Traditional offices are obsolete

World-renowned architect Ben van Berkel increasingly views his profession as a puzzle, with health as an added value.

Source (NL): ©️FD,  MICHOU BASU

Van Berkel is a busy man. His studio, UNStudio, set up with his former wife, art historian and urban development planner Caroline Bos, is raking in project after project. The coming years are dedicated to a train station in Madrid and several airports in the Middle East. In South Korea he has eight big projects running. “Architects are idolized over there,” says the designer of the Erasmus bridge in Rotterdam. “Sometimes my assistant accompanies me on my travels. She is always blown away by the respect and attention we are given.

UNStudio has a staff base of 300 people spread across the globe, working from Amsterdam, Asia, Australia, Dubai and the USA. Van Berkel has had to learn to outsource any management tasks, so he could once again focus on his profession. “Management took up 60% of my time, against 40% design. Now, I coordinate 70% of the design work myself. Fellow architects don’t believe me when I say this, they think I spend my time traveling, but I don’t.

Sometimes Van Berkel spends a long time working on just one project. “Those people become your friends, because you work with them so intensely.” Norman Foster (88) is one of those friends, just like Renzo Piano (85). Veterans, both of them, but retiring is not an option in their book. The much younger Van Berkel agrees: “Architects do not retire. They keep going. I think my best time is yet to come. I consider myself to be a fit and alert professional.

These are fascinating and yet complicated times. There is a lot of pressure on architects, you have to deal with enormous budgets. Your clients expect you to draw everything out and make a complete draft design, including 3D mock-ups, maps and calculations on the durability of a building.

Stretching the profession, Van Berkel calls it. “The puzzle gets more complex. I am a chess player, so I enjoy that.” An example is the new head office of in Amsterdam. Van Berkel designed a vertical ventilation system. “So bacteria cannot float from one person to the next”. He smiles and says: “Yeah, we thought of that even before COVID.

Social health

Since 2011, Van Berkel holds the Kenzo Tange chair at Harvard. He talks about his research there into the impact your environment has on you and your performance. “My colleagues didn’t get it. According to them, health is a different profession. They associated it with appearance, which is nonsense. Architects like Le Corbusier, Aalto and Van Eyck were already interested in the social health of urban surroundings. As am I, but in a modern way.

We always talk about climate change and how unhealthy our planet is, and we certainly have to tackle that, but our indoor climate is much worse. And we spend a whopping 80% of our time indoors. I am always surprised that this fact draws so little interest. A healthy building adds value”. He explains: “You can reduce absenteeism, recruit more people and also sell it better”. With this last remark Van Berkel hints at Booking Holdings, that sold its newly built head office to the investment branch of the German Deka bank for no less than €566.3 million, more than double the price paid to the project developer, according to Van Berkel. “It pays off when you can get investors excited about health and the new way of working.

In my opinion, traditional offices are obsolete. In larger companies, 35% of staff works from home. Not everyone is happy about that, but I do believe they need to consider the way in which people want to work.

According to Van Berkel, the sale has triggered something. “We see that other contractors also want their buildings to contribute to people’s wellbeing. They want us to design attractive locations with easy access and pleasant workplaces, including sports facilities and catering, where employees can get a healthy lunch.

A recent phenomenon is the role of the investors, who often seek direct contact with the architect. “The reason behind it is that the layer above them has stern demands. They have to prove that the building is sustainable. Greenwashing is no longer an option.” Van Berkel likes this development, as sustainability is finally taken more seriously.