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REVOLUTIONARY PRACTICE

AGENDA

Ben van Berkel is a founding partner of the Amsterdam-based UN Studio, the practice behind the new Mercedes Benz Museum, which opens next week in Stuttgart.

Formerly with Calatrava, his office was first called Van Berkel & Bos.

Ben van Berkel is really quite Dutch. The way he describes his practice prior to its relaunch in 1999 as 'crazy' is nothing short of wonderful. There really aren't enough Dutch-accented people describing things as 'crazy' these days, are there?

But let's stop the stereotyping. The point is that van Berkel's working life at the firm before its metamorphosis into UN Studio was indeed crazy, because he 'could only do design work at night and at the weekend'. The rest of the time he was managing the burgeoning office.

There are many moreconservative architects who would think it crazier still for van Berkel to have taken this as a cue to completely transform the business, change the name and revolutionise its structure. But there can be little doubt that it worked. The 49 year old now claims that he can spend anything up to 70 per cent of his time in the office at the drawing board.

This is no mean achievement given that, along with Caroline Bos, he is at the helm of a 65-strong practice, which is producing some of its biggest and boldest work to date, such as the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

In many ways, however, it sums up much of van Berkel's attitude to architecture that the structure of his business is extremely important to him.

For example, the former AA student - who, alongside Farshid Moussavi of Foreign Office Architects was taught by Zaha Hadid in his final year - is as interested in the way computers can aid the organisation of a project as in the way that they push design possibilities.

This is very characteristic of the man. Many of his comments are not exactly what you'd expect from someone considered one of Europe's most promising young(ish) designers.

Take this, for example: 'I only really like Frank Lloyd Wright's later stuff when he became a bit kitsch.' There's not a lot you can say to that, is there?

But the point is that van Berkel does want to be seen as somewhat different to the rest of the architectural set, an emphasis that brings us back to the way he structures UN Studio, which until the 1999 tipping-point had been van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau.

He is clearly proud of the way the firm changed. He says: 'We have a collaborative approach to the way we work.

We were keen to get away from this idea that there would be project architects working away on their own schemes. We wanted to get specialists into every position. It means that if you are good at biometrics then that is what you do, ' he says.

So proud in fact that the practice wrote a book about the changes. 'We didn't expect it to sell anything - it was more of a manifesto for the new practice - but we've now sold 30,000 copies, ' he says.

It is, to be honest, challenging drawing him on the subject of either influence or style, a fact that is more than a little surprising given that this is the man who was once reported as describing Mies Van Der Rohe as 'unimaginative'.

'We have a tendency to say as a practice that we don't have a philosophy, ' he tells me with pride. 'We certainly don't worry whether a scheme ends up as curved or as a box.'

But what the enigmatic Dutchman does say is that he is less interested in architectural outcomes than he is in the process of getting to them.

He says: 'Organisation is to me the most interesting thing.

This is what is so interesting about using computers. They can aid this organisation. It means that the engineer and the architect can be designing a project at the same time. It becomes fluid.

'The notion of what is a dynamic form can come out of this.

'I believe that the future of design as a result can be described as fisomewhere between art and airportfl'

Whatever that means. He continues: 'The processes that we are working on can liberate designs from stylistic reference.'

This deep-seated interest in engineering and process is one of the few topics that repeatedly crops up in the conversation - it is clearly a key part of the way van Berkel sees himself.

He sums this up as 'belonging to the Anglo-Saxon mix between engineering and architecture.'

One last question. Why have you not built anything in Britain? Is it because of the planning system? He responds: 'I am building some offices down at Battersea Power Station with Arup. And actually I like the planners in London.

They make it more challenging to build and that often leads to a better outcome.'

There are undoubtedly more than a few veterans of the British scene in general and that site in particular who would think this attitude more than a little 'crazy'.

Ben van Berkel is giving a lecture entitled Design Models at the RIBA on Tuesday 30 May at 6.30pm. Thames & Hudson has just published a monograph on UN Studio (£36).

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