Fine line

UN Studio’s pioneering architecture takes inspiration from graphic design, while embracing the inventiveness of engineering. Quentin Newark looks at the interaction of disciplines ahead of the opening of the Mercedes Benz Museum

I’m sorry to disappoint every designer reading this, but, whatever you do, it comes way behind architecture. Since the Bauhaus, architecture has been considered the very pinnacle of design. The diagram that shows design teaching at the Bauhaus is a circle, with basic exploration of materials, such as stone and paper, on the outside, more developed arts, such as typography and ceramics, on the inner part, leading into the Bau (building) in the centre. That’s why it was called the Bauhaus. Designers and design-writers blithely invoke the name of the Bauhaus as if it were a summit of achievement in graphic design, when, in fact, the name itself is a reminder of the view that what matters most, in all creative activity, is architecture.

The computer has changed architecture like it has changed everything else. It has enabled fundamentally new approaches to the way buildings are designed. The most visible sign of this is dramatically expressionistic or organic exteriors, but the technology also gives architects and engineers far more choices in the creation of a building’s structure, allowing them to calibrate twisting skeletons of steel and swooping concrete that make spaces the like of which we have never experienced before.

UN Studio is probably one of the best-known Dutch proponents of this new architecture. At its core are husband and wife team Ben van Berkel, an ex-graphic designer, and Caroline Bos, an art historian. A little like the film Seven Samurai, they built a team of all the talents, adding other architects and engineers to UN Studio appropriate to the project in hand. The new book the couple have written about their work is half full of what you might call archi-porn – the usual, superslick photographs of eerily empty buildings. The other half is far closer to what we recognise as graphic design – drawings of all sorts, diagrams, groupings of typography and flat shapes twisted once to make them three-dimensional (a bit like packaging). Van Berkel calls these ‘models’. He argues that his graphics background has given him special modelling skills, and that these more sophisticated models enable him to build far more adventurous buildings.

The book claims that ‘we don’t design buildings anymore’. Bos writes that architecture has come to a dead end, with a very tired and limiting process of sketch/model/construction drawings leading to a predictable and small set of building types – usually some sort of box. Therefore, UN Studio seeks something else – ‘something other than architecture, another way of thinking’ – and it is the ‘models’ that help them do this.

Initially, the team analyse the client’s needs in terms of what architects call the ‘programme’ – the building’s function, how it will be used – and van Berkel creates a typographic study of functions, time, staffing, services and so on. The organisation of the type suggests a basic shape – intertwining loops, three circles, a blob with a loop. Then the engineers suggest materials and look at how the shape might work as a structure, and then the architects look again at what kind of building it might make, and whether it is ideal for the end use.

This is one way in which UN Studio is markedly different from the pervading practice of architecture (remember, these are designers who consider themselves to be at the top of the tree, everyone else subsidiary). Peter Rice, engineer of the Pompidou Centre and Sydney Opera House, said, ‘I would distinguish the difference between the engineer and the architect by saying that the architect’s response is primarily creative, whereas the engineer’s is essentially inventive.’

Normally, an architect will conceive of a building in quite some detail and then ask an engineer to ensure it won’t collapse or blow away in the wind. With UN Studio’s reiterative models, the engineer is involved at the outset, making fundamental decisions about form at a moment in the evolution of the project usually preserved for the architect alone. So what UN Studio ends up with is a building that is achieved by a very fresh method. The models are ‘used like a map – all the other layers in play’, enabling a process of going back and forth between aesthetics, function and structure, with all members of the team involved. Van Berkel calls this the ‘ping-pong quality of working at six or seven things at the same time’, with the architect as a sort of ‘editor, a critic, but also with the visionary role’. After all, there does have to be a leader, a final arbiter.

In this struggle to bring something fresh into architecture, perhaps the most fully realised example is the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, which opens on 19 May. The process began with a shared examination of the exhibition with the exhibition designer, HG Merz. The best path seemed to be a constant looping, cutting through the development of Mercedes cars, trucks, bikes, engines and visions of future transport. The ideal form was three overlapping circles – an ascending trefoil shape, like a three-dimensional clover. Van Berkel calls this kind of basic shape a ‘big detail’. He talks of how his graphic design training allows him to see the building as ‘like a logo’, and to undertake the same processes of reduction and compression that logo-design involves, never letting the complexity of a building become confusing, the design always in the spirit of the ‘big detail’.

The resulting building looks extraordinary and unpredictable – sleek like an engine, but also erratic and expressive. The complex structure is further complicated with segments cut away to make an asymmetric atrium – the best comparison seems to be the wild spaces of a movie set, with its ability to defy gravity and the normal laws of construction. Indeed, van Berkel describes the experience of moving through the building as ‘walking through movie spaces which are behind you and on top of you, and seem to be, themselves, mobile’.

Van Berkel says the best possible compliment for him is when someone says ‘your building is strange’, because what they mean is that it has no clear precedent and no history. He and Bos have gone ‘outside the world of architecture to get something and bring it back to architecture’. It is interesting that he has taken ideas and practices from graphic design to do that. It would seem that even architects still have something to learn from their lessers.

UN Studio/ Design Models by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos is published this month by Thames & Hudson, priced at £36

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