What is a solid design method

Design models as a design method

Ben van Berkel on design strategies and the digital revolution in everyday architectureDETAIL: In your book "Design Models" you advocate eliminating design from the field of activity of architects. Are you really serious?

Ben van Berkel: In a way, yes, but of course it is primarily intended as a provocation. We are debating whether design should not be eliminated. First of all, there is a misunderstanding between the Anglo-Saxon term "design" and "drafting" in German or in Dutch. Nowadays "design" is almost a stigmatized expression that denotes superficial fashion trends. We do not want to completely abolish design in architecture, but we are opposed to the fact that it is increasingly understood only as the external presentation of a design. We would like to encourage you to rethink design techniques. Before thinking about new design methods, the word design should be abolished and replaced with a more appropriate one.

DETAIL: You used to work with diagrams as a design tool, for example showing the course of the flow around a spaceship. What's new about the design models?

Ben van Berkel: Today we have an almost infinite number of options for designing a building - and computer programs that enable any shape. At such renowned universities as Columbia University in New York or the Architecture Association in London, the concepts that we invented with a small group of architects in the 1990s are not only repeated, but developed further. Even so, instead of harnessing the potential of diversity, many designs look similar. We believe that this is due to the complexity of architecture.

The "Design Models" should help to break down this complexity and to develop a disciplined way of working, as a guideline on the way through the unlimited possibilities. Artists or fashion designers are one step ahead of us when it comes to developing design methods. They create innovation by concentrating on one sub-area and initially ignoring the other aspects, for example when they make color the main theme in a collection.

Once you have found such a guiding theme, it is no longer difficult to find the right fabric that brings out the color even better. Or think of Andy Warhol, who took Roy Lichtenstein's printing technique as a starting point and created something completely independent and new with his overpainting.

DETAIL: What role does the digital revolution play for you in terms of your design strategies?

Ben van Berkel: It really does play a crucial role. With the help of computer-aided design, we can radically question the basic typologies that have emerged in building history and work with new ingredients. In order to understand this, one must first visualize the order systems that have been used up to now. The "ingredients" of modernity are the support, ceiling slab and open-glazed facades. A popular system is the orthogonal grid or the collage or order grid, which interpenetrate or overlap like a collage. Each of these strategies came into play in the course of history, sometimes more, sometimes less. The really new thing about designing with computers is that we no longer have to choose a system, but can merge several principles into a far more complex result.

DETAIL: But doesn't this merging lead to the same blob designs over and over again?

Ben van Berkel: Not if you constantly make it clear to yourself what you are actually doing with the digital tools. It is interesting, for example, that the transition can be smoothly controlled when different elements penetrate. Leaving both elements as close as possible creates the effect of a collage; with increasing merging one creates more and more a hybrid. This type of hybrid, in which the initial elements are still noticeable, but something completely new is created, is illustrated by the example of "Manimals", a synthesis of human (man) and animal (animal).

DETAIL: How has the use of the computer changed your work process?

Ben van Berkel: Today you can rethink the entire previous linear planning process. We used to say: This is the sketch, this is the model, we will now use it to make the work plans. Ten years ago we worked more or less like that. For five years we have been using complex engineering technologies to find out at an early stage how far we can deform a certain material. By entering different materials into our parametric 3D data model, we can anticipate the respective interactions between forces from the structure and external influences. Only when we are certain of what is technically possible in detail do we go back to formal considerations.

This is a revolutionary development with enormous potential. Today there are many technical possibilities. If I want a double-curved façade sheet, you have to consider in good time whether I will deform it in the factory or bend it on the construction site or reinforce it with fiberglass. This allows facade elements to be made thinner. With the computer we examine the border areas of a material due to its technical properties, but also innovative optical and haptic effects.

DETAIL: Does that mean that there are no crayons or modelers in your office?

Ben van Berkel: We don't start right away on the computer. If you work exclusively with the computer, you run the risk of not using your imaginative and creative possibilities to the full or using them incorrectly. We switch between media and use experimental techniques like fashion designers or composers of contemporary music. We usually start very playfully by imagining what the consequences would be if the building were, for example, a ball.

Or in the middle of the design process, I bring in a little diagram from a different context, so we work a lot with metaphors. Physical models help us here, mostly very simple paper models that clearly illustrate the idea. We have a large model making workshop in the office, only the complex models that are manufactured using rapid prototyping technology are outsourced. In order to test the design with different materials, we then put the structures in different clothes.

DETAIL: You could also cover the digital model with textures, each in different materials. What are the advantages of the physical models?

Ben van Berkel: The decisive advantage of physical models is their clarity. They also convey a sense of scale, which is far less the case with digital models. But of course we are also working on the digital model. During the construction of the Erasmus Bridge, we learned to appreciate this way the engineers work. Today we ourselves use advanced engineering programs like Topsolid and even combine programs with each other to get the best solution for us.

DETAIL: Would it even be possible to create such a spatially complex building as the Mercedes-Benz Museum without the help of a computer?

Ben van Berkel: To be honest, I think it would be possible. But it would never be possible in the short time we had. But what you need to know and what is not a matter of course: The owners of Mercedes created the conditions so that we could work with the most modern technical possibilities. Since the entire building technology is integrated in the exposed concrete components, every detail had to be coordinated with the engineers and companies. After all, it was important to constantly and reliably send all plan changes to up to 500 different parties involved; at times we had up to 200 updates per day.

DETAIL: What do you do if a commissioned company does not have the know-how to take part in this digital process?

Ben van Berkel: We excluded that from the outset by making knowledge of digital construction processes an essential condition when placing orders. We briefed all specialist planners and companies exactly whether they understand the 3D model and can work with it. Given the short planning and construction time, we had to rely on everyone involved being very familiar with the digital technologies from the start.

DETAIL: What is the advantage of a parametric model?

Ben van Berkel: A parametric model means that it not only defines the location of various points in space, but the relationships between these points. At the Mercedes-Benz Museum, hardly two of the tetrapod supports are alike. However, we did not draw these columns individually, but defined the parameters for them based on the load transfer, slenderness and the canted shape. If, for example, the building radius changes, and with it the load input and the position of the supports, you don't have to redraw and recalculate all of them, they generate themselves within the set parameters. The management of the original model reduces the risk of errors and miscalculations. It helps to save material and makes the construction process controllable. We call this digital sustainability.

DETAIL: Do you need a new type of architect in your office due to the intensive use of computers? Tobias Wallisser, who looked after the Mercedes Museum, is a proven computer specialist.

Ben van Berkel: In any case. In the 1990s, Tobias was one of the leading thought leaders in this field. But the development is very fast. I jokingly told him that he was from the Maya generation because we used the Maya computer program to create our 3D models. Today we use the Topsolid program, among other things, and our young employees are mostly computer geeks who work a lot with scripting techniques and modify programs. Many of them studied at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, where I teach together with the best programming specialists. You do an internship at UNStudio during your studies and come back to us after graduation.

DETAIL: Do you draw on the computer yourself?

Ben van Berkel: I've always been interested in design techniques and was therefore very open to this technology, even if I had a very classic architectural education. I always want to know exactly the latest techniques that are currently on the market and I keep up to date with our employees. I started teaching myself the 3D Studio Max program around eight years ago, so I know the principles. But if you ask me whether I could sit behind a keyboard today to build a 3D model on my own: I would probably not be able to do that. I'm more of the composer who conducts an orchestra without being able to play all the instruments myself.

DETAIL: How long have you been working with digital 3D models?

Ben van Berkel: I think we were at least one of the earliest firms among architects. It all started with the Erasmus Bridge in 1992. The employee who introduced it is still in the office today. Back then, the engineers were downright happy that they could build on our coordinate model. Perhaps we are so open to innovation in this area because we started working with it very early. You can read the detailed interview in: DETAIL 12-2007, p. 1424-1433 Further information: UNStudio. Design models, architecture, urbanism, infrastructure, 399 pages, Niggli Verlag 2006,
ISBN-10: 3721205820, ISBN-13: 978-3721205824, 58 euros