofa for Walter Knoll is a [furniture] where you can work on, sit straight against, but also lie on. The whole idea is that you can plan your whole day on it.

It also [draws upon] the idea of the circle and [is modular], so it can be used by only four people or by 27 people. We like this idea of hybrid qualities you can give to furniture. It becomes very architectural.

Ben Van Berkel

Ben Van Berkel’s Circle sofa for Walter Knoll tapers in depth along its length to reflect its various seating possibilities

How do you apply this hybrid quality to buildings?

For example, [designing] a shopping mall like a museum. A shopping mall is not so particularly interesting; you only go there to buy stuff. But I try to add on other experiences – people also love to meet in a shopping mall; it’s one of the most essential things for people after [work]. For that reason I like to [include] more public elements.

Ben Van Berkel

The programs of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany spiral around a central atrium

Now you’re doing a lot of work outside Holland, for example, in China. With prolific architects doing work all over the world, do you feel there is a danger of ’sameness’?

There could be, [it’s] possible. The profession of architecture is so fashionable so of course you will get fashion. But if you are competing in the top twenty say, then you constantly have to improve yourself. I think today to repeat yourself is not the future, because the future is very much into improving architecture on many levels – not just on the formal level, but how you operate, like making intelligent architecture.

By intelligent, I mean how it can help people. For example, I [have applied] hospital [air-circulation] techniques to office buildings to reduce [sick] building syndrome. That’s a very practical aspect of architecture but I like these aspects. And in order to make it more intelligent, you have to [constantly reinvent] so you don’t just design for design’s sake.

Ben Van Berkel

One of UNStudio’s earlier works, the design of the Eramus Bridge reflects Rotterdam’s industrial character

What do you think of the World Architecture Festival Awards where all the competition entries are judged by pictures alone? Shouldn’t architecture be experienced before it is judged?

Well, it’s not the best style, I agree. But I am actually for each organisation that is promoting architecture and I think it’s great, as architecture needs more prizes. We have the Pritzker Prize and the Mies van de Rohe Prize in Europe, for instance, and I find that ridiculous. I think we should find many more avenues to promote architecture, in order to challenge architects.

Ben Van Berkel

Villa NM in USA features Van Berkel’s signature curves

You’re an educator yourself. What do you feel about the education of architecture? Some architects I’ve interviewed say there are too many people studying architecture.

Actually, I don’t think there are too many architects, but I think it’s very difficult to find very [distinct] architecture schools at the moment; there is a tendency that they become a bit similar. [It’s not a bad thing that] everyone wants to study architecture. Architecture is an incredible foundation. It’s like how we think when you study law you can also become a politician, a manager. Others believe you can do that with architecture.

Photos by Christian Richters and Brigida Gonzales

Walter Knoll is available in Singapore at Proof Living.

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