AMSTERDAM – Dutch architecture firm UNStudio announced in 2013 that it would organise itself as an 'open-source architecture studio', with employees working within four so-called 'knowledge platforms': innovative organisations, architectural sustainability, smart parameters and inventive materials. These self-organised groups would be involved in both design and research, architect Ben van Berkel said at the occasion of this reorganisation.
After three years of experience with this way of working, Van Berkel feels it’s time to give an account of the highly publicised move, and to share the knowledge that he and the studio have gained since then. His newest publication Knowledge Matters, designed by Proxi in Barcelona and published by Frame Publishers in Amsterdam, does just that. The book aims to show how the platforms work and cooperate, and to what extent this benefits not only the internal organisation of the office but also its output.
Together with the print publication, UNStudio has also made an app, called Spaces of Flow, which has similar ideas behind it as the book, but focuses on Arnhem Central Station, a train station in the Netherlands that was completed earlier this year after almost 20 years of work. Ben van Berkel talks about the making of both the print and digital publication.
Why did you produce this book?
BEN VAN BERKEL: Because we build a lot, we increasingly get asked – not only from clients but also from the academic world – about how we innovate as an office and how we share our knowledge. People are much less interested in the image of architecture than they were a few years ago. That's really quite a radical shift. We introduced the knowledge platforms to the studio because we wanted to promote what’s called 'disruptive innovation' within our office and, as a result, we have seen that the platforms stimulate our employees to a large extent. Architects now want to work with us, not because of the name UNStudio, but because of these platforms. They not only provide a basis for research but also for internal education. They work like incubators, where ideas can cross-pollinate and shape the things we make. People can rotate within the platforms in order to learn and specialise.
How does this different way of working reflect in the buildings you produce?
Our buildings are not only about architecture anymore. After more than 25 years of experience, we know how to design a building well and which spatial effects we can achieve. When a client comes to us, we now talk about their way of working, and what they want to achieve within their organisation. For many companies, health has now become an important goal, which I think has even eclipsed sustainability as a topic. In the Education Executive & Tax Offices in Groningen, which we completed in 2011, we have proven that with a particular type of installation, we can decrease employee sick leave by 15 to 20 per cent, because of the knowledge we gained by working with various specialists on hospital designs. From working on operation rooms, we learned that you should ventilate section by section rather than per floor, and we have applied that insight to the design of office buildings. That's just a small example, but it shows that the invisible side of architecture is becoming increasingly important.
Knowledge Matters is laid out around the same topics as the knowledge platforms in UNStudio. How did you go about making the book?
We have actually started this book from scratch about three or four times, because we weren't getting it right. Graphically, we have sought for a way to express how knowledge transfers from one project to another. We want to show how our work progressed throughout, for instance, five projects in a row; how an industrial product, an exhibition and a pavilion can culminate in a building that embodies ideas found in these previous works. That's much more interesting to us than trying to promote a single iconographic master piece. We're showing how the expertise of different specialists comes together in a series of works. A tiny example: some page numbers are accompanied by one or more additional page numbers that refer to the place in the book where you can find different information about the same project. Small things like that together make the book very layered.
You have produced many books before, among which Design Models, Move and UN Studio UN Fold. How does this book differ from the previous ones?
Knowledge Matters is a mix between a manifesto and a cookbook. But it doesn't offer recipes. A good chef takes what he needs, keeps experimenting and doesn’t adhere to strict procedures. What it does do is to offer suggestions for a new way of working, and it allows you to interpret them in your own way. It's a completely different way of thinking than we have previously made public. Design Models was about the formal aspects of architecture. Move was about design techniques and was highly speculative. The biggest difference with previous books is very clear: we have now produced much more and in the process have gained much more knowledge.
What are your favourite architecture books in general?
I have favourites, but I find it hard to mention one or two. Following my own education, I reverted for many years to the work of Tafuri, Rossi, Le Corbusier, and later to writers like Eisenman and Koolhaas. However, I now read different kinds of books; the ones that help me with my work but are outside the realm of architecture. I'm interested in neuroscience, archaeology and psychology. I’m a fan of Eric Kandel, who wrote The Age of Insight. It's about how Viennese artists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele were in touch with the important scientists of their age. They talked to each other in café’s and shared their knowledge, mutually influencing their work. Today, we have global knowledge that we share in a global salon, but architects don’t use all the information that’s available enough. So, that’s what I delve into at home.
Do you have any plans for a new book?
Yes, I have one or two, but they are so general at the moment that I’d rather not dwell on them just yet. Let’s talk about them in four years from now.
Portrait photo by Inga Powilleit
Knowledge Matters is available to order in the Frame store.