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Ben van Berkel



UN Studio

Amsterdam, Shanghai, Hong Kong

Interview by Ruth Slavid

Kutaisi International Airport, Georgia, RCA - Architects UNStudio - Lighting designer Primo exposure © Nakanimamasakhlisi
Architect Ben van Berkel
UNStudio is a practice with projects round the world, ranging from small products to the city scale. Its founder, Ben van Berkel, sees light as one of the most important tools in his work.

UNStudio has built a worldwide reputation as an architectural office, but that is not how founder Ben van Berkel sees the practice.

“We are beyond architecture,” he says. “We are fascinated by everything that inspires us – by design, architecture, how we use infrastructure”. The result is that the business works in a range of fields, at a variety of scales. So while it is designing products for companies such as Walter Knoll and Alessi, it is also working in China on a massive scale, on mixed use buildings that Van Berkel describes as “almost a city in a building”. In between comes the architecture at a “normal” scale – theatres, museums, housing and other building types.

Van Berkel attributes this flexibility to his UK education at the famous Architectural Association in London where tutors took a holistic approach. As a result he sees himself in the same category as architects like Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Nick Grimshaw – “not afraid to design a yacht, a bridge or a residential building”.

UNStudio has a distinctive style, with many of its buildings being rather sinuous, organic and complex. While projects need to be suited to place and client, how is it possible to keep a coherent approach? Although there is work in nearly 25 countries, and significant offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong, between them employing around 60 people, “I always try to control the knowledge from Amsterdam,” Van Berkel says, describing his central office, which employs 140 people.

At the same time, he has systems in place to ensure that knowledge and responsibility are shared among the staff. “We have knowledge platforms within the organisation,’” Van Berkel said, “with ideas around sustainability, new materials, and computational techniques... we distribute and store knowledge in a proper way, always educating staff in the right manner”.

This allows knowledge acquired in one part of the world to be used in another. So, for example, on the Canaletto residential tower in London, the practice is exploring the idea of “super-living”, of living sustainably with a connection to health and social sustainability – an idea, Van Berkel says, that has evolved from a number of projects around the world.

It is always interesting to learn how successful architects see architecture. For Van Berkel, “it is important that you know that the architecture woks on all levels – for the client, the city fabric and organisation, and for the future of the city”.

Since van Berkel is so interested in knowledge and in sharing knowledge, it is no surprise that he is an enthusiast for BIM.


“I was one of the first in the 1990s to use 3D modelling,” he says. “I believe that it is important to use advanced tools and I have always wanted to be at the forefront of technology”.


Light is one of van Berkel’s most important tools when he is designing a building, in particular daylight. “If you don’t work with light you don’t know the effects you can produce,” he says.


You can create a sense of warmth and welcome or guide people and help to orientate them in the right direction. It is one of the most essential qualities in architecture”.


It is not surprising, when you consider Van Berkel’s love of technology, that he designed one of the first media facades, on a galleria in Seoul, South Korea in 2003, working with Rogier van der Heide.


In a second galleria for the same client in Cheonan, South Korea the emphasis was also on the interior. In a pioneering use of LED, Van Berkel used light lines in a suspended ceiling that echoed the forms of the structure below. The effect, he says, was that “as you looked up in the blackness, the entire ceiling became a chandelier”.

Canaletto Tower,  London (UK)
Now, he says, “the most exciting aspect of light is that it is data. You can connect a phone, make it interactive, and create lighting systems that can be supported to make a city walkable, safer, and more social. “In interiors, he says, “you can have a different mood every hour. It’s not a gadget quality of new technology.

The beauty is that it can connect to so many human aspects of our lives. You can make people healthier and avoid them working with inadequate light every day and getting tired eyes”.

UNStudio did an office project in Groningen that plays with the interaction between daylight and artificial light which Van Berkel describes as “a constant play and dynamic relationship between energy saving and health”. Some of the ideas that he used came from learning he acquired in hospitals, which are interested in the latest thinking in the way that lighting and ventilation can affect health.

Another project that explores technology in all its forms is the W.I.N.D house in North Holland, which van Berkel describes as “a smart house for a family that believes in sustainability”. The house generates most of its own energy and can be controlled from an iPhone. But this is not hair shirt sustainability. The house has a beautiful organic form, designed as a series of petals to maximise light and views.

“The beauty of light,” van Berkel says, “is not so much to do with the light itself but what it is projected onto. “It may be at the forefront of technology, but it is using that technology not for its own ends but in the service of atmosphere and emotion. “If you think about how light can create a quality of texture or inflection of colour,” he says, “and generate an architectural mood, you will realise how important it is. The extent of what we can do with light is so diverse, it is the most wonderful element”.
Interview published in Luminous Magazine 18/2016

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