Practice Makes Perfect: UNStudio

27 January 2010 (Last Updated January 27th, 2010 18:30)

It has only been in recent years that UNStudio has established itself at the cutting edge of mega-scale projects. Phin Foster speaks to principal architect Ben van Berkel, who founded the Amsterdam-based practice 22 years ago.

Building a five-star hotel from scratch in the heart of Europe was a rare opportunity even before the bottom fell out of the construction industry. So, winning a commission for a 30-floor, 110m tower incorporating 405 rooms and suites, a ballroom, spa, various restaurants and bars, and a public "sky lounge" at the height of the crisis last summer would not only have prompted envious glances from rival architects, but must also have been further vindication of a practice long-associated with the experimental and avant garde.

UNStudio was established in Amsterdam in 1988, but it is its success over the past few years in winning such large-scale commissions that has seen the company become a fully fledged member of the mega-scale elite. As well as the aforementioned Grand Hyatt Hotel in Frankfurt, 2009 saw UN win competitions for such high-profile projects as Raffles City Hangzou, the Dalian Football Stadium in China and Dance Palace St Petersburg.

"It's all about convincing clients of the experiences we can create," explains co-founder and principal architect Ben van Berkel. "I've never liked the word sustainable – there are too many interpretations – but combine it with affordability and you have the essential mix: attainability. This idea of attainable projects is something I've become far better at articulating."

This has been helped by the development of parametric modelling techniques that convey to clients the idea that, just because a design breaks the mould, it does not have to break the bank. It could also be argued that the technologies behind constructing these designs have caught up with van Berkel's all-encompassing ambition to go beyond the status quo.

"2009 saw UN win competitions for numerous high-profile projects including Raffles City Hangzou."

"You no longer have to pay the money you might have done five or ten years ago," he says.

"There is so much more that is possible now through new production techniques. Of course, this is not enough alone, one must discipline the architecture and know how to guide, control and regulate the technology, but we now have a body of work that demonstrates that we are very good at this."

Grand Hyatt Frankfurt

It certainly convinced chairman Professor Johann Eisele, principal of Vivico Real Estate, and the rest of the competition jury charged with selecting a winning commission for the Grand Hyatt Frankfurt, part of the ensemble Skyline Plaza that marks the entrance of the Europaviertel or European quarter, where Movenpick and Meininger properties are already under development. The district may still be being built, but van Berkel's design took great stock of what would be its immediate environment, as well as the surrounding landscape. "The organisation of the projects was studied extremely closely," the architect reveals. "We played with the idea of how each room and every aspect of the hotel related to the master plan, but it was also important that we created strong links to the surrounding landscape of Frankfurt. There are mountains to the north, a city view and a river view, and the design itself seeks to highlight the cosmopolitan nature of the
town."

Van Berkel knows Frankfurt well and is clearly supportive of its urban planning – a legacy he was keen to advance. "The span of the small to large scale is quite enormous, with a surpising amount of high-rise in the background," he observes. "However, everything is so well positioned that the two never contrast or polarise one another too heavily. It was important that we didn't just design another skyscraper; this had to have character and not be too obvious."

This is a lesson learnt from other public / private projects the studio has worked on in the past. During the course of our conversation van Berkel returns time and again to UN's Mercedes Benz Museum, which opened in 2006 to wide acclaim. "It is so important that one's building is not overly obvious in how it presents itself as a function," he says. "That museum looks like anything but a showroom. When we design an office complex, we'll play with the idea that it could also be a public building with public spaces that create a feeling akin to retuning home rather than arriving at work. A design must be imbued with layers of difference that create a more complex, complete effect. Creating multiple meanings is the future of commercial projects."

Breaking the mould

Following what has been an age of "cookie cutter", safety-first hotel designs, van Berkel is insistent that the Grand Hyatt always had to be more than "just another hotel".

"When a client asks that you work with the notion of 'icon' I find that quite difficult to take," he reveals. "One can't simply design an iconic building because buildings will always develop over time, as will the manner in which their users interact with them. What the architect can do is focus on the way in which one works with the typology given to each function and find ways that the project can communicate these ideas and solutions. When a building fails to achieve this, people will not return."

"The Grand Hyatt Frankfurt hotel design seeks to highlight the cosmopolitan nature of the town."

That people return is a core demand of the hospitality industry. Van Berkel is rather dismissive of the "design hotel" concept, believing that overly conceptualised spaces can serve to alienate guests rather than welcome them, and sought to achieve something more inclusive and nuanced.

"It's certainly more linked with the idea of home," he begins. "I spend half my time travelling and appreciate more than most how good it feels to return to a hotel that feels like your space. The building has a suggestion of moving beyond the mere function of hotel.

"I wanted to create several layers of experience and the gesture of the building itself incorporates the softer and harder aspects of architecture."

Introducing these disciplines into ever-larger projects clearly excites the architect, as does the multidisciplinary nature of the work. "When Foster did his first large-scale projects he undertook extraordinary studies into how engineering and technology could be part of the final experience," van Berkel explains. "I'm looking at similar ideas and what I love about the large scale is that you must be super concentrated on the major details you'd like to achieve, the powerful ingredients, and not juggle 20 ideas at the same time. One has to edit one's work far more critically. That is a challenge, but it fascinates me so much."

If 2010 follows along the same trajectory as 2009, it is a challenge UNStudio will continue to tackle with aplomb.