The work of the Danish architectural practice Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, depicts a global urbanism where formally exciting buildings, landforms, and spaces frame a socially engaged, athletic public life. To date, little of this world has been realized, but BIG’s built projects, most notably a trilogy of apartment buildings in the new Ørestad district of Copenhagen and the Danish pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, reveal the possibilities. With 8-House, in Ørestad, BIG mounted apartments in a gigantic, sloping numeral around twin courtyards with views to the open countryside. Its Expo pavilion captured the quality of life in Denmark’s cities through a public bicycle-rental station whorled around a swimming pool filled with Copenhagen harbor water. These projects have served as guarantors for new commissions, from Greenland to Shenzhen to Vancouver.
BIG’s design proposals, competition entries, and works in progress also exercise unusual influence. For each project, it produces campaigns of stylishly lit renderings supported by step-by-step cartoon diagrams, as if a new building came into the world as easily as flat-pack bookshelves. The proposals have slogans like “Engineering Without Engines” and “Hedonistic Sustainability,” and in their stories, Ingels himself is the narrator. BIG’s 2009 graphic novel, Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution, crystallizes this mode of presentation as Ingels the comic-book hero takes readers through thirty-five projects. Although a few projects in the book have indeed been built, the book’s conceit and design blur the boundaries between proposals and constructed architecture.
At thirty-eight, Ingels is one of the world’s most celebrated architects, and his career provides a new script for a profession that withholds distinction, if ever it comes, until much later in life. After interning at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, he launched a practice called PLOT, with Belgian architect Julien De Smedt, out of Copenhagen in 2001. Before PLOT sundered five years later, the two men had designed, among other projects, a remarkable housing complex nicknamed “the Mountain,” which became the focus of BIG’s early career prior to 8-House. Yes Is More also includes PLOT’s star-shaped Superharbor, which sits in the middle of the Baltic Sea, freeing up Denmark’s industrial waterfronts, as well as PLOT’s notorious solution to Copenhagen’s affordable-housing crisis, a kind of Great Wall of China–style apartment building that wraps around a popular park containing dozens of soccer fields. By devising and publicizing solutions for real conditions not yet identified by governments or developers, Ingels has invited opportunities rarely available to architects at any stage in their career.
A major public test for Ingels’s architecture will come in New York City, at the corner of West Fifty-seventh Street and the West Side Highway, where a pyramidal apartment tower said to be his synthesis of the American skyscraper and the Copenhagen courtyard building is now under construction. This commission, from the Durst Organization, allowed BIG to open an office in New York City, where Ingels says he was headed anyway. After bringing in seven new partners to head BIG with him, Ingels won a three-year working grant from the Danish State Arts Fund to write a novel, what he describes as “a Foucault’s Pendulum for architecture.”
I met Ingels for few early breakfasts during his first winter in New York City, the last time on President’s Day 2011, in an empty café in West Chelsea. The architect speaks a plosive English with a little uptalk.
I. “WE DIDN’T SET OUT TO DESIGN A MOUNTAIN”
THE BELIEVER: Why don’t your buildings look like buildings? For example, BIG won a recent competition for a waste-to-energy facility with a design that involves a ski slope.
BJARKE INGELS: I think our buildings look different because they perform differently. They combine or recombine essentially classical elements of the city in surprising ways, what I like to call “architectural alchemy.” By mixing traditional elements in nontraditional ways, you can create, if not gold, then added value or new possibilities. Cities are not all public works, opera houses, and cultural buildings. You know, they’re private places for living and working. Therefore they’re often built with a private motive, to resolve a function or to create something profitable. If all of those buildings are just lost opportunities that occupy space but don’t contribute to the city, the city grows really poor and lacking in qualities and experiences. Each time we get a project, we try to make clients happy but also weave it into the city, to contribute something to the urban realm. In the end, the enjoyability of a city is really the sum-total experience of all the constituent buildings. The ski slope—the Amagerforbrænding Waste-to-Energy Plant—has a natural lineage of some ideas we have been pursuing steadily over the last ten years. It’s a sustainable factory; it sorts waste—recycles 42 percent, burns 54 percent for heat and electricity in Copenhagen. Four hundred thousand people get power from their own trash. That would just be a big box, a giant factory torturing the sky over Copenhagen. We not only wrapped it in a beautiful facade, but we turned it into a destination. We exploit the fact that it’s the tallest and biggest building in all of Copenhagen. We exploit the fact that Copenhagen has the climate for skiing, all the snow in the world, but no hills. So people will go there, regardless, for fun, and then maybe eventually be curious about what’s actually happening inside.
BLVR: And the incinerator exhaust collects in the smokestack, then periodically the plant puffs it out as smoke rings. It messages the city, right: more trash means more smoke rings?
BI: It’s a way of counting the uncountable. Do you want to know what one ton of CO2 looks like? Like that. Do you want to know how frequently we vent one of those into the air? That’s how frequently.
BLVR: How do you conceptualize a building like the Mountain in Ørestad? Do you think of it in terms of program? Or is it landform?
BI: We didn’t set out to design a mountain. We set out to explore and exploit the symbiotic relationship between a parking building and an apartment building, and it started looking like a mountain. Then we went all in with the metaphor with the perforated facade, and Victor Ash, the Portuguese artist, who did these murals with mountains of cars. We went into mountain frenzy. But the mountain identity was a discovery that came as a consequence of the ideas that triggered the design. When you’re working with a lot of different options, you start naming them. You have a lot of discussion where you say, like, “I prefer what happened in this…” And they start getting names, and those names stick.
BLVR: VM Houses, the Mountain, 8-House—all of them had the same client, Per H.pfner. Was this an inspired relationship?
BI: Per is an incredibly experienced builder and contractor. I think he’s a carpenter by education, and then he became the director of a construction company. He knows a lot about building, but before we met him, he had built by far some of the worst buildings in Copenhagen. It wasn’t as though he came to us with some kind of crazy ambition. He actually came to us because we had just gotten second prize in a competition called “Better, Cheaper Housing,” where we had explored the idea of using off-the-shelf industrial greenhouses as the envelope for making incredibly generous and very inexpensive row houses. In the end, that project wasn’t right for Høpfner’s portfolio. But he did hire us to create another project in this new part of town where things were tabula rasa; there was nothing there. This became the VM Houses. Per knew that the buyers would be pioneers, essentially first-time buyers, so every single decision in this project was geared toward making the project less expensive. We designed each unit as one continuous space, like a real loft apartment, so we wouldn’t have to build all the partition walls. Our claim was that most of our friends who had recently bought apartments, the first thing they did was tear down all the walls. We would save them the trouble and offer them the raw space. We also got a dispensation from the city to make the building sixteen meters deep, instead of twelve, and, as a compensation to the city, we made the facades almost all glass, which is unusual. To get light deeper into the building, we made double-height spaces on one side. All this gives the appearance of a much more generous, sophisticated housing typology, when in fact it was all geared toward making it inexpensive for pioneer buyers. The success of that project and the relationship we built with Per then led to the Mountain and then to the 8-House.
BLVR: In each instance, those housing projects got a little more ambitious. In the U.S., there’s little room for architects to nudge developers toward ambitious designs.
BI: I would say that we evolved through collaboration. It’s not like the architect is the good guy, the developer the bad guy. Everyone brings their success criteria. The developer’s part of the project is his bottom line. Especially in a social democratic context, there is this idea that public and private interests are opposites. But very often the overlap between the two is where good investments happen. The city wants a successful neighborhood, life on the streets, people in cafés, economic activity in shops. The developer, he wants an attractive neighborhood where people want to buy apartments and businesses want to rent the shops. The success criteria are quite often the same. You just have to invest in those moments that create added value for everybody.
BLVR: How do you think your ideas have been met here in the U.S.?
BI: In many ways, the United States is the perfect breeding ground for this culture of inclusion. Here you don’t have to choose between steak and lobster, you can have both. It’s the ultimate country for bigamy. From the start, this country has been about finding ways for different languages and cultures and people to co-inhabit. America has been very much about almost articulating diversity and defining different identities. The reason why we came up with our sort of approach in Denmark is because you’d never be able to do anything if you draw the lines hard. Our culture of consensus also means that you could never do anything if there was, like, a loudmouthed minority who would complain about it. In Denmark, you will have to incorporate every concern, however inferior or even unreasonable.
BLVR: What’s not in the West Fifty-seventh building that you would have liked to include? Why no green roof, like on 8-House?
BI: We took the green roof out. It had to do with the slope of the roof and the density of the building. Of course, the design is not done. There’s a big cultural program that needs to be determined. There are a lot of notions about sustainability that need to be determined. But I’m quite thrilled with the project. I normally say there are two ways of doing things. Quite often, in the context of a competition, you try to read all the conditions, even what’s not written, and answer all the questions, even the unasked one, as well as you can, then you cross fingers that discussions in the jury don’t go off on some crazy tangent that can’t be anticipated, and you submit. But the other way of doing stuff is the way VM Houses, the Mountain, and 8-House were done: a long collaboration with a client and various subcontractors and real estate agents where trust and relationships evolve. We couldn’t have gotten there without building up the relationships. And also the designs for those buildings themselves could never win a competition: 8-House—impossible; as an object it is simply not desirable enough. You need to explore it; you need to move around in it. It tends to look weird in photos; you have to walk around it. What we have arrived at with West Fifty-seventh is like that.
II. YOU GROW UP IN A BUILDING. YOU GO TO SCHOOL IN A BUILDING. YOU WORK IN A BUILDING.
BLVR: Architects love to talk about design tailoring architecture to context. A project is wedded to its site or the landscape. But BIG is more than happy to shuttle architectural ideas across hemispheres. Famously, you’ve talked about this tower for a northern Scandinavian resort that then finds a new client and site in Shanghai, on the Bund.
BI: No, our projects are always children of their parameters: program, landscape, the arc of the sun across the sky, et cetera. In these ways and more, our projects are also contextual, and sometimes the context is more demanding or fragile than in other cases. But what you’re talking about has to do with a notion of evolution. In nature, the moment of creation is always nondirectional. After birth has been given and all the design attributes have been locked down, the creative editing is whether this individual is allowed to live long enough to pass on his or her design attributes to the next generation. You can say that creation is always happening through the male-female blending of genes and random mutations. These conditions, contextual and random, are what give direction to all the amazing organisms that populate the biosphere. It’s the same in architecture. It doesn’t really matter where the idea comes from. It’s about how it acts once it’s inserted into the world. The People’s Building evolved from some particular waterfront conditions in a northern Swedish town, but the cultural imagery it produced looked really alien in that context, which is probably why we lost the competition. But suddenly, in a Chinese context, it was way more at home. We’re doing a grand mosque in Copenhagen now. We’ve tried to take Islamic architecture, which is based largely on a combination of Roman and Mesopotamian architecture, designed for the climate conditions of the Middle East, and translate that into a Scandinavian context, where light conditions are really different.
BLVR: Often BIG’s design proposals have a powerful, childlike appeal. Stars, mountains, even buildings with human faces or forms that spell out words. You’ve done a LEGO-based housing model. Your Shanghai Expo pavilion was a bicycle dispensary.
BI: A few years ago we were invited to do a crematorium for a cemetery in Sweden. Unfortunately, we didn’t win. But that project evokes something other than fun—contemplation and hope, maybe. We try to make our buildings as active as possible. Not only will they resolve their program as efficiently as possible, they will also try to facilitate the unanticipated event and the appropriation of future life. We were working with the director Kaspar Astrup Schröder on his My Playground movie about parkour, which, in a very literal way, is this guerilla-style expansion of the public realm to include areas that are not thought of and not drawn on the city map. They find a spatial resource that is untapped. What they do in a guerilla-style way, we try to do in a slow, difficult way—you know, where you have to apply for building permits.
BLVR: My Playground has this parkour tour of the Mountain in Ørestad. I know BIG makes a lot of videos, too. Is film the perfect medium for architectural communication, aside from drawings?
BI: Film is obviously superior for exploring space. And it works with the attention span of contemporary culture. When we did the 8-House, because of the vastness of the project, we tried to think of a way of representing the ideas that populate that design. We also noticed that because the building is really a three-dimensional urban condition, there isn’t a money-shot image. Film communicates continuity and reveals how things come together, and the parkour people create a kind of human plot that ties things together. You understand space as a frame for human life.
BLVR: I know you’re an advocate for childhood education in architecture. What is the particular value you see in that?
BI: In school, you get education in all the arts except architecture. If you’re blind, you can’t see visual art. If you’re deaf, you can’t listen to music. But you cannot escape architecture. You’re born in a building. You grow up in a building. You go to school in a building. You work in a building. And still people are so profoundly uninformed about why and how buildings end up looking the way they do or performing the way they do. And you can’t expect people to understand why we don’t build buildings that look like Paris from the eighteenth century. If children got a basic understanding, as grown-ups and decision-makers they could demand more from the physical framework of society. Not only to get obsessed about some kind of aesthetic stereotype about nice facades, which is quite often where the discussion drowns, but to really talk about what a building does. Could we ask more? Could it be more generous in public space? Could it perform better for its inhabitants? If people don’t have the background knowledge, if they don’t know the historic evolution of architecture, they won’t be able to make the demands to propel this collective project of making cities and buildings more inhabitable.
BLVR: People just don’t know how to see?
BI: Or it could be that you can’t see the forest for the trees. It could be that architecture is so ubiquitous that you don’t notice. It’s invisible, except when you go on holidays and you look at old churches.
BLVR: If you had a class of kids and you had a day to spend with them, what would you do? Where would you take them?
BI: Being Danish, I would start by getting some kind of massive grant to take them all to the Sydney Opera House because it’s the most significant work of Danish architecture in the world. J.rn Utzon is by far the greatest Danish architect ever. Quite often, in architectural debates, people want you to be either urban and socially concerned or iconic and ignorant of human activities and values. It’s a perfect proof that you can have both. The iconography of the Sydney Opera House is so powerful that it’s the most recognized building in the world, more so than the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids, which says something about it being close to Asia. Imagine that a building from the 1960s is now the most recognized building in the world. But the iconography of it has made you forget its incredible urban qualities. It creates this giant podium. It’s not an opera building you have to stand outside of and admire, you can actually invade it and you can walk around the shells and even peek into the lobbies. It’s creating this man-made hill with a promenade and urban space.
BLVR: Where are you not working right now? What would you like to be working on?
BI: It’s not like we think we have to build everything everywhere. Right now I’m really focused on the Americas, on starting an Americas chapter. Canada in general seems really exciting. They have a AAA-rated banking system. The have more land than the U.S. and, like, a tenth of the population. They also have immigration laws that make a city like Vancouver, which has a population of, like, six hundred thousand people, grow by thirty-eight thousand people per year. I just came back from Guatemala. A public-private partnership there is doing an eight-and-a-half-kilometer highway that’s going to essentially save a lot of Guatemalans a lot of time on their commute. (It crosses over several gorges.) The idea is to make the highway ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable. The flagship intervention is these two bridges that are going to be housing developments, where the housing stands in the beautiful valley and the highway goes across the top. As a buffer, you have a layer of parking. So the residents just park and take an elevator down. Right now we’re just doing a master plan, looking at all the places where the road meets city or nature, to ensure that the highway is socially and ecologically integrated.
BLVR: I know you’ve just co-taught a joint studio at Harvard between the Graduate School of Design and the BusinessSchool. You’re very busy around the world and also opening this new office in the U.S. in the wake of this recession. What is BIG doing right?
BI: A lot of people asked us why not open an office in China. That’s where the boom is. But, again, we don’t have to build a thousand buildings. We just have to make sure the ones we do build matter. And also, if you’re selling headphones or something, then a booming economy is great for you. But we’re a consultancy, and if they’re putting up two thousand towers all at once, there’s not a lot of room for us to inject intelligence. The Americas, which have a slower growth or even a negative growth, are going through a transformation process, too. And there’s a growing awareness about how to make a city like New York more inhabitable. The Harvard studio I taught with Paul Nakazawa, who actually has degrees from both schools, was about finding ways to mobilize the momentum of the Rio Olympics to generate everlasting social, economic, and environmental benefits for the citizens of Rio, so that the Olympics wouldn’t be just a two-week global party followed some public debt and cleanup.
III. WEAPON OF CHOICE
BI: There’s one thing that might be interesting to interject, if there’s time.
BI: The reason I planned to move to New York in the first place is because I got a grant to write a book, a fiction book about conspiracy theories. I’ve been applying for this grant [the Danish State Arts Fund] for the past six years. I’ve been slipping it every time the board changed, rewriting it a little each time. I finally got it this time. It’s a novel, a Foucault’s Pendulum for architecture, if you like. I had just appointed seven new partners in our office, and I thought that it might be good to disappear for a little while. I was thinking I’d move to New York and teach at Harvard and then kick off this book. But then we got the job from Durst, and I thought maybe we should just open an office in New York. Then I had to put the book on hold for a little while. The book is trying to harness a popular fictional typology as a framework to make it interesting for people to dive into the city. What are the different forces in its evolution? This is what Umberto Eco has done in his novels. For example, The Name of the Rose, which is like a Sherlock Holmes story, becomes a vehicle for talking about the religious political battles of medieval Europe.
BLVR: Why a novel for architecture?
BI: First of all, it has to do with our interest in communicating ideas about architecture in ways that will actually find their way to people. It’s the same reason we deployed the graphic novel for Yes Is More, to tell a story about our work. We wanted to harness some tested, more-popular media to tell stories about architecture. And, you know, it’s been doing incredibly well. It’s been translated into nine languages. But by now I think it’s sold fifty thousand copies. The biographies of people who have appeared on some reality show in Denmark sell more than that. So there must be a way of actually harnessing people’s interest in a smarter way to wedge in stories about how our cities evolve, how cities are not fixed objects.
BLVR: So what’s the conspiracy you’re writing about? Do you have a character?
BI: There are several conspiracies, actually, each about its own specific set of conditions. An investigative paranoia is what should make it interesting and bring them together. It involves the fact that a lot of significant architects died under unnatural circumstances. It’s investigating their causes of death. What were the architectural consequences of the fact that Gaudí got knocked over by a streetcar and never got to complete some of his ideas that were going at the time? The number of architects who died under unnatural circumstances—you can build a whole story about architecture.
BLVR: You know there’s this boom in Nordic crime literature right now?
BI: Yes, exactly.
BLVR: How’s it going? How are you working on it?
BI: Well, I can’t head off to Canada for three years to type this thing out in a ski hut, so I actually hired a researcher. We’re going to build a little architectural history around each of the dead architects. What was his—they’re all male; we have a lot of really significant female architects, but they haven’t died yet—what was his sort of artistic project? What projects died with his death? What could have been the groundbreaking, paradigm-changing event as a result of the realization of one of these projects? Which interest group could have had its interest hurt by the event of such a project? Each of these is going to be on its own a kind of interesting story looking at the counterfactual potential of something that didn’t happen. It’s going to illustrate what forces are at stake in those projects and also, in reverse, who could have benefited from the architect’s death. From there we’ll brew together what might be the overarching conspiracy theory.
BLVR: You’ve said before that the point of departure for your education was Rem Koolhaas’s Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large. What’s your reading like today, as you’re planning new books for BIG and this novel project?
BI: Early in life, the first William Gibson trilogy. This idea of how a new medium can create a whole new world; he saw that before anybody else and took it to extremes. There’s also Douglas Coupland. I loved Generation X and Microserfs, this whole idea that by paying really careful attention to contemporary culture you can elevate mediocrity into an exciting and meaningful universe. Studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, I was always disturbed by the fact that I had what you might call a socially sound childhood. To be any kind of artistic person, I thought you needed some kind of complex or childhood pain. But I remember Coupland saying in an interview that he was the product of the “middle-middle-middle class.” I like the idea of seeing poetry in the generic. Science fiction has been my favorite weapon of choice. The reason, I think, is in Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction. Science fiction is not a space opera, not a story from the future, but a story where the plot is driven and the narrative is triggered by some form of innovation—an idea, a cultural or political or quite often technological innovation—that makes the society of the story somewhat different from our society. In all other respects it has the same rules and human conditions as our society, but the plot becomes a philosophical, narrative exploration of the potential of that idea as it unfolds through the society. Not only the author but also the reader can speculate along with the novel about that unfolding potential. Essentially, this is what architecture is, too.