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Ben van Berkel: ‘We want to be pro-creative’

Felix Mara quizzes UNStudio director Ben van Berkel about open knowledge sharing and the practice’s new 30-storey London residential tower, Canaletto

Tell me about UNStudio’s open knowledge sharing project
We want to communicate our knowledge openly, and share it through online dialogue. UNStudio – United Network Studio – has long been fascinated with collaborative networking. With optimum knowledge quality you can innovate and make more intelligent buildings. The Modernist era talked only about aesthetics and functionality, but today we talk about efficiency models, fashion, product and industrial design. Also, clients come to the table with maybe 20 specialists. So we’ve moved from being a network practice towards a more knowledge-based one, collecting data on, for example, sustainability and new materials. We like the idea of becoming pro-creative, involving anyone in our thinking process: building industry, manufacturers, scientists.

Explain to me your involvement in Canaletto and the thinking behind its design
Orion Capital Managers UK, chose to move away from Bennetts Associates’ initial proposal and work with us. Orion wanted a high end residential development. Masterplan and orientation studies had been undertaken, but we proposed a totally new design.

We proposed a totally new design

I love working in locations with small scale qualities, as in Islington. And I like thinking of neighbourhoods in the sky and how we can frame them. Their articulation creates a form of sustainabilty in the facades, so you need less cooling in summer and the frames limit heat buildup. I also like the idea of a frame within a frame as well as emphasising different scales and picking up on the neighbourhood’s colours. The facade’s horizontal divisions express the idea of a community by framing groups of apartments, giving a particular rhythm.

What about the social mix, regeneration and the public realm?
This is a high-end residential development, so there’s no affordable housing. But it’s a socially inclusive neighbourhood. This part of City Road is a wonderful new upcoming area, with many start-up companies and young families- maybe one where generators of the new economy like to live.
The design shares energy sources and makes a statement as a residential building, and also as a public one. As part of the city, it is itself a political statement.

There’s no affordable housing. But it’s a socially inclusive neighbourhood

At ground level, we wanted more shared space and to make the area more green. We planted trees and made sure there was a café, so it would become more lively and safe at night.
The bands on the facade assist summer cooling. Some heat is reclaimed and the mechanical systems are highly efficient. We aim to be responsive, but also responsible.

Did you use parametric modelling and BIM?
We always use complex geometrical studies to see how we can discipline the design. We use parametric design for reverse engineering to check the buildability.
I’ve tried to convince clients to work with a particular programme. But that’s not always possible, so we keep working in different programmes. I’m on the board of Gehry Technologies, which interests me because it has developed a platform where you can overlap programmes and see the complexity of what contractors might see in 3D and what we see. If you are aware of new techniques and can apply them to your architectural production system, efficiently and fluidly, you make much more space, time and quality for design.

How do you find working in London?
I like it. People say I’m a good trouble-shooter.

The more diverse and complex a project, the more excited we get

The more diverse and complex a project, the more excited we get. We like the idea of solving a complex puzzle. For that reason, we were able to set up a very healthy, positive dialogue.

On the subject of professional practice, how important is procurement reform?
In the Netherlands today we have contracts where contractors and architects are responsible for buildings after completion. I’ve never been scared of these processes. They fascinate me, because I’ve learnt we don’t get less control as the architect: it’s the opposite. We must study building industry budget control innovation. Architects must also develop other concepts of innovative design control.

Returning to the subject of parametric modelling, if you’re the person who knows exactly what’s going on, you’re in a strong position.
That’s right. We often help contractors with production and product drawings because we know the 3D model.

Does current British practice equip students for the challenge of the profession?
You have a very good architectural education system and, most important, there’s a lot of choice. But there is a tendency towards architecture for architecture’s sake. We must ask how we can reverse engineer from the building industry to the design profession.

There is a tendency towards architecture for architecture’s sake

There is a scientific side to the profession, which is sometimes forgotten. I’m for a more holistic approach, where technical innovation and architectural articulation go hand in hand.

Would you be interested in working on a public project here?
Of course. I studied at the AA and lived for nearly seven years in England. I’ve always been very close to the schools. It’s not only because I like to work in England. I think I’m half English. I still drink four cups of English tea a day.

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