12th June 2018

Founded in 1988 by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, United Network Studio – better known as UNStudio – is an international architectural design network with offices in Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Although mainly operating in architecture, interior design, urban development and infrastructural projects, the firm has also worked in product design, working with Zumtobel on the Nightsight, alongside furniture pieces for Alessi and Walter Knoll, among others.

Since its inception, UNStudio has completed projects in countries around the world, working with a vision of ‘future-proofing the future’, in which it anticipates the future and any possible changes that it may bring.

These projects have always placed a large emphasis on collaboration, something that founder Ben van Berkel is particularly passionate about: “The ambition of UNStudio, and why we are called United Network Studio, is because we believe in collaborative models. We don’t believe in the concept of the architect at the front of the orchestra.

“We believe that, in the early stages of design, you need to consult with specialists and look beyond your own profession in order to make something more fascinating than just design for design’s sake. It needs to be people-oriented, it needs to connect to themes of health, sustainability and so on.”

This people-oriented approach has seen the company work on a diverse array of projects, spanning a wide range of disciplines and areas, over the past 30 years, but is there a particular area of expertise that Van Berkel believes the company specialises in?

“It’s interesting, ten years ago I would have said no, because we were so diverse and I always wanted to learn more about every other part of the profession, from infrastructure to product design, urban design and so on,” he said. “But now I can see that there are trends and common themes that I work within.”

One such theme surrounds infrastructure, a fascination for Van Berkel that comes from his work designing bridges (UNStudio created the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and has just won a competition to design a new bridge in Budapest). This fascination has led Van Berkel and UNStudio to work on designs for airports in Amsterdam, Brussels, Taiwan and Kutaisi, alongside long-term regeneration projects like the Arnhem Central Station masterplan – a project that Van Berkel has been involved with since 1996. “If you think about infrastructure, you have to think about how people move and who the user groups are that you design for, so it’s a very important topic to be found in our work,” Van Berkel explained.

It’s a topic that can even be found in projects unrelated to infrastructure. “If you look at some of the buildings that we’ve worked on, like the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart [completed by UNStudio in 2006], it’s based on infrastructure,” Van Berkel continued. “The idea that you go up eight floors in an elevator, then at the top you have two spirals crossing each other as they go down, it’s quite a rich organisation. But this organisation comes out of a fascination for infrastructure.”

The newest infrastructural project for Van Berkel will see the introduction of cable cars to the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Similar to the Emirates Air Line in London, these cable cars will act as a form of public transport, rather than entertainment. “It’s something that the people of Gothenburg really wanted to have in the city,” explained Van Berkel. “People who live there work in the north of the city, at the Volvo factory and so on, so there’s always congestion.”

Alongside these large, infrastructure-led projects UNStudio’s extensive portfolio includes work ranging from museums, offices and retail centres to hotels and residential properties, yet while some architecture firms have a definite style or aesthetic that carries across their portfolio, Van Berkel instead prefers to mix it up with each new design.

“I’m always careful with style,” he said. “I believe that one should liberate style a bit more, to avoid a very mono-functional image that you can’t sustain for every location. I’m very location-oriented; even when our work is sometimes a bit more simple, less articulated or less curvy, you can still recognise it as our work because I like to bring a surprise into the design, maybe through the interior or another way.

“Our work is very experience-oriented, so although you can’t see it immediately, you can discover the recognisable links between the projects over time.”

The reason for Van Berkel’s visit to Frankfurt for Light+Building, further to seeing the latest advancements in the lighting and building services sectors, was to collect the Zumtobel Group Award for Urban Developments – an architectural award created by the Austrian lighting manufacturer designed to “act as a stimulus for new developments and concepts in the built environment that help meet current and future demands for improved urban living conditions and energy needs”.

UNStudio won this award for the aforementioned Arnhem Central Station in the Netherlands – a complex project that functions not only as a public transport hub, but also seamlessly incorporates office and retail spaces, a new station hall, a platform roof structure, a railway underpass, a road tunnel, storage for bicycles and parking space. Blurring the distinction between the inside and outside, the station helps to create a new identity for its region, while organising the main connections within the city.

Although the complex creates a more coherent, organised hub for the city’s transport links, the main inspiration, Van Berkel explained, was to rekindle the excitement of traveling. “There used to be a time when stations celebrated the idea of traveling, they would uplift you when you would depart or that you would enjoy seeing family again in the arrival hall, where you could really feel the enjoyment and uplifting qualities of traveling,” he said.

“Lately, stations have started to become negative areas or not so safe, so this station was designed to be more positive, a station where you feel comfortable, where a lot of light is to be found, where you almost feel like you’re in a community-like space.”

The station features a long, sweeping walkway around a curved central column, that adds to the more open, community-like aesthetic that Van Berkel was aiming for, while the use of large windows allows for plenty of natural light to complement the artificial lighting, designed by Arup.

“The architecture does the wayfinding and that is, especially today in very busy areas, very necessary because if you have to look for signs, then you don’t know where to find your train or bus. Here there’s more theatre and more to enjoy, with the light coming into the station, that helps connect you to where you are going.”

The mention of the use of light in the Arnhem Central Station moves our conversation on to lighting, and UNStudio’s relationship with light. While light has always played a role in his work, Van Berkel passionately talked about the new advancements in the lighting sphere, moving beyond basic illumination. “I’m very fascinated by light. I see light as data,” he enthused. “I think the lighting world has never been as exciting as it is today.

“I’ve done a lot of research with other parties to find out how important light is for the work environment, for instance, like how unhealthy light can be or how much you can actually steer it towards wellbeing and health.

“Amongst other things, lighting is a way of enriching space, as it is a product that is giving light, but I think that in the future it will also impact on other qualities in work and in the living environment.”

As such, Van Berkel believes that factors such as lighting design are being brought to the table much earlier in the design process now, something that he certainly welcomes: “What used to be so bad was how clients, developers and we as a profession, were maybe looking too much at making object-oriented architecture. But I think it’s important that we know what kind of effect or impact light can generate.

“Similar to infrastructure, and the way one walks through a building and how it defines the organisation of the building, I think the same for other elements of design, like lighting, ventilation, acoustics, these things can work together much more in the future.”

The quest for more research into the impact of lighting and air quality was one of the driving factors for Van Berkel in the formation of a new sister company of UNStudio – UNSense. UNSense is a self-proclaimed “arch tech” company that aims to “humanise architecture”, and explore and develop new sensor-based technologies designed specifically to positively impact people’s physical, mental and social health.

Set up because Van Berkel believes “that the future of design is going to be more tech-oriented”, he hopes that UNSense can help, through the use of new technologies, to make “a better human-centric environment for people who want to live and work in healthier ways in the future”.

“It’s going a bit beyond the smart city and smart home concept, in that we don’t just want to make things more efficient. We want to give them more direction and meaning.”

Light will play a role in this new, sensor-based off-shoot of UNStudio, but Van Berkel believes that it will “become part of a holistic system” surrounding the technological development of buildings.

“I’ll combine lighting design with acoustics and air quality, and maybe material research, and then put it into one system to work on the software,” he continued. “That’s why we set up UNSense – you have the hardware side of the building, and then the software side, and the latter needs a different kind of financial programming and expertise than an architectural office. You can do research in an architectural office but not data-driven organisation and analysis. You need different specialists for that.”

In the meantime, Van Berkel continues to work with external lighting designers on his projects, having completed several projects with Arup, including the Arnhem Central Station, as well collaborating with the likes of German firm AG Licht, and Rogier van der Heide, whom he feels is having a “beautiful career”.

His work with light has extended into the manufacturing sphere too, having worked with the likes of iGuzzini and Philips in the past, as well as teaming up with Zumtobel for the Nightsight: a modular system designed to create environments for social activity, mobility and walkability in a bid to “reclaim the night” within the public realm through variety in lighting scenarios and intensities.

“Nightsight is inspired by the many variations possible in theatre lighting,” Van Berkel said during the launch of the Nightsight at Light+Building 2016. “The system enables spatial choreography through light and is primarily aimed at facilitating activity, enjoyment, engagement and social interaction in the public realm.”

And while Van Berkel is hopeful that lighting will continue to play more of a role in his work going forward, particularly in the new UNSense venture, there are still a whole host of projects in the pipeline for UNStudio to keep him busy.

On the infrastructural side of things, there are projects like the aforementioned Gothenburg cable cars, and a brand new commission, only recently won by UNStudio, which has seen the firm design a new road, tram, cycle and pedestrian bridge across the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary – a competition that saw Van Berkel and his team work alongside Buro Happold, to beat off competition from the likes of Zaha Hadid Architects and Wilkinson Eyre.

Elsewhere, the firm is working on the headquarters for Booking.com in Amsterdam and the EuropaCity Centre Culturel Dédié Au 7è Art – a cultural cinema complex on the outskirts of Paris, to projects as far and wide as Germany, Azerbaijan, UAE and South Korea. “It’s really great, there are so many nice things. It’s the best time ever for us,” Van Berkel enthused. Based on everything I heard in our short time together, it’s hard to disagree.


Ben van Berkel. Pic: Inga Powilleit