Features

Interview: Caroline Bos of UNStudio

July 10, 2013

Together with LAB Architecture Studio, NH Architecture and !melk, Dutch design firm UNStudio was recently involved in the design competition for Barangaroo Central in Sydney. AR Asia Pacific editor, Michael Holt, spoke with UNStudio co-founder, Caroline Bos.

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Above: Caroline Bos in conversation with AR Asia Pacific editor, Michael Holt

Michael Holt: Your recent Barangaroo Central presentation was your first in Australia for a project of this scale, who was involved?

Caroline Bos: We presented with Donald Bates [LAB Architecture Studio] and Hamish Lyons [NH Architecture], together with !melk as landscape architect; not to mention engineers, arts consultants and so on. We delivered our strategy and how we would approach the project.

MH UNStudio operates through research-based ‘platforms’ that feed into the project work; in effect you have these kind of individual ‘labs’. Did you see these collaborations working in a similar way – where you have LAB Architecture as a subsidiary lab of UNStudio, for example?

CB These kinds of collaborations are very open at the early stages of the process, as we define the approach by phrasing and framing questions. We seek to develop a unique understanding – a knowledge platform – we’re not archiving existing knowledge. It’s about real knowledge. This is something that you have to develop collectively. For instance, at the [Sydney] Opera House the first vision by [Jørn] Utzon was not entirely feasible, it was just an idea in a way. Then through local collaborations with politicians and engineers that vision was consolidated. It may have been a painful process, but it is this kind of collaboration that I thought was so exciting [at Barangaroo]. It wasn’t limited to technocrats, nor threatening to anyone’s professional integrity. We all entered the process far less defensively. The team was separated into those who would manage and deliver the process and a group that would deal with the design.

MH At the Mercedes-Benz Museum [Germany, 2006] and Galleria Centercity [South Korea, 2010] you create new, playful or hybridised typologies. Is such hybridisation or ideological transferral applicable to Australia or the Asia Pacific region?

CB That’s difficult because you’re hybridising the definition of what is Australian and what is Asian. What if we don’t believe in typologies or if we don’t believe in defining national identity anymore? I’m a follower of phenomenology so I talk only from my own experiences. We’re an independent, European practice, not corporate or dependent on a particular market or system with one particular type of client. In the last ten years we have become increasingly international and we continue growing: in Asia, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. What we know is that each has its own culture that transforms your idea of what an architectural practice is and what typologies could be.

MH Do you think large urban developments, such as Raffles City and The Scotts Tower, have changed the way you practise?

CB Yes, because the needs you’re confronted with are completely different; it’s not just about how you respond, it’s what you find there. You have to immerse yourself in a culture, to approach it as a kind of explorer. Learning to work in different cultures and with new technologies is a form of knowledge. Our studio is constantly shifting as a result of our work in other countries. I’m not saying that a globalisation of architecture is good or bad, but that I find it incredibly enriching. I think any architect – Australian, Dutch, etc. – would agree that it gives you a new insight into what architecture is.

MH UNStudio are in association with Gehry Technologies in software research and development, is this so you are better equipped for rapid, contemporary building phases in, for instance, China?

CB It’s a question of always being alert – ready to take on new systems – to work with many different programs. For example, at Raffles City, the whole facade is constructed using Digital Projects [CAD software based on CATIA V5 and developed by Gehry Technologies]. But, we can’t have a completely perfect way of working with all sorts of different programs; everything goes incredibly fast so we run with what we have. Personally, I think there are several tendencies that are empowering the architect: firstly, software technologies and secondly, the ability to provide specific skills in different contexts. In some overdeveloped countries, everything is broken up into specialised subsets. But to attain a quality project for a client or end user – one that is compatible with the vision – then they go back to the architect. You can’t freely distribute the roles of the architect. This allows for a re-empowerment of the architect.

MH As your work has progressed it’s become larger in scale, more urban. So, from the small-scale interventions, or pavilions, as lenses onto the city, do you now see the urban plan as its own lens onto the discipline?

CB I started out as an architectural theoretician but became more fascinated with the city so I also qualified as an urbanist, and in the last year I implemented an urban lab within UNStudio. Just as Ben [van Berkel] is interested in industrial products, I’m interested in the urban. The lab is incredibly important because the discipline currently has a big problem – the integration of architecture and the urban. Masterplanning, for example – which is long term and quite global – is in fact turning into land subdivision, the handing out of urban blocks to architecture with no infrastructural connection. In many Chinese cities, and also in Dubai, you get this corrosive emptiness; there is simply no connection between architecture and the urban. This problem is now my goal. In using inventive typologies – as we have been doing in our architecture in, for instance, Mercedes-Benz – we can bring architecture from the ground plane to the urban experience.

MH In your research for Barangaroo did you find anything of particular interest in Sydney? Was anything notably different to what you’ve researched in Europe or Asia?

CB Of course we have to look at topographical site specificity and all the different urban connections, but it’s not about Sydney as we already know it, it’s about the future. That’s what’s more interesting and particular to a city; whether it’s Sydney or another place, it’s always going to be about something that is not there yet.

www.unstudio.com

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