Entrance door of BOARD’s office in Rotterdam, photo by Sonia Arrepia, ©Sonia Arrepia

Crossing Boundaries
Interview with Bernd Upmeyer

Research for Architectural Domain: How diverse is your organization in terms of its members?
Bernd Upmeyer: At the moment we are working with a fixed and core staff of 7 to 8 people, who are all trained as architects, but interested in working on projects that go beyond architecture, such as producing magazines and publications, research studies, etc. When we are working with people from other disciplines, such as sociologists, experts from the real estate industry, or economists, we team-up with them in particular projects and on the basis of free collaboration. At the moment, and related to the size of our office, it would be rather impossible to work with, for example, an economist as a fixed team member or a full-time collaborator. Thus, the diversity of the team always changes depending on the projects and on a temporary basis.

RAD: What is the motivation of your practices?
BU: The main motivation to run an office like BOARD that is active in a lot of different fields comes first of all from our interest in architecture and my own academic background as a trained architect. Although I was already interested in a lot of different issues and subjects, especially physics, but art too, for example, during my time in high-school in the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, I started studying architecture during the middle of the 1990s with the idea of becoming an architect in the traditional sense. But where I started studying architecture – at the University of Kassel in Germany and in a department called “Architecture, Urban Planning and Landscape Planning” – students were offered the possibility to pursue interdisciplinary group-work and self-initiated projects with urban designers and landscape designers from the very first semester and as part of normal study. I considered this as a great chance and grabbed this great opportunity to acquire a more complex view on architecture and to enlarge my field of work while starting to think, for example, about the scale of cities, but also engaging in different disciplines, a motivation that drives my activities and my practice until today.

RAD: What is the best project for you?
BU: What is important for me is that the projects that I am involved with differ from each other in terms of scale, clients, people, location, duration, focus, and subject. That serves my broad interest in different things. Thus, I would have trouble defining an ideal or best project on which I would like to work. Ideally, I would work on a large and urban research study, an architectural medium-sized project, a small-scale design project and a publication such as my new book on “Binational Urbanism”, or a new issue of my magazine all at once. That is what I like the most. I am lucky to have within my team in my Rotterdam-based office BOARD, the expertise, the experience that I gained in more than ten years of running the practice, and the possibility of doing all these things at a professional level. And if we lack some experts, we can easily and swiftly enlarge the team temporarily and in relation to a specific project.

RAD: How many projects do you run now? And what kind of projects are these?
BU: Currently, we are working mainly on four projects: one is the design of a public square of around 2.500m2 in one of the southeastern suburbs of Paris. The project is supposed to start being constructed in around six months time. Another project which keeps us busy at the moment is a research study on the metropolitan area of Paris. We have been working on this project since 2012 as part of an inter-disciplinary group that was appointed by the Atelier International Grand Paris (AIGP) to be part of their Scientific Committee. A third thing that is currently on our desk is a new issue of MONU Magazine on Urbanism, which will be released very soon under the title “Domestic Urbanism”. Furthermore, most recently we started working on the design for a Museum in the north of Europe. Parallel to these four projects I am busy writing several articles, one, for example, on independent publishing for an Italian magazine, and another on presentation methodology for a book for a South Korean publishing house. Since January of this year and during the coming months I will also participate in some lectures, debates, and symposia in relation to the Montenegrin pavilion for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

RAD: On average, how many members do you work with on one project and what kind of discipline do you collaborate with often?
BU: That depends very much on the project. A rather small architecture project is sometimes only covered by one single person and me. This person is usually an architect. But for a large research study such as the Atelier International Grand Paris (AIGP), our inter-disciplinary group included not only an architect and urbanist, but also an economist, a preservationist and historian, an environmentalist and engineer, and a real estate manager and advisor. And all of these group members had their own companies, being each able to add, if necessary, another 3 to 5 people to the team. Thus, the entire team had the capacity of around 20 to 25 people. However, to say now that these two extreme examples constitute an average of around 10 or 12 people per project would not represent the reality, because most of the projects are rather small. An average of five people per project would probably be more correct. To name with what kind of collaborator we work the most is also a bit difficult as this depends on the project as well. Over the last few years we collaborated, for example, with a real estate manager and advisor the most, because we needed his knowledge, especially for the research project on Paris.

RAD: What kind of people are your clients?
BU: Our clients are as diverse as our projects. They can be, for example, private companies, municipalities, magazines, museums, cultural organizations, architecture offices, or private individuals.

RAD: In your project how often do you inform your clients of the effect of your solutions on the problems you found in the project?
BU: That also depends very much on the project, the timing of the project, and how much the client wants to be informed. If an important delivery or presentation is approaching, we are usually more in contact with a client. For the public square that we are currently designing for Paris, the delivery deadline is very soon, which means that we are having meetings with the client once a week. However, as presentations for the Atelier International Grand Paris (AIGP) take place usually only every few months, there is less communication necessary. But working on our magazine MONU is once again a totally different experience, for example, because there we do not deal with any client, as the client is us. This certainly results in a different way of working as we discuss changes or new ideas only among ourselves in our office in Rotterdam.

RAD: What kind of influence does architectural thinking (or mind) have on your practices?
BU: Architectural thinking is somehow the base and starting point of most of our projects. We arrive at most of the things we are doing through architecture. One of our collaborators, who is also an architect, recently described all our activities as “architecture”, which is not entirely correct, as a lot of our projects are related to the field of architecture, but not necessarily pure architecture. However, there are usually a lot of connections to architecture in all the things we do. When our magazine MONU, for example, was exhibited recently in London, I was interviewed, and confronted with the question what the relationship between architecture and publishing might be. I replied that, to a certain extent, both architecture and publishing have indeed things in common, as they both can be understood as processes of information production. Nevertheless, neither architecture nor publishing can, nor should be reduced to the production of information. But I also think that working in the field of architecture leads in general very easily to an interest in other disciplines and inter-disciplinary ways of working, because architecture is in itself to a certain extent a multi-disciplinary profession, touching upon so many other professions such as art, engineering, sociology, or economics, to name just a few.

RAD: For you, what is the significance of inter-disciplinary working or what is the important element when it comes to building organizations?
BU: Personally, my interest in interdisciplinary work and the crossing of boundaries of different fields is based on my own broad interest, that goes back to my time in high-school, in all kinds of subjects, whether it be science, art, or literature. If it was possible, I would have continued studying all the different subjects that we studied in high school forever. However, what I personally and instinctively always favoured certainly has a greater general significance and importance when it comes to solving the challenges of an increasingly globalized and complex world, with an ever-growing mobility and faster exchange of information and goods, which people in only one discipline, are unable to face on their own. Just think of the topic of climate change, which requires an understanding of diverse disciplines to solve. But also in the field of architecture, we have faced for several decades an increasing complexity when it comes to structural systems, services, energy or new technologies, which has led to the reality that large structures can no longer be designed by one person but must be created by many. Thus, with my interdisciplinary practice BOARD I believe we are well prepared to face a lot of different problems and challenges. Another important aspect of interdisciplinary work is based in the fact that specialists who take elements from other realms of knowledge most likely better understand their own work and challenges, or simply be inspired to solve problems in a different way. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we all should become generalists, as interdisciplinarity is, on the other hand, also dependent on specialists that we can consult eventually.

RAD: Are there online articles, which describe you best?
BU: On my website www.b-o-a-r-d.nl I try to bring together all the activities and projects that I am involved with. There you will find a more detailed description of my office. Especially in the category “Interviews” you may not only find interviews that I did over the last couple of years for MONU Magazine with others, but also interviews by others interviewing me. Another interview that might also be interesting to mention here, that – however – is mostly focused on our magazine MONU but also on some of my other activities, can be found at http://b-o-a-r-d.nl/?p=4800. This interview, entitled “After all It Was You and Me”, was conducted by a Milan-based research collective as part of a programme for the 2015 Hong Kong-Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. It gives some deeper insight in my background and what I think about architecture and urbanism, but also some more thoughts on the topic of interdisciplinarity.

Title: Crossing Boundaries
Author: Bernd Upmeyer
Date: July 2017
Type: Commissioned interview
Publication: Potluck Organizations
Publisher: Gakugei publisher
Location: Kyoto, Japan
Interviewer: RAD – Research for Architectural Domain, Mitsuhiro Sakakibara