The installation “Motion Matters” by UNStudio is on view at Berlin’s Aedes gallery. Before the opening, we spoke with Caroline Bos and Ben van Berkel about postmodernism, the perfect space and the secret of eternal youth.
The 1980s were very ideological: postmodernism was still in full swing, while Koolhaas and others were already looking back to modernism. You established your firm in 1988 – right in the midst of that era. Did you have to break loose?
Ben van Berkel: Interesting question! Don’t forget that these ideological tensions had their origin at the AA. Our instructor was Zaha Hadid – so we were part of a younger generation that included Nigel Coates, who studied there under Bernard Tschumi. Today this group might be summed up under the banner of “narrative architecture.”
In contrast to postmodernism – to Krier but also to Tschumi and Koolhaas, who tended more toward approaching architecture through the political issues of that time – we started solely from architectural issues. We also wrote our first book about that, about how architecture itself can again be a source of fascination.
Caroline Bos: Alongside pursuing theoretical works, we sought from the beginning to build. Zaha Hadid had not yet constructed a building at a point when Ben had already completed a several. You almost got the impression that even established architects were afraid of needing to make compromises to build. But architects must practice – otherwise they’ll never be capable of building.
Ms. Bos, you were once described as the “critical force” behind UNStudio. How did you come together, what did you think back then about Ben’s approach and how do you view his work today?
Caroline Bos: More critically than ever! (laughs)
You’re an art historian – what is your collaboration like?
Caroline Bos: At the outset we had no idea we would work together at some point, but we already knew each other before we went to London. In discussing an exhibition we discovered that even though we have different points of view, they complement one another well. I like Ben’s ideas and visions; we offer each other intellectual stimulation.
What do you expect of your architecture? What does the perfect space look like?
Ben van Berkel: A perfect space is imperfect. Our architecture is more about the afterimage: What we remember is more important than what we see or expect. It’s like with books or movies – when they’re good, you want to reread them or see them again.
Box vs. blob: About 15 years ago there was still a marked conflict between these two tendencies, but in today’s architecture everything seems possible and the issue is barely still discussed. Do you miss the debate?
Caroline Bos: I think that developing new ideas was more important than the actual conflict. Maybe we’re not so involved today, but I really do miss a general discussion of such subjects. New computer programs were not only the basis for blob architecture, however, but also for a more efficient and faster way of working.
Ben van Berkel: Box or blob, who cares? That was our position even back then. We wanted to free architecture of stylistic references, change the mindset and bring together new ideas and approaches. So maybe we’re also partly to blame that there’s less discourse today. And maybe what’s needed now is again more meaning and responsibility.
Caroline Bos: Yes, the conflict back then was very intense and significant – it’s not like that anymore today.
A major topic these days is the renovation and conversion of existing buildings. The projects by UNStudio are very precise designs, very much predetermined. Could you imagine them with different uses in fifty years?
Ben van Berkel: That’s something we’re certainly very interested in. We also try to convey to our clients that an office building, for instance, should not be built at all like an office building. In other words, we examine the grids and systems, and try to design them in such a way that they could also become apartment buildings.
On the subject of a seeming timelessness or even eternal youth: Even after 25 years, UNStudio is still perceived as “young architects” – what’s your secret?
Ben van Berkel: We teach – that keeps you young! And all of our employees are much younger.
Interview by Jeanette Kunsmann and Stephan Becker, Translation from German by David Koralek
until July 4, 2013
Galerie Aedes am Pfefferberg
10119 Berlin, Germany