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'We Value Every Idea': Collective Thinking, Equality and Creative Freedom

World-renowned Dutch architect Arjan Dingste talks about the Pulkovo airport, his work in the international architectural design network UNStudio and how ordinary citizens can impact their urban environments.

On November 13, as part of the HSE — St. Petersburg School of Art and Design lecture series, we invited Arjan Dingste, director and senior architect of the international architectural design network UNStudio (the Netherlands), to hold a lecture on the topic “Open Cities”. The architect shared his experience working in UNStudio and commented on the modern ways of shaping the urban environments in a sustainable way. During the Q&A session with students, he talked about the Saint Petersburg airport Pulkovo and the ways ordinary citizens can impact urban planning decision-making.

  • Arjan, how do you combat creative burnout and shortage of ideas?
  • I come from a studio culture: two hundred people working in five groups in our Amsterdam office, and I’m leading one of the groups, but I don’t have a specific focus. I’m working on high-rise office buildings, booking.com projects, I work in Istanbul, I work on cable cars, I’ve designed the metro system in Qatar, the train station in the city of Arnhem that I showed you. It’s a constant mix of different typologies, which is very inspiring, and it also brings together a lot of different specialists. I think the focus brings a shortage of ideas.
  • What do you think about the architecture of our airport?
  • It was designed by our competitor, so I better be careful answering that. I’ve only seen it twice. Actually, I cannot remember how it looks from the outside. I remember that there’s this kind of a folded ceiling on the inside. What was interesting for me to see is that it’s actually a textile ceiling, which I didn’t imagine because it looks like some massive elements, I’m not sure if you’ve seen that… Actually, I was interested in the notion of using fabric as a ceiling element and still having a geometric experience. It was a positive impression. I think, from the outside, it didn’t leave an impression on me, so either it’s not so interesting or I simply didn’t pay attention.
  • During your talk, you mentioned that you’ve been here in Saint Petersburg in September. Was it a business trip? Were you discussing some projects in our city?
  • Yes, right now we are participating in two competitions in the city of Saint Petersburg.
  • What kind of competitions are those, if I may ask?
  • I cannot talk about it: we signed a secrecy contract on that. Hopefully, we win and then it will be announced. The competitions still will be running in the upcoming months, and we hope to present the final designs in January for both projects. They’re pretty large, so we hope to make positive impact in the city, and we hope to get selected, because we’re really inspired by the city of Saint Petersburg, which of course has strong ties to the Netherlands, Peter the Great coming over to the Netherlands learning about shipbuilding, taking a notion of urban planning. It’s one of the most beautiful cities that I’ve visited, and I visit a lot of cities, so it’s a compliment from me. It’s filled with history, and maybe a little bit of conservatism. I think there are some challenges in terms of liveability, but the culture that you have here is very inspiring.
  • You were talking mostly about the future-oriented projects. We know that some of the greatest magnificent buildings of the past last for centuries. What’s your forecast concerning your projects? For how long will they stand? Nowadays the speed of human progress is increasing rapidly in comparison with the past decades. What do you think about the life cycle of contemporary architecture?
  • I’ll probably have to ask our future forecast department. I think it’ll vary depending on the different types of buildings. During the history of the company, which is 30 years, we never had any of our buildings being demolished. We even had temporary projects that we built to last five years, but they’re still there after 20 years, which is sometimes a little bit embarrassing, I have to say. I think it’s different.

The Arnhem station could be one of the monuments of the future, because it has a future-oriented design, and we started the conception of that [project] twenty years ago, and it was opened four years ago (which is too long a process), but it functions flawlessly and we think it’s very adaptable to changes. As you said, I think the historic cities are probably the most sustainable we have around the world. We have our 15-16 century rings in Amsterdam, which in the beginning were built as warehouses with a small residential part, and they turned into a residential area: now there are offices, shops, hotels there right now. Therefore, I think cities can deal with it.

What might be a problem is a mobility, transportation: bringing all these cars to the city is kind of creating a lockdown. Now there’s a big focus on mobility projects. We have discussions on whether we densify areas and then solve mobility or we solve mobility first. This is why we’re quite interested in these new mobility concepts like cable cars as part of the system to conquer natural barriers, like rivers splitting cities.

I don’t know, I think there are more commercial projects, office buildings, and we feel that existing stock can be updated. We see the buildings considered to be at the end of their life cycle in transformation projects, when with the right approach you can remodel it into a new working environment with the quality beyond the today’s standards. Time will show, we just have to be flexible and innovative and not immediately think of tearing things down, but rather upgrading them.

I believe that our cities will become more liveable. Fossil fuels and cars are a dying element, and that’s why the car industry is dropping down like crazy. We’re starting with electric cars, which also have some challenges. I think it’s about making these connections, and there’s data research that will make the cities more liveable. The last thing I showed, this residential area looks a bit like back-to-the-60-70s hippie community building. This is the kind of solutions I think we need to look for.

With the individual economy, we see cities getting too standstill. Now probably all of you use this Yandex app on your phone, and in Amsterdam we have Uber, which is an American company. However, now in New York, where Uber initially started to take off, they actually put a limit on the number of Uber cars, because on the one hand, people got an easy access to individual transportation: you just press a button, and there’s a car stopping and then dropping you off. On the other, what they noticed is the people who started to use this service were those who previously used metro, public transportation. Typically, there’s a driver and one person sitting in that car, and we end up getting more cars in the streets rather than public transportation. So I think this is the kind of thinking that we need to bring together, the new concept of sharing, smarter algorithms, one car with multiple people.

Suddenly, they start to build larger cars, electric cars, and now there are 4-5 people in that car instead of one. And this is where we can use data algorithms to make things a lot smarter and more sustainable. As designers interacting with data and using it creatively, we can make better cities, and there are some challenges that we have to deal with. That’s an important aspect.

  • Your company is now developing four different locations; naturally, you are working on projects in different countries. Do you see something like a national architecture school in the Netherlands, Japan or elsewhere, or do you think now architecture is more of international business, a cross-border matter?
  • I think it’s both. We don’t pretend to know each city. Of course, we’re doing the majority of our projects outside of the Netherlands, but we always partner up with the local architecture firms, because we need their support and we like to work together with local companies to get a local knowledge into projects (like the local building regulations — the companies guide us through these processes). The UNStudio stands for United Network Studio, so it’s kind of the vision that we brought to the studio — that we don’t think we know everything. We think we can know more if we work together with the smartest people around. I think there’s truth to both [of these statements]. There are smaller companies, really being part of their cities, which still have a reason for being there. At the same time, we can bring the international experience and new ideas and blend that with the local norms.
  • Can you name a couple of peculiarities of the Dutch architecture?
  • When I studied, I went to a polytechnic university first and then moved to the technical university in Delft. In Delft they looked at me kind of weird, because I was already an engineer, and in Delft, the notion is you train architects, and engineers go to engineering school, and other technical universities have a considerably more technological approach, so there are two schools. One school is focusing much more on developing the individual and freethinking of the architect and the other school is focusing much more on technology-driven engineering-based architecture.

I think the kind of offices that are successful internationally are all coming from the Delft school, except the founders of our office Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos: they’re actually coming from art school, and they studied in AA in London [the AA School of Architecture — editor’s note] and they’re coming from the architecture circles with a research background. So it’s a little bit funny in that sense, and we’ve constantly been working on research. I think we’re quite different from the other offices in that.

I don’t think there’s a national form of architecture in the Netherlands. There were books written about the Dutch architecture: OMA, MVRDV, Mecanoo [Dutch architecture firms — editor’s note]. We were always hanging a bit on the side because we have more academia network internationally. I think right now architecture rather internationalised due to the use of digital media. So I don’t think there’s a regional style anymore in the larger projects, which is maybe what we have to challenge. We are always interested in bringing local thinking and local knowledge and bringing things together. There are pros and cons.

I don’t think there’s a Dutch style anymore. Maybe there’s a Dutch way of thinking, in the sense that the biggest problem and also the positive effect that we have is that there is a lot of individual thinking: for instance, we have over twenty political parties. That’s because nobody can find the right political party, and if they don’t agree with the existing ones, they start their own party. So, the individualism and the freedom of thinking allows for more creativity.

At the same time, we see that in collaboration we can create the synergy, so we can bring the right thinkers together. [That way] you can create much more than as an individual. And that’s the kind of thing we try to promote in our studio: making people work together, collaborate, and value every idea, no matter if it’s coming from an intern or the director. Like in the project that I showed you, two twisting towers in Melbourne, — actually, an intern came up with this idea. It’s a great idea, let’s take it and develop that. I think that it’s this non-hierarchical way of thinking that gives us our freedom.

  • Do you think ordinary people can have an impact on their urban areas and how?
  • I think they can. Maybe not as a single person, but if you unite [with other people] (for example, by means of technology), then you can really make an impact. With a residential project, we found that by looking into that interaction and taking the future residents into a discussion, explaining our crazy ideas, we could really engage them. I suddenly also noticed that if they start working together they could actually use their collective data as a currency, as a force, so they’re stimulated to work together.

If you see what impact you have on the food production, on energy, you’re also inspired to be in this game environment, compete with your neighbours to be the most sustainable, use the lowest amount of energy, but also working together. It’s an unexplored area, but I really think that if you can make it collective and put the citizens in the driver’s seat on what happens with that. Then they really have a big impact on how our cities are going to be shaped. You cannot just design something and not talk to the future users, because in this case, you’re enforcing something.

We don’t pretend to build perfect buildings, we want to build buildings that are adaptive and open for change, because they will be there for a long time, but the technology changes quickly, and buildings have to be able to adapt to that. How people work is changing quickly. Maybe in some areas of the world the progress is a little bit slower, but in the end, we all will have the same demands on the basic essence of being healthy, being able to work in a healthy environment. We want a better world for the future generations, so we care about the environmental impact that our buildings have. I think, that this day will come, and the collective should enforce that.

  • To the concept of the eco-cities you’ve talked about: if I understand correctly, all buildings in these cities are designed in the same style. Do you think it might be dull for the citizens to see the same landscapes everywhere all the time?
  • It’s not the intention to build the same houses everywhere. We design these areas on a master planning urban level. And we actually want to stimulate people to build their own houses as groups, which is something that’s becoming quite popular in the Netherlands. People who can’t afford to build a house themselves form a group of four or five families and build that house together, and it’s also bringing an interesting notion on how you can be more environmentally-friendly, looking on wood as a construction material, considering the environmental impact that building materials have. I think we bring quite a strong diversity in the architecture. So, on an urban planning level we were designing a framework and not every single house. We were designing a mechanism of these elements to function together, and I think that can bring individual qualities. Whether it will be beautiful is another question and another debate.