The Indicator: UNStudio UNTraditional

  • 11 Apr 2013
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  • Editor's Choice The Indicator
The Four Knowledge Platforms. Courtesy,

By now you have probably heard that UNStudio, the Dutch firm led by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, is on target to relaunch this June as an open-source web-based knowledge hub… that, by the way, will still pursue adventurous architecture. We could say they are “launching” this initiative, but it seems more accurate to say they themselves are “relaunching”.

Because of the difficult economic climate in Europe, van Berkel and Bos began to reimagine the practice along the lines of something more fluid, flexible, and agile, a knowledge-based approach to how they work within the office and how they engage the larger world. They are basing this around four topics or “knowledge platforms”: sustainability, materials, organization, and parametrics.

The model for this was internet start-up culture and online knowledge sharing platforms where the spirit of collaboration and co-creation are the drivers. The notion of the solitary genius designer with the notebook full of ideas is swapped out for a hive of thought and potential accidents that may come from bumping into strangers on the Web. Let me rephrase. Bumping into strangers with a purpose, that purpose being to improve how buildings are designed.

The Four Knowledge Platforms reaching out to the universe of potential partners in different sectors. Courtesy, UNStudio

But this is not a reckless approach. Van Berkel has thought this through over many years and has been using his time recently as the Kenzo Tange Visiting Professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design to delve deeper into how highly-innovative internet companies work and evolve over time and how they challenge traditional notions of space, organization, and communication. In short, how they work with knowledge can yield insights that could be of benefit for architectural practice, which, incidentally, he says is “still in the Walkman phase.”

As their website notes:

“Whilst the architect will continue to design his or her own projects, the practice of architecture needs to adjust, to gather, edit and apply co-creative intelligence in order to create responsive architecture that is more integral, more holistic, more responsible and more intelligent.”

The past years of recession have forced architectural business and thought in previously uncharted directions—well, maybe not totally uncharted but at least ways of doing things that could be perceived as uncomfortable and risky. But architecture itself is risky to the core, so there you go. The times have just piled upon a few more layers of risk to deal with. Better to boldly deal with it than rely on the old models of work.

The tree of knowledge application. Courtesy, UNStudio

There is no shame in being compelled to do things differently. This is how firms are surviving. What’s different about the reaction this time around—recessions happen about every ten years, give or take—is that we are still high in the updrafts of the Internet’s explosion. Moreover, architecture has been dragged along by innovations in the tech world. Research has seemingly become central to practice in one way or another. The question is to what degree. It works for UNStudio given their interests in pushing the limits of theory as well as materiality.

Thus, the answer UNStudio provides is to do it to the highest degree possible and make that the operating system of the office, as it were. By doing so, they position themselves as a potential hub for breakthroughs in conceptual and material terms.

This idea of architects being knowledge workers is hardly new—architecture is knowledge- and expertise-based and premised on the extension and application of knowledge—but  what is new here is the move to implement this as an institutional platform upon which to base the functions and organizational structures of an entire practice. Moreover, this restructuring of the office is based on a self-organizing principle as opposed to a top-down structure based on hierarchy.

Where it all comes together. Courtesy, UNStudio

Will this approach insulate them from the pain of the next recession? As van Berkel noted in an interview earlier this year, it was Asia that kept them afloat—them and everybody else who survived. So, in terms of economics, it’s the buildings that are still driving the business. Ah, but here is the thing. By systematizing a knowledge-based approach they push learning and becoming “experts” to center stage and this could translate downstream to more desirable and efficient design solutions that potentially further the core business.

What then is the incentive for the outside world to participate in the open-source studio? It might simply be the logic of “if you build it they will come”, but that remains to be seen. What it seems to amount to is the company webpage 2.0. This may be the next logical level built upon the blogs and social media engagement many firms are currently doing. At very least it may prove to be a powerful marketing tool by projecting the inner-workings of the office out and inviting people into its midst. Will mastering or the appearance of mastering the core knowledge that can improve how buildings are designed draw clients? Or is it more likely to simply draw the leagues of archi-geeks and junkies populating the Web?

Would client representatives engage this as part of the office process to realize a commissioned design? Why not? There will be thousands of emails and phone calls (does anyone call anymore?) anyway. A collaborative process leading up to milestones would keep the clients more aware of exactly how their money is being spent and how architects work. Not a bad thing because the way things stand now, most people have no clue what architects go through to design a building and because of this they don’t like to pay much for architectural services. UNStudio’s approach may just change that if they can get the world they are open-sourcing with to take a look inside.


The ideas and opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not reflect the views of ArchDaily, it’s editors, or affiliates.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: UNStudio UNTraditional" 11 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>
  • flytoget

    UNonsense is a more suitable term I think.

  • common

    I absolutely commend UNstudio on taking this path.As van berkel said himself,’while other professions/industries are in the Iphone 5 stage, architecture is still in the walkman stage’.If you think about it,the fundamental practice of architecture hasn’t changed in a millenia. UNstudio are taking a massive risk here,but the rewards will be phenomenal.This is genuine innovation.

  • HD

    why do some architects keep living in their little fake worlds?

    • common

      little fake worlds you say?I think this is a real as it get.UNstudio are reinventing the way they work.The way architects work atm is outdated and detrimental to the profession.Just look at the working conditions of the architect today..long hours..terrible ever decreasing role in the built environment.Lets face it..architects are productively losing control.UNstudio is trying to evolve with the times.By changing to a knowledged based open source studio, they may become more efficient in the way they work and how they build.and they open themselves to better collaboration with fields and industries not necessarily related to architecture, where opportunities to learn can take place..Evolve or die

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  • jon bowles

    survival remarks of self interest

    surprisingly there is no mention of the two most important things in my mind as its not all about design. its about life cycle cost and enhancing resource from those who occupy a building to generate a better quality of life for those you use the building.

    I have worked out a simple way to build out of a so called recession after two years of working on the model.

    good luck with what you need.

    jon bowles

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  • Dave

    I wish architects and architectural writers wouldn’t use the term ‘open source’ so ignorantly. There’s a lot more to it than just ‘collaboration sounds good’ – it’s absolutely fundamental that things be explicitly open to sharing and repurposing. The question no-one has asked UNstudio is: How, SPECIFICALLY, will you license all of your material for free use by anyone? Well? How? What licensing terms will you use? It may be a very technical and stale subject, with no pretty pictures for the article, but it is on these grounds that an idea like this will either thrive or fail.

    The give-away here is that Van Berkel seems to think an iPhone is a good analogy of where he’d like to be, whereas Apple products are probably the least appropriate illustrations of the value of Open Source ecologies. He could have said Linux (the biggest Open Source success story) or if determined to stick with small gadgets he could at least have said Android. Or heck, he COULD have said Walkman – at least you can share tapes with friends. But no, he went for the iPhone – a fantastic gadget, yes, but ‘open source’ it ain’t.


  • jon bowles

    what are they trying to gain . why don’t they stick to architecture and leave social networking to others

  • common

    wow all the comment here are filled with doubt and skepticism..cannot believe it.the funny thing is everybody will agree that the role of the architect is diminishing..but no one is willing to look at alternative ways of working that can improve or regain relevancy.Its like everyone is complaining..waiting for the time when architecture will regain its position but no one is putting forward applicable ways to achieve that.UNstudio have done their research into this for years and come to the conclusion that a strategic shift in the way way they work is essential, and are implementing it.Everyone here is talking about design design design…well design is not gonna save architecture.

  • gerald lindner

    They might want to add UNdesign, as the MORE MORE & MORE extreme consumer attitude they serve and stand for as designers is very much the cause of the sustainability problem. So UN-solved or UN-willing would be more appropriate instead of UNtraditional. I’m not sure this is the “great new role” architects should want for themselves for the future. So yes a good portion of skepticism is very much needed here.