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.
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.
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 makes for UNStudio give 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.
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.