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Opposing forces Opposing forces

review

Ben van Berkel & Caroline Bos: UN Studio UN Fold NAi Publishers, 2002. 144pp. £24. Available from Triangle bookshop 020 7631 1381

The conveyor belt that is Dutch architectural publishing shows no signs of stopping. As Mark Wigley has suggested, you could now make a polderland out of all the texts that have been (and are being) written about contemporary architecture in the Netherlands.

This is not to dismiss what is produced as landfill, but to realise that it is regarded there as a cultural project that is just as necessary as the fabrication of land itself.

Latest off the presses is this new book on the work of UN Studio, aka Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos. Probably still best known for its dramatic bridge across the river in Rotterdam, the practice nevertheless has been snapping at the heels of Rem Koolhaas and the like for a while, and has established a strong place for itself on the avant-garde lecture circuit.

Van Berkel and Bos claim that they are different from other well-known Dutch practitioners in that they are not obsessed with consumerism (Koolhaas), or sociological data (MVRDV), or sustainability (Atelier van Lieshout).

Instead, they proclaim the need for art and aesthetics within architecture - no doubt seeing this position as closer to the tradition of Le Corbusier and those famous others who have championed the role of architects as autonomous form-givers.

But it is also precisely where the stance of Berkel and Bos falls down, for the truth is that they are not that good when it comes to aesthetic sensibility. Nothing that they have designed or built as yet is, for example, anywhere near as beautiful as Koolhaas' Kunsthal in Rotterdam or his house in Bordeaux - even though Koolhaas does not claim to be aesthetically driven.

Berkel and Bos are on stronger ground with their favourite theme, which is the incorporation of advanced theories from mathematics and physics into the realm of architectural design. They see in these parallel investigations and propositions (chaos theory, Mobius strip, Klein bottle) a series of powerful parallels to explain the nature of design - ones in which form and event (or design and use) are inextricably wrapped and folded together.

This, they contend, offers a much better analogy for the opposing forces that architects have to wrestle with than do the usual formalistic or sociological theories. And it is here that this book is at its most thoughtprovoking, especially when the two protagonists are caught in e-mail conversation with Greg Lynn and Daniel Birnbaum.

Otherwise, the book contains a series of useful but essentially disconnected essays by Aaron Betsky, Neil Leach and others. The showcased UN Studio projects are then individually introduced by a brief prose text by the architects, each in short-story format. It must be said, though, that the standard of this prose writing is not good.

It is clear that the authors were determined not to supply yet more dry, architect-speak texts to accompany their projects, but there is a danger that one ends up instead with just poor, pretentious 'art'.

The nine new projects by UN Studio are interesting but hardly earthshattering. By far the most arresting is a new transport interchange in Arnhem. Van Berkel and Bos themselves define their work as 'infrastructure architecture', and in this typically Dutch aspiration, they have produced there what will be a stunning building when finished. It is massive, and yet also mysterious in the complex and twisting volumes that arise when you mix together so many different modes of transport (train, bus, car, tram, bicycle).

This is the area the best work of UN Studio will no doubt continue to come from, and one might wish that van Berkel and Bos would drop the self-conscious stance of being 'artists' too. They should just let their designs make the point, and perhaps stick to talking about the possibilities that arise from inter-wrapping form and event.

Murray Fraser is professor of architecture at Oxford Brookes University

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