Architect in Profile - Ben van Berkel

Delve into the narrative of Ben van Berkel, the visionary force behind UNStudio, as he shares the intricate tapestry of his career with FC&A. From beginnings in graphic and interior design to a defining moment at Kyoto’s Katsura Palace, his journey unfolds with a commitment to pushing boundaries and redefining architectural paradigms.


Ben van Berkel

is the Founder and Principal Architect at UNStudio

Tell us about your career journey. How did you get started in the field of architecture?

My education was quite diverse. Before I went into architecture, I studied graphic and interior design. Whilst I had always been fascinated by architecture, I never actually thought that I would study it one day. However, these early interests still play a role in my current design processes. These particularly reflect my early interest in exhibition, graphic and product design. On the whole, I am interested in the bigger picture of what design can mean.

Were there any pivotal moments or experiences that solidified your decision to pursue a career in architecture and design?

I started out as a Graphic Designer making magazine covers. I was always interested in producing something that could connect to the public, but magazines were only there for a week, and I never liked the idea that something was so impermanent. Architecture had always interested me, and the man I worked for was a Japanese designer. He advised me to go to Japan and see the Katsura Palace in Kyoto. My visit to the villa was a very special, intense, almost indescribable experience, and I decided almost on the spot that I wanted to become an architect.

If you hadn’t followed your passion for being an architect, what other career path would you have pursued?

When I was young, I actually never considered becoming an architect. I wanted to become an artist, but my friends and art teacher strongly encouraged me to become an architect. But my interest in autonomous image making never went away, and I still have a studio where I paint regularly.

What has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

I am interested in so many different things; too many to mention! And I also find inspiration in many different fields. In science – the first moon landing, for instance – or in literature, photography, art or advertising. For me, inspiration can come from many different sources.

What’s been the most memorable project you’ve worked on, and for what reason?

I always say my next one. We try to think in terms of a more serial approach to design. We don’t approach our work in terms of the classical idea of celebrating the creation of one individual ‘masterpiece’ project or in terms of an approach whereby one attempts to create one key project to follow a previous key project. We have learnt instead that, by looking back at certain qualities in a number of projects, you can discover that they share a particular set of ideas, solutions and conceptual and formal qualities which, when combined, could potentially produce a key work. Rather than isolating projects, we have adopted this understanding and approach.

Can you share a personal anecdote or experience that taught you a valuable lesson about being an architect?

When you are in the early phase of your architectural career, you always do too much. In the beginning, I would try to put everything that was of interest to me into one project. Now, I have learned to focus better and to work with maybe only two or three key details that make the project work.

Around the mid 1990s, the Erasmus Bridge was one of my first major projects, and there I learned for the first time how to work on a large scale and within a city context. I was 32 at the time, which was quite young for such a commission. I was also busy expanding UNStudio at the same time, so it was a very intense learning period for me.

Could you walk us through a typical workday in your current role?

I don’t think I could describe any day as really typical. One day, I may be at the office; the next, travelling to a project site somewhere in the world or meeting with a client; and the next, I may be teaching or giving a lecture. But, a typical day in the studio usually involves a mix of design reviews with the teams and some organisational meetings. Fortunately, I now have such a good management team around me that I can spend much more time on design.

What is your favourite building and, in your opinion, who is the greatest architectural mastermind of our time?

I don’t actually have a favourite building or a particularly influential figure when it comes to architecture. I don’t follow ‘two masterpieces and one hero’ as such. I am more inclined to be interested in certain specific qualities in many buildings.

If you were hosting a dinner party to discuss architecture and design, and you could invite three individuals, either from the past or the present, who would you choose to join your conversation?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Mann and Joni Mitchell.

Looking ahead, what exciting projects or initiatives can we anticipate from you in the coming year?

This year, we have a number of important completions coming up, including the Wasl Tower in Dubai and FOUR Frankfurt in Germany. We are also expanding our in-house expertise and R&I efforts to really innovate in areas including energy-efficient buildings, the use of eco-friendly materials and the integration of renewable energy sources.

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