Moving Architecture

Can architects really become the complex, open-minded and adaptable figures we need them to be? Caroline Bos talks to LOBBY about the dynamic, relational and far-reaching architectural ideas which have inspired the pioneering designs of UNStudio.

Speaking with Caroline Bos leaves one with the impression that buildings, no matter how still they may seem, are actually all about motion and change, constantly evolving and adapting to our unstable needs. Nearly three decades of experience in the field later, this mission still identifies Bos’s role in architecture as Principal Urban Planner of UNStudio—the Dutch world-renowned practice she founded with architect Ben van Berkel. After meeting in London in 1988 they began working in Amsterdam as Van Berkel & Bos Architectuurbureau. Ever since then, the unique global expansion of their practice has followed a steady and uniquely successful progression. In 1998 it became UNStudio. And in 2009, UNStudio Asia was founded, with its first office in Shanghai, shortly followed by a second office in Hong Kong in 2014. This ‘evolutionary’ trajectory, unfolding over the past 28 years, mirrors the profound awareness of the time and space ofa world-wide architecture, which marks UNStudio’s all-encompassing programme.

In fact, with more than 120 projects all over the globe—including the awarded Mercedes-Benz Museum (2000–2006), Arnhem Central (1996–2015) and Singapore University (2010–2015)—UNStudio is possibly the truest example of what architecture can become once it embraces its worldly dimension. In turn, Caroline Bos can be described as the embodiment of that earthly preoccupation which defines her practice. For her, architecture needs to constantly search for innovative means of expression, it has to be analytical and empirical, serious and playful, operative and theoretical, global and local. Architecture must always look out there for new and unexplored territory to conquest. But according to Bos, it must also keep looking inside of itself, investigating that profound intimacy and relevance that still makes us believe in it.

You came into architecture from a training in history of art and urban studies. Did the intellectual environment of London and Utrecht in the 80s drive your interests and shape the role that you now have in UNStudio?

Living, working and studying in London in the 80s has indeed been deeply formative to me. In actual fact though—academically—I have consistently done everything the other way around. When I acquired my first degree in History of Art at Birkbeck College, I was already writing—together with Ben van Berkel—for Dutch news- papers and magazines. We wrote pages and pages on the cultural milieu of London and about all the great architects we met or heard about at the Architectural Association, like Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Coop Himmelblau, just to name a few. Some even subsequently got their first small commissions in the Netherlands! Then, some 10 years ago, I went on to study for my degree in urban and regional planning, feeling I needed some different analytical tools. So when I finally qualified as a planner, I had been already practicing for quite a while.

Intellectually, what my studies at Birkbeck imprinted on me was a real understanding of art and architecture as socio-cultural constructs. All my teachers at Birkbeck were steeped into what they called the ‘new history’. For instance, our wonderful professor William Vaughn introduced himself as a marxist with a small ‘m’. This has continued to direct my focus on architecture as a larger cultural construction within society. At that time, Deconstructivism —and Derrida specifically—dominated the discourse. Ben and I were also very impressed by Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. I would say that my second main influence came through Ben and his experiences at the AA. From that I took a strong belief that real change, real newness, can be brought about. That’s important to believe not just in an experimental approach, but also in architecture: something really new can happen, and there can be true paradigm shifts.

How does your attention to, both, the broader cultural realm and the experimental aspect inform your relationship with van Berkel?

Both of us have a profound appreciation for the other’s talents. I enormously admire Ben’s design- focused, creative and also very intuitive approach, which is strongly centred on architecture and art—of which he, of course, is also very knowledgeable. My approach, on the other hand, is somewhat broader and analytical. These two different ways of experiencing architecture are always deeply integrated. To me, that’s the core of our approach in UNStudio. Even if we come from very different places we always find a way of super- imposing our methods, to combine and match our ideas.

One of the most original and unique elements of UNStudio is precisely your adaptive methodological approach to design. For instance, in 1998 you stated that the diagram “allows for endlessly expansive, unpredictable and liberating path- ways for architecture.” What’s changed in the ways you explore the possibilities of design tools?

In architecture and design there’s really an infinite number of instruments and tools we can use, but after a certain point we shouldn’t really be focused on the tool itself but on the goal. That quote is very telling because finding expansive and liberating pathways is still what we want to do. The question still is: how can we expand and enrich our profession? As the conditions around us change, our equipment should and will also change. In fact, the diagram was very important in the 1990s but today it’s not as crucial an instrument as it was back then. It’s important not to get stuck in repetitiveness and to see when a particular instrument exhausts itself.

Early on in the life of UNStudio you have been developing a design strategy that you’ve called ‘Deep Planning’ as driving the design process. Is this still valuable today?

Deep Planning describes how studies of movement, aspects of construction, different types of programme and other elements of a project are treated integrally. It tries to articulate a very layered approach, aiming to expose hidden strata of various natures, almost like an x-ray. As such, this approach sets itself up in opposition to a more conventional, flat and, shall we say, ‘shallow’ way of masterplanning that we still often encounter. Deep Planning is also very site-specific, dynamic and informed by parameter-based techniques and a networked approach.

We learnt from one of our first projects—the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam—that there’s much volatility on all levels in realising a large urban project. How do you deal with these ‘mobile forces’, that encompass conflicts of interest, changing economies and differing civic cultures, as well as constructional, functional, programmatic and aesthetic issues? Interestingly, around the same time that we developed Deep Planning, two very influential planners, Patsey Healey and Stephen Graham, also described a similar way of thinking—from a theoretical perspective—as “relational concepts of space and place.” This is the most significant aspect of Deep Planning: relations—much more than individual data—form the parameters of a project.

How does your theoretical discourse around complexity, diagrams and fluxes translate into your attention to topology and non-Euclidean geometry?

The interest in knot theory and design models dominated a lot of our work in the 90s. We were interested in exploring abstract, mathematical, but also sculptural models that could be transferred from one project to another. What makes these models so interesting is that they’re very mouldable, but they are also imaginary. For instance, the Klein Bottle is a doubled-up, four-dimensional Moebius loop with what mathematicians call a ‘non-orientable, continuous surface’. It takes the twist of the Moebius loop to a new height by folding from outside to inside in a smooth, never-ending loop. This is obviously not something that is architecturally possible, but
it’s a spatial and sculptural thought construct without a specific form attached to it. This makes it adaptable, and made it possible for us to experidment with it.

UNStudio stands for United Network Studio, responding to the collaborative nature of the practice. Now more than ever, interdisciplinary collaborations are crucial within architecture. How do you think this hybridisation will change the way we think about, study and conceptualise architectural spaces?

Since we renamed our practice back in 1998 to reflect the collaborative nature of the profession, the networks we operate in have indeed become increasingly complex, interdisciplinary and expansive. In recent years we’ve actually undertaken a somewhat radical reorganisation of our practice to better accommodate these changes. For us, this means a very rigorous approach to research and knowledge development, which occurs both within the studio but also in collaboration with external parties. For us, working with experts from other fields and pooling knowledge from different disciplines is essential. A holistic approach to architecture has always been preferable; architecture needs to be relevant—this is its whole raison d’être. For that to happen, a more universal and comprehensive approach is necessary. By embracing interdisciplinary collaborations we can become more agile as a profession, not only in order to remain relevant, but also so that we can continue to innovate, discover and anticipate new approaches to architecture.

The dynamic attitude that identifies UNStudio is also described in MOVE (1999), which you have described as your manifesto. Could you tell me more about this publication? Why was it significant to your work?

I think MOVE is really a product of our times and of our generation. When we wrote the book we were not alone: Jeffrey Kipnis, Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser and many others shared several of our experiences, observations, ideas and aspirations. The zeitgeist of the late 1990s is embedded in that book, which I think is one of its strongest points: it really spoke to its time and place. One of the premises of MOVE was that building design and construction result from dynamic, highly evolved, interactive processes. However, architects have drifted into these new ways of working in a globalised system without articulating their own policy. We wanted to write that policy, that manifesto, to help prepare ourselves and others for the future. We wrote, “The architect is going to be the fashion designer of the future. The architect’s practice will be organised as a limitless virtual studio, like Andy Warhol’s Factory scattered; a network of superstars.” I believe that was quite a good prediction.

How has the way you and van Berkel developed UNStudio relate to the architecture culture of the Netherlands?

On a personal level, I’m friends with many of my Dutch colleagues, such as Mecanoo’s Francine Houben and MVRDV’s Nathalie de Vries, as well as many others; in a way, it’s a small field and everyone knows each other well. At the same time, however, today we are all locked into our own worlds and an active debate seems to be missing. Much of the excitement that we experienced in the 1990s, when Dutch architecture was going through a boom, certainly feels less intense today. The attention of our culture has shifted to other parts of the world and this is perhaps why we are now more individually focused on our own development. On the other hand, the balances of the world as a whole have shifted so dramatically and we see diverse and truly inspiring approaches.

How can your design philosophy —which you claim is focused on tangible social realities—provide a future vision for the user to be inspired by today?

For me, the problems that architects need to tackle cannot be as politically identified as they often are. Our language is architectural and we need to express our projects, our ideas and our programmes through that language. It can’t just be words and good intentions. Our challenge is really to bring life to our built environment and we can only do it through the language of architecture.

Recently, Alejandro Aravena has very explicitly positioned a social agenda onto the architectural discourse. With this Biennale, he has brought forward a way of thinking about architecture which comes less from a design-driven point of view, tending to locate social problems onto the public realm. I think this is very exciting because it’s a new way of looking at architecture and it could really bring a paradigm shift —inspiring and new. But for that to happen, we also need to see how this agenda inspires and innovates the discipline itself. The same goes for sustainability, for instance. What we acutely need now is to deeply internalise such positive social and ecological ideologies in the very heart of our discipline. Radically experimental and all-encompassing plans can propose alternative ways for people to live and move. They’re a fantastic way to shatter tired patterns formed by risk-avoiding institutionalism and corporatism.

How can such inspiration shape the architects’ faith in their own profession? And in return, how can architects then restore such faith for its users?

Faith—what a challenging notion! I have a lot of faith in architecture in general. I’ve seen how over the past 15 or 20 years architecture has become fantastically vibrant, more dynamic than ever. Grey cities have been enriched by so much beautiful —I use this taboo word deliberately here—architecture, made with passion and love, skill and knowledge of our profession. This I believe to be truly inspiring, for users as well as architects.

The skills and abilities developed in UNStudio—by so many talented people —have allowed us to share our insights with the users of our architecture. We have always tried to evoke their deep, visceral responses rather than focusing exclusively on functional aspects. But the profession does undergo shifts, changing on a fairly regular basis—being affected as it is by so many social, economic and political issues, alongside its own internal forces. In this sense, I would say that faith is a fundamental necessity. You need to firmly believe that the profession can not only accommodate or absorb change, but that it can really grow from it, improve and progress with every twist and turn. You also need to take risks, have confidence and believe that you can play a role in that development.

With respect to the users of our work, we can only restore their faith if we take every challenge head on. If we continue to demonstrate the relevance of architecture, even the joy of it, regardless of how the profession may expand or contract, then I believe we have a good chance of inspiring faith in what we do. Faith requires patience, persistence—and yes, also some luck.

Over the past decades, one of your strongest personal missions, and perhaps also one of your dearest commitments, has been the reconciliation of architecture and urbanism. What are the design principles that UNStudio adopts towards the infrastructural aspect of the city and towards mobility in particular?

As we have noted in MOVE, in architecture, “the traditional procedures of practice are becoming inadequate.” Traditional distinctions between typologies and scales —city/nature, public/private, global/ local—are becoming blurred, as it’s also been remarked by important theorists like Manuel Castells, David Harvey and Saskia Sassen. The question is: how are we dealing with this in practice? In order to play an active role in our cities—with their heavily interconnected mobilities—we need to apply the openness that new concepts such as the creative commons, co-creation and knowledge economy entail. We need to learn to not only develop and valorise our knowledge, but to share it.

For instance, our most challenging project to date is Doha Metro Network in Qatar. The project—which comprises 35 stations with around 60 more at a later stage—aims to integrate all functional and technical aspects of the stations into a coherent expression. In this case, questions arise about identity. Can there be, both, a local as well as a global identity? This is exactly what we’re aiming for. Doha is a city that has developed from a small fishing community in the early 19th Century into an emerging urban regional centre with over 1.6 million inhabitants. So even though modern urbanisation is recent, the Qatari cultural and traditional references that we aim to pick up on are deeply ingrained in a long history. At the same time, infrastructure entails connectivity and global flows—which is why we aspire to a thoughtful merger of local and global identity markers. This goal and this way of operating are crucial for UNStudio: we work through the same conceptual detail at many different levels, towards an architecture that can transcend all scales.

The success of UNStudio is strongly linked to your commitment towards an experimental approach, but also towards theoretical awareness. How do you mediate between these two realms?

Well in a word, it’s whirlwind. It’s always been a whirlwind, for the whole 28 years of our work in UNStudio. Sometimes I can’t even keep track of it! Our profession is under an incredible pressure and it comes from every direction, including technology, which often becomes an incredibly expansive burden. The challenge is to always be truly invested in what we do, but at the same time to stay light on our toes. The mediation is really between the commitment to an idea and the continual exploration of different forms of architectural thinking out there, starting from our own fascinations. To me, this is what can really bridge theory and practice. In a sense it’s almost like a game that we’re playing throughout our life. I think this playfulness is the most important part, and I would recommend everyone to be flexible, free, interested. This is how architecture can really reinvent itself.

–This feature was originally published in LOBBY No.6 'Faith' (Autumn 2016). It can be found in pages 22-31.

–Photography by Isolde Woudstra. To view more of her work, click here.