“Glass will play an essential role in the high-performance buildings of the future”
In this edition of the Glass Word, IGS Magazine’s Lewis Wilson talks candidly with UNStudio founder Ben Van Berkel. We delve into the mind of one of the most acclaimed architects of our time as he imparts his words of wisdom and unfiltered thoughts on architecture, technology, glass and its place in the sustainable, high-performance buildings of the future.
Lewis: The socio-economic context of architecture is in constant flux – from the Industrial Revolution that propelled Neoclassical Architecture to Modernism spurred on by wartime innovation and postwar reconstruction – architecture is, and will always be, a reflection of our society. So begs the question, what is architecture reflecting today? And, aside from the clichéd ‘contemporary architecture’ answer – what name would you give to the era of architecture we currently preside in?
Ben: I wouldn’t presume to give it a name, as such, but there has recently been a call for a ‘New European Bauhaus’ movement, which is intended to be a bridge between the world of science and technology and the world of art and culture. It is about a new European Green Deal aesthetic combining good design with sustainability. This is a very interesting initiative that we are currently looking into, however we also believe that formal decisions, material choices and styles should be optimised without applying a preconceived ‘green’ style.
But this movement has come about because we have recently emerged from a period when iconic architecture was very much in demand, and it is clear that a shift has occurred with respect to the true urgency attached to the environment and the role architecture and construction play in this. In recent years this has led to the introduction of innovative active and passive design strategies, as well as the more recent focus on circular strategies that will also directly affect the construction industry. At the same time, a renewed understanding that architecture is ultimately designed for the end-user has lead in recent years to much more people-centric design. This focus includes the importance of health, which is something I have been working on intensely for the last few years: how the built environment can positively influence our physical, psychological and social health.
The recent Corona virus pandemic has brought this concern sharply into focus, also on an urban planning level, and has in fact clearly demonstrated the importance of understanding our built environments as both people and planet-centric. We often refer to this as Human/Nature, referencing coupled human and natural systems that we can no longer isolate from one another. Another key factor today is the integration of emerging technologies in our buildings and, of course, Smart City models. However, we have to guard against all of these performative concerns overshadowing the cultural effects of architecture. Designing buildings of course requires a great deal of pragmatic know-how and problem solving capabilities; we always have to juggle and find the best solutions for a broad range of parameters. This should never mean however that we only take a quantitative approach to design. We should always design with the unquantifiable in mind; with the more subtle tweaks that ultimately determine how we psychologically experience buildings, often subconsciously.
Lewis: If you could paint a broad picture of the ‘city of the future’ in 100 years, what would be its defining features?
Ben: Beyond all of the predicted changes brought about by new, green mobility technologies (autonomous vehicles, Hyperloop, drones, flying cars etc.), I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see our future cities adopt polycentric models, where they will no longer operate around one centre, but where the ‘15 minute city’ model that is now being widely promoted, becomes a reality. With densification continually on the rise and people most probably living for longer in the future, we can also expect continued vertical expansion, but with the increased incorporation of public and green space in tall buildings. Tall buildings will also more commonly host mixed-use programmes, also providing amenities and essential services that cater to the polycentric model. Urban farming will also become much more common as the technology involved develops, and we will possibly see the development of underground logistics systems as the cities’ multiple centres become greener and pedestrianised. I think we can also safely expect another cultural revolution, like that brought about by the internet. With the use of AI I also believe that how we live with the environment will be more intelligent, but also more complex.
Lewis: In a previous interview with Material District, you were quoted in saying that glass is your favorite building material – What aspects of this material appeal to you as an architect?
Ben: Glass is fascinating because, while you can use it in so many different ways, its transparency makes it appear almost as a non-material, because it enables a connection between the internal qualities and the external forces of a space or a building. It can of course be used structurally, enable daylight and heat penetration etc., but with new technologies, we are also now using it to harvest energy. We are doing this with ‘Solar Visuals’, a startup founded by UNSense with partners ECN part of TNO and printing specialist TS Visuals. Together we have co-developed this revolutionary new glass cladding material that combines a high production of solar energy with visual design aesthetics. The application of the Solar Visuals PV panels in the façades and surfaces of buildings creates opportunities for energy production on a large scale.
Glass is also becoming a more versatile material. It’s now possible to produce glass with double curves, for instance, and you increasingly see glass being used in stairs, walls and even for structural elements, like columns. And then of course there’s Gorilla Glass, which is used in smartphone screens, but its thinness and lightness coupled with its damage resistance makes it very interesting for potential use in design too.
Lewis: Could you give us a couple of examples from your exemplary portfolio of projects where glass was an integral component of the design and was used in unique and interesting ways?
Ben: Two early projects that spring to mind are the Möbius House and the La Defense offices, both in the Netherlands. In the Möbious house, glass and concrete were used not only in the external facade, but to create internal facades and furnishings also. For La Defense, we developed and patented a special dichroic film that changes colour depending on the viewing angle. In two more recent projects we have been experimenting with the versatility of glass for creating cultural effects. One is the P.C. Hooftstraat 138 in Amsterdam, a high-end clothing shop where we used glass to mimic billowing transparent cloth. The other is 18 Septemberplein, a renovation project where we attached four large, illuminated glass structures to the façade of the building. These ‘boxes’, as we call them, are 5.5 meters wide, 7 meters high and weigh 3000kg each, yet they appear to float on the façade of the building. This type and scale of glass facade construction has never before been realised in the Netherlands before.
Lewis: Over the past decade we have seen a heightened sense of urgency surrounding climate change and sustainability in architectural design. Do you believe glass has a place in the sustainable, high-performance buildings of tomorrow?
Ben: Very definitely. Especially with regard to PV integration. (See Solar Visuals information in Q3.) Recent innovations in numerous kinds of glass applications and treatments also mean that we can control the heat loads of buildings much better. Glass will play an essential role in the high-performance buildings of the future. But on another level, in terms of human health and comfort, daylight and good ventilation are essential, and glazing or windows of course play a large role in bringing both of these qualities to buildings.
Lewis: Are there any functions that glass currently does not perform that you would like to see developed in the future?
Ben: I’m very interested to see if the use of Gorilla Glass can be expanded upon, but also in where ideas surrounding smart glass and glass coatings will take us, alongside its possible use as a substrate for OLED lighting, touch screens, audiovisual displays etc. And of course improvements in the strength of glass and improved insulation properties. I would also like to see developments in glass that lets controlled amounts of UV-A light into the interior of buildings, as this is also very healthy for the occupants. Moderate amounts of UV-A are known to aid in the production of vitamin D, improve mood and increase energy.
Lewis: “It’s time for architecture to catch up with technology” – In your opinion, what technologies need to be adopted and how will these digital design tools improve architecture? How does UNSense fit into this picture?
Ben: UNSense aims to make a difference in the intersection between technology and the built environment. It promotes a straightforward and clear vison for everything that deals with the urgency of today’s world in a positive way: sustainability, circularity, energy neutrality, health, community buildings, mobility, food production. We see tech as a tool for correcting, readjusting and reshaping. So the most important thing is what you want to achieve with these tools, not the technology or tools themselves.
Lewis: There are undoubtedly numerous advantages to the digital revolution – From BIM to Artificial Intelligence and BIG Data, we can now design more complex, efficient and responsive buildings. But do you think anything has been lost because of it?
Ben: Not necessarily in the profession, but certainly in our lives. I often feel that we pay too much attention to digital communications, as if we have almost become addicted to them. The danger is that we will miss real human contact and interactive human experiences. There is already a counter movement against the control that we allow digital information exchange to take of our daily lives, but I think the recent lockdowns have also highlighted just how important real human interaction is. It sounds counterintuitive perhaps, but I think that tech itself should actually help us from becoming fully dependent on it. It should nudge us towards better habits and signal to us when we need to switch our devices off.
Lewis: We are in the era of the ‘iconic building’ and the ‘starchitect’. However facile this might be, the designs of public institutions are often offered to the biggest names, and the most ‘iconic’ architects. How do you feel about this trend, and how do you work in a system like this and continue to create thoughtful, meaningful architecture, when so many developers are looking for ‘the next Bilbao’?
Ben: The idea of the Starchitect may still persist to some extent, but I think this has been changing in recent years. Many of today’s clients are seeking practices based more on their expertise and knowledge, than because of their focus on the ‘image’ of architecture. Today people want buildings that perform on multiple levels and an icon is simply not enough. We are also heading into a new era, with a new generation of architects who are looking for more collaborative models of practice. For me the most important thing is to build a good relationship with my clients so that I can design the most fitting building for them. That is 10 times more important to me than any concept of a ‘Starchitect’.
Lewis: Lastly, can you introduce us to some of the projects that you are currently working on, and perhaps give us a heads up on some projects in the pipeline that look set to gain traction and change the game in 2021 and beyond?
Ben: We are of course busy with a number of exciting projects that I can’t mention yet, but some that I can and that I am really excited about are the mixed-use projects in Melbourne (SouthbanK) and Frankfurt (FOUR), and the wasl Tower in Dubai. Also the Booking.com HQ in the centre of Amsterdam and the Lyric Theatre in Hong Kong are going to be spectacular complexes when they complete. New models for housing developments are also coming up, with the development of the Brainport Smart District in Helmond (NL) continuing and two further residential projects in Munich, one of which is a really interesting response to micro-living. Housing shortages are such a problem in most cities, that looking at solutions and new models for residential projects is something I’m very interested in right now. We also have a number of mobility projects in progress, such as cable cars and the work we are doing with Hardt Hyperloop, and our urban unit is also involved in some really interesting masterplans, such as the Gyeongdo Island in South Korea.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Winter 2020 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Ben van Berkel: Professor, AA Dipl. (Hons), (F)RIBA, Hon. FAIA Founder / Principal Architect UNStudio and Founder UNSense
Ben van Berkel studied architecture at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and at the Architectural Association in London, receiving the AA Diploma with Honours in 1987.
In 1988 he and Caroline Bos set up UNStudio, an architectural practice in Amsterdam. Current projects include the Southbank mixed-use development in Melbourne, ‘Four’ a large-scale mixed-use project in Frankfurt and the wasl Tower in Dubai.
With UNStudio he realised amongst others the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Arnhem central Station in the Netherlands, the Raffles City mixed-use development in Hangzhou, the Canaletto Tower in London, a private villa up-state New York and the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
In 2018 Ben van Berkel founded UNSense, an Arch Tech company that designs and integrates human-centric tech solutions for the built environment.
Ben van Berkel has lectured and taught at many architectural schools around the world. From 2011 to 2018 he held the Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor’s Chair at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where he led a studio on health and architecture. In 2017, Ben van Berkel also gave a TEDx presentation about health and architecture. In addition, he is a member of the Taskforce Team / Advisory Board Construction Industry for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.