Designing for Longevity
Ben van Berkel’s work and approach can best be described as that of a futurist — one who studies the future and makes predictions and decisions about it based on current observations. Outspoken on the importance of designing for longevity, one of the Dutch architect’s core principles is social sustainability. Today, he works on some of the world’s biggest, most forward-thinking projects.
Designing for Longevity
While a childhood spent around building sites with his father in Utrecht, the Netherlands, may have first planted the seed for van Berkel’s path to the profession, it was during a trip to Japan’s Katsura Imperial Villa, when he was 20 years old and working for a graphic designer, that he realised architecture was a career path he wanted to explore.
He studied at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and then at the Architectural Association in London. At the Rietveld Academy, he was exposed to different disciplines including painting, photography, architecture, exhibition and furniture design. For four years, van Berkel split his time between his graphic design job in the day and his studies at night. ‘It was a time when I tried to get as much as I could out of the practice and at the same time try to re-educate myself.’
Van Berkel’s move from the Netherlands to London introduce him to the legendary Zaha Hadid, who was teaching at the Architectural Association at the time. Like many architects who look up to the late visionary, van Berkel speaks highly of her constructive teaching methods. ‘She was so unbelievably powerful in the way that she’d teach,’ he says. ‘She really pushed the students to a bolder direction than they would ever have imagined.’ It was Hadid who advised him to ‘think big’ — two to three metres big — when it came to drawing out sketches for projects. van Berkel later worked with Hadid again in his career, helping on exhibition and catalogue design in her studio.
In 1988, the young architect founded The van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau with his business and life partner Caroline Bos, and a decade later the studio relaunched as UNStudio (the UN standing for United Network).
When he is not busy working at the studio, van Berkel also teaches architecture and urban planning at institutions around the world. ‘I love teaching,’ he says. ‘I’ve always thought that if you don’t teach then you don’t know where the future is going.’ His teachings emphasise longevity in design, achieved through circularity and an improvement in quality of life. For example, in his course ‘Forever Young: How design must anticipate human longevity’ at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, the architect incorporates the work and research of anti-aging scientist David Sinclair. van Berkel's interest in longevity is not just about the topic itself, but in how longevity and quality of life can be connected to the built environment, circularity and the longevity of buildings. This is also related to uplifting spatial experiences, as he believes that aspects like good air quality, good acoustics and walkability can enrich the experiential qualities of a space.
‘I’d like to work on how to improve and inform architecture in this new way of connecting sustainability towards health and technology,’ he says. Traditionally buildings have been designed with a lack of flexibility, something that van Berkel hopes to impact by creating buildings that are more flexible, more adaptable and more oriented towards longevity, with a greater sense of connectivity. ‘If you want to create a fantastic community, you have to really mix the right amount of activities so there’s enough liveliness in the neighbourhood for not just the whole day, but the whole week,’ he says.
Designing for the future is a challenge in itself, and involves a lot of speculation. ‘You have to be a futurist,’ he avers. ‘You have to understand how and where we might change our style of living and working in the future.’ Working with the younger generations can be very helpful in this regard. ‘They know certain things that I don't know because they're 20, 30, 40 years younger than I am,’ he says.
UNStudio has recently opened an office in Melbourne, where the team is working with Cox Architecture on a landmark project in Southbank that’s slated to become Australia’s tallest building. The project is unique in that it combines work, living and hotel spaces with a cultural edge, including an exhibition space for a local museum. ‘It's a little city in the city,’ van Berkel says. ‘I think it will be an enormous boost for the city,’ he adds.
van Berkel’s futuristic, longevity-driven approach will only become more relevant and necessary in the industry as time goes on. ‘Experience design is really a future topic for architects to work on, because it can add a new layer to the way you can enrich uplifting qualities in architectural design,’ he concludes.
For details about Ben van Berkel and UNStudio, please visit: https://www.unstudio.com
This podcast series is produced in partnership with Design Anthology, a luxury interiors, design, architecture and urban living magazine.