Famous Architects of our Time – Interview with Ben Van Berkel
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The most famous architects today are the ones who have accepted change. They have amalgamated the changing technological landscape with the heritage of the past and created a new trend of architecture that is perpetually of the 21st century. 

Our history is nowhere better embodied than in architecture. It is a reflection of our culture, a connection to the times gone by, and an archive of our past. Whether we consider historic structures like the Notre Dame, the Acropolis, the Roman Colosseum or modern architectural wonders like the Louvre Pyramid, we’ll notice each building connecting us with an epoch, a way of life and the culture that prevailed.

And for this, architecture can never be static. It learns from its ancestors, evolves, takes new form and iterates the present. The modern structures we see today are also iterating our story. It is weaving together technology, industrial design, sustainability, and interior design to create structures that reflect the time we live in today and the forces that influence it, while also connecting our time with the future.

The famous architects of our time are the ones representing our generation with magnificent structures. And since we are the generation most compatible and dependent on technology, its presence in architecture will be our trademark.

Famous architects of our time - Interview with Ben Van Berkel

In this interview with Ben Van Berkel - one of the famous architects of our time, we talk about the evolution of architecture and the role of technology in it.

Architect Ben Van Berkel is the Founder and Principal Architect of UNStudio, an internationally acclaimed network of experts in architecture and urban development. He has delivered lectures at architecture colleges around the world. He currently holds the Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor's Chair at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

He has designed, among others, the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, the Moebius House in the Netherlands, the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, Arnhem Central Station, and the Singapore University of  Technology and Design. Ben Van Berkel has several laurels to his name. To name a few, his list of awards include the prestigious Architektur & Wohnen Architect of the Year award and the BNA Kubus Award

Ben Van Berkel

Industry Leaders Magazine: You have recently launched UNSense – the arch-tech startup. How can technology and architecture work together to improve structures, cities, and life?

Ben Van Berkel: I think that in general, in architecture and urban planning we actually still have to learn to fully understand the extent to which technology and design are completely mutually beneficial. Existing digital technologies already have a design direction; they necessarily have to be transformed into a user interface – be that via an app, a program, or the devices that such digital information needs to run on, such as a tablet or a phone. As spatial designers, our task is to recognize and apply design intention beyond what we understand as digital applications, devices and gadgets: to design spaces with data - which is actually the essence of what our sister company UNSense does.

famous architects of our time

I firmly believe that technology can and will improve how we live, work, move, and learn. Data technology, sensorial technology, artificial intelligence and augmented reality will enable us as architects and designers to create buildings that sense, understand and respond to the needs and behaviors of the people that work and live in them. Data- based insights into human behavior can be used as a foundation to continuously improve and equip the city according to the needs of its users. The combination of data and design can create a powerful force to improve living conditions for people, and to ultimately create buildings and cities that are more humane, healthy, clean, safe, sustainable, and beneficial to the environment. Much of this is connected to data and emerging technologies, but this also means that new models of data ownership will need to be introduced.

Industry Leaders Magazine: You have designed museums, universities, bridges and many other structures. What do you love designing the most and do you have a particular structure/project that is closest to your heart?

Ben Van: There isn’t actually one specific project that I have enjoyed working on the most, as often I like to work in a serial manner with designs. For me it is more fascinating to do combinatorial work, where ideas move from one project to another, developing and changing in the process. I don’t actually look back, but instead like to see where particular design concepts can go in the future. So my most satisfying design is always the one I am going to do next, because if I haven’t done it yet, it’s still full of creative potential.

Industry Leaders Magazine: How do you think architecture has evolved from when you started out and what you see today? How can architecture keep pace with the current technological changes?

Ben Van: Since we started out, which was 30 years ago now, the role of the architect has completely expanded, as have the networks within which we operate. Similarly, contexts have become more international and digital communication networks more expansive. Architects are no longer being trained to simply make buildings, but also to reflect on the way the world is changing – the culturally diverse milieu affecting the urban fabric of global cities, as well as the long-term impact the built world has on the environment. At UNStudio we no longer take the approach of defining a fixed role for the architect within a network, but instead focus on exactly what sort of knowledge we should be producing. This is why we describe ourselves as a knowledge-based practice.

In order to keep pace with technological change, we need to find new relevance by expanding the architect’s traditional skills. If we are to be in a position to shape the future, we need to invest in the exploration and production of knowledge, in order to enable a shift towards ever more performative, relevant and anthropocentric design.

famous architects of our time - Ben Van BerkelThis is also why we founded UNSense as a separate entity; because there are no resources within the traditional architectural practice for the integration or development of new technologies, different expertise is required and such a company has to operate with a business model that is quite different from the architecture business model.That said, the solutions developed within UNSense also enable our design studio to expand the architectural practice by incorporating technological innovation into our designs. “Data technology, sensorial technology, artificial intelligence and augmented reality will enable us as architects and designers to create buildings that sense, understand and respond to the needs and behaviors of the people that work and live in them.”

Industry Leaders Magazine: What do you think is an architect’s responsibility in creating sustainable cities? What elements do you or UNStudio keep in mind to take an integrated approach to sustainability?

Ben Van: Climate change, densification, and digitization are three of the most pressing and challenging global issues that we are currently facing; complex issues that not only ideally need to be tackled in a holistic way, but the solutions for which should also be sought across all scales. Architects, designers and urban planners need to work alongside innovative developers, city councils and teams of experts from different fields to find and test real life, integral solutions to current challenges in the built environment. We recently completed an urban plan for an innovative and experimental new neighborhood in the town of Helmond, in the Netherlands: the ‘Brainport Smart District’.

In this unique project, the objective is to actually build ‘The Smartest Neighborhood in the World’; a living laboratory with 1,500 homes and over 12 hectares of business park. This new neighborhood is planned with a view to integrally putting into action the latest insights and techniques in the areas of circularity, participation of (future) inhabitants, social cohesion and safety, health, data, new transport technologies and independent energy systems.

However, by partnering with industry leaders we are also in a position to design on a smaller scale; to supply the combination of a product mindset, engineering know-how and a strategic vision for building technologies that enable the development of new products that can be up-scaled for widespread use. For instance, at UNSense we recently launched a new bespoke, integrated photovoltaic cladding system (Solar Visuals) that will make it possible to harvest energy from every facade of a building, rather than just from traditional roof panels. Our research team at UNStudio also recently joined forces with Monopol Colors, the paint specialists from Switzerland, to develop ‘The Coolest White’, an ultra-durable paint with a Total Solar Reflectance value that sets entirely new standards. This new paint, more than any other, can protect buildings and urban structures from excessive solar radiation – thus slowing down the urban heat island effect.

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