Pick and mix: Michelle Delk and Ben van Berkel on mixed-used developments

12 December 2016



In today’s cities, mixed-use developments represent the greatest opportunity to embark upon mega-projects, with typical sites requiring a multiplicity of architectural solutions. Often, however, the ambitions of architect and client are not aligned. To what extent can architects drive the programme irrespective of the brief? And how can successful collaboration be best achieved? Rod James meets a number of successful practitioners, including Snøhetta’s Michelle Delk and Ben van Berkel of UNStudio, to find out.


Writing in the RIBA Journal in 1965, Denys Lasdun outlined a creed that has excited successive generations of architects.

“Our job,” he wrote, “is to give the client, on time and on cost, not what he wants but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognises it as something he wanted all the time.”

As well as instilling in the architect a desire to reach immediately for pencil and paper (or AutoCAD), Lasdun’s sentiments have imbued the profession with a sense of obligation: your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to harness your superior ability to visualise ‘the possible’, using this to drive the ambitions of the client –and, by extension, the discipline of architecture – forward.

Today, it can often seem as though the ability to ‘dream big’ – to develop a vision and follow it through – is more restrained than ever. As well as the difficulty in securing approvals, particularly in mature markets, a fundamental shift in the client mix has occurred that is affecting the way in which architects must think. According to the 2015 Client & Architect report published by RIBA – which provided a look at what clients want from those who design their buildings – the industry’s current reliance on corporate clients will only grow in the coming years, making it vital that the architect is able to account for every penny spent.

“Viability is critical, and the extent of this trading is limited to what is best for the client – a building that adds value optimally,” the report says. “Benefits that the client cannot capture – externalities – may be an aspiration for the architect, but they are hard to justify unless they align with the client’s drivers at no cost or add overall value for the client.” These sentiments can hardly be considered Lasdunian.

Opportunities to develop a grand vision still exist, many of which come in the form of large mixed-use projects – often, though by no means always, in emerging markets. Such projects require a wide variety of architectural solutions and provide plenty of square footage to test them, allowing the architect to push more of their ideas into the final product. A project being mixed use, however, is not merely one set of commercial interests that must be considered, but many. When a firm does encounter an opportunity to spread its wings, how can the client be brought on board for the flight? And how can a more cautious client be convinced of a new and different, approach?

A walk to the edge of the cliff

In 2008, Snøhetta was commissioned to design the Gateway project in the emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah. Funded by the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority and property developer RAKEEN, the project consists of a series of low-lying units tied together by a flowing, undulating white roof and walls. In the middle is a 200m-high tower that marks the entrance to a grand square. The 450,000m² site consists of a five-star hotel, conference centre, an exhibition centre and retail space.

We can navigate more successfully when we have a relationship that is grounded by the idea of partnership rather than the client directing a consultant.

Snøhetta recently embarked upon the master plan for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, an 18-acre mixed-use development on the waterfront near the centre of Portland. In the early stages, the design will attempt to turn the casual observer into a “curious student of the intersection of natural environment, history, technology, and invention”.

According to Michelle Delk, landscape partner and discipline director at Snøhetta, client-architect relations for large mixed-use projects are not substantially different to any other project. Although clients initially spend a significant amount of time attempting to align their vision, they will have come to Snøhetta with an idea of the kind of buildings the firm produces. Snøhetta may attempt to push the clients further in a particular direction, but there are very few major surprises.

“Of course, mixed-use projects tend to incorporate a diversity of uses, some of which are driven by market demands,” Delk says. “But we tend to collaborate with clients who are also interested in developing a vision together that captures their ambitions and our creativity. We like to say that it is our job to walk the client to the edge of the cliff. There are times that a client has a different level of comfort with a proposal, but with clear communication and frequent client collaboration, these situations tend not to be a surprise, and we are generally prepared with alternatives that allow a successful direction.”

That is not to say that spanners don’t occasionally get thrown in the works. On occasion, an invested party will drop out and be replaced by someone who has never approved, or perhaps never even seen, the plans.

A greater problem is indecision: no matter how much groundwork is put into outlining the terms and aspirations of the project, someone may well change their opinion at an advanced stage. While such developments can never be foreseen, Delk believes they are less likely to happen if the right dynamic is struck from the start.

“We can navigate more successfully when we have a relationship that is grounded by the idea of partnership rather than the client directing a consultant,” she says. “We have many projects with complex client groups, such as one where we are directly working with four public agencies as well as a private landowner. By respectfully expanding our role from designer to also act as a partner, leader and adviser along with the client team, we are able to build trust and openness that leads to collaborative problem-solving when it is most needed.”

Limitations as an opportunity

Ben van Berkel, founding partner of Amsterdam-headquartered UNStudio, has worked on some of the most striking mixed-use projects of recent years, with his work in Singapore a particularly innovative example of the form. Raffles City Hangzhou incorporates retail and office space, housing and hotels into a 400,000m² site, defined by two 60-storey-high contorted glass and steel towers. In this instance – as is often the case in Singapore, according to Van Berkel – the client came up with the concept to create a site with a 24-hour life cycle.

“There is housing there, hotels, work, leisure – it is a real village,” he says. “And this mixture of programmes was an idea raised by the client because they believed it would be a socially sustainable approach. After eight o’clock [am] you come out to the car park and have people there who work, so the car park gets more and more empty as the afternoon goes on. But then it gets up to four, five o’clock [pm] and the car park gets slowly full again. That was the argument of the client and that was the inspiration for the form and design of the project.”

Van Berkel doesn’t feel that he’s ever had to compromise on a design. In fact, he believes that limitations placed on the architect by the client, either due to differing visions or financial concerns, can be beneficial because they force creative responses. This is often the case in the country in which he cut his teeth, the Netherlands, where local governments appreciate good architecture but often aren’t in a position to outlay big expenditure.

He has also found, relatively recently, what he feels is the key to successful collaboration on large mixed-use projects: to not only seek out the right engineering, construction or consulting firms, but also to secure the right individuals within that organisation. Generally speaking, these will be people who are curious about design as well as engineering. When the designers and technicians can think with a single brain, it becomes far easier to persuade the client to your way of thinking.

“I put it in my contract,” Van Berkel says. “I want to work with that firm – but only with that group, and that particular person. I was in the most difficult part of the design phase of Arnhem train station. I hired a wayfinding firm called Bureau Mijksenaar and a guy called Paul Mijksenaar to work on our idea of having no wayfinding signs in the building. The architect would do the work and it was through light and orientation that you would find your way around. Up until the end of the programme he was asking, ‘how does this perspective work?’ and ‘how can daylight come into the building so that people walk towards it?’ It was a really great job from him, and gave me a new way of thinking about how you use the creativity of the specialists that you work with.”

Most of today’s architects lack the swashbuckling freedom of Denys Lasdun, who was behind some of the most famous and controversial brutalist buildings to be realised in London. However, if they cultivate the right kind of client relationship, bring the right people on board and show a degree of flexibility, there are still plenty of opportunities to push the envelope.

UNStudio’s Raffles City in Hangzhou.
The 400,000m² development incorporates retail and office space, housing and hotels with a 24-hour life cycle in mind.
The Gateway by Snøhetta contains a hotel, conference centre, an exhibition centre and retail space.


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