An image of Bjarke Ingels is depicted in the accompanying picture. The prominent architect is seen in the photo, and the snapshot was taken from Culture.org’s website.
The designs of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) propose a global urbanism featuring aesthetically appealing buildings, landscapes, and areas that invite people to engage in social and sports activities.
Although much of this vision has yet to come to fruition, their existing works, including a trilogy of apartment buildings in Copenhagen’s Ørestad district and the Danish pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, give a glimpse of the potential.
For instance, BIG constructed 8-House, in Ørestad, as a gigantic sloping numeral around two courtyards, with views of the countryside.
The Expo pavilion displayed life in Danish cities with a public bike rental station that surrounded a pool filled with Copenhagen harbor water. As a result, their work has earned them new commissions from Greenland to Shenzhen to Vancouver.
BIG’s design sketches, competition entries, and works in progress have a major influence. For each project, the company produces a collection of attractively lit renderings and cartoon diagrams, as if constructing a new building is as easy as putting together flat-pack furniture.
The proposals are labelled with slogans such as “Engineering Without Engines” and “Hedonistic Sustainability”, and Ingels himself is the narrator in their stories.
This mode of presentation is exemplified in BIG’s 2009 graphic novel, Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution, in which Ingels is the comic-book hero who takes readers through thirty-five projects.
Although some of the projects featured in the novel have been built, the book’s design and narrative make it difficult to distinguish between the projects that are only proposals and those that are actually constructed.
At the age of 38, Ingels has become one of the world’s most acclaimed architects, proving that distinction in the profession can be achieved much earlier than previously thought.
He and his Belgian partner Julien De Smedt co-founded the firm PLOT in Copenhagen in 2001 and, before it disbanded five years later, had a number of renowned projects, including the ‘Mountain’ housing complex.
They also designed the Superharbor, a star-shaped structure situated in the Baltic Sea, meant to free up the industrial waterfronts of Denmark.
In an effort to combat Copenhagen’s affordable housing crisis, Ingels proposed an apartment building similar to the Great Wall of China that would surround a popular park full of soccer fields. Through his creative solutions to existing problems that had yet to be identified by governments or developers, Ingels has earned himself opportunities not usually available to architects at any stage of their career.
Ingels’ architecture will be put to the test in New York City, at the intersection of West Fifty-seventh Street and the West Side Highway.
where a pyramidal apartment tower, which is said to be a combination of the American skyscraper and the Copenhagen courtyard building, is being built.
Because of this project from the Durst Organization, BIG was able to establish an office in NYC, which Ingels had already been planning on doing.
After assembling seven partners to work with him at BIG, Ingels was given a three-year grant from the Danish State Arts Fund to write a book that he calls “a Foucault’s Pendulum for architecture.”
During his initial winter season in NYC, I had several early morning meetings with Ingels. The last one was on President’s Day in 2011 at a deserted café located in West Chelsea. He has a commanding way of speaking English that is characterized by slight intonation.
— As articulated by Scott Geiger
I. THE CREATION OF A MOUNTAIN WASN’T OUR INTENTION
What is the reasoning behind BIG’s unconventional designs for structures, such as their recently won waste-to-energy facility that has a ski slope-like shape?
BJARKE INGELS: Our structures appear to be different due to their various ways of performance. We combine traditional elements of the city in extraordinary manners, which I like to call “architectural alchemy.
” By blending typical components in untraditional ways, we can create something beneficial.
A city is not only composed of public works, opera houses, and cultural structures; it also consists of private places for living and working, which are often constructed with a personal purpose, to fulfill a function or produce something lucrative.
If these buildings are just unproductive, taking up space and not contributing to the city, the city will be impoverished in terms of qualities and experiences.
Whenever we receive a project, we try to make our clients happy but also ensure that it benefits the city and adds something to the urban sphere. Ultimately, the enjoyability of a city is the total of all its components.
The ski slope–the Amagerforbraending Waste-to-Energy Plant–follows certain ideas that have been consistently pursued over the past decade. It is a sustainable factory; it sorts waste–recycles 42 percent, burns 54 percent for heat and electricity in Copenhagen, providing power to four hundred thousand people. Initially, it would be a huge box, a colossal factory polluting the sky atop of Copenhagen.
We not only adorned it with an attractive facade, but we also transformed it into a destination. We utilize the fact that it is the tallest and largest building in Copenhagen, and the climate allows for skiing, even though there are no hills.
Thus, people will go there for fun, and then maybe become inquisitive about what is happening inside.
BLVR: The fumes from the burning in the incinerator are funneled up the smokestack and at certain intervals, the plant releases them in the form of smoke rings. It’s almost as if the plant is sending a message to the city: more garbage is associated with more smoke rings?
BI: Measuring the immeasurable is possible. Do you want to comprehend the magnitude of one metric ton of CO2? Just like that. Do you want to be aware of how often we release it into the atmosphere? This is the rate.
What is your vision when it comes to the Mountain in Ørestad? Do you approach it from a programmatic perspective or do you think of it as a landform?
BI: We never planned to make a mountain when we began the process of exploring the dynamic between a parking building and a residential one. However, as the design took shape, the metaphor of a mountain emerged.
We leaned into this idea with a perforated facade and murals of mountains made of cars by Portuguese artist Victor Ash.
This led us to a mountain-filled frenzy! But the mountain concept was something that happened as a result of the ideas we had when starting the design. During this process, when presented with several options, we began to give them names, which then became a part of the design.
Per H.pfner was the same client for all of the BLVR: VM Houses, the Mountain, and the 8-House. Was there something special about this connection?
BI: Per is a highly skilled builder and contractor, having studied carpentry and later heading a construction company. He was no stranger to building, but prior to meeting us, he had constructed some of Copenhagen’s worst structures.
When we ran into him, we had just finished a competition called “Better, Cheaper Housing,” which we’d used to experiment with the idea of repurposing industrial greenhouses for creating cheap row houses.
This project wasn’t ultimately a part of Høpfner’s portfolio, but we were hired to build on a part of town that was practically a blank slate. This became the VM Houses. Per was aware that the buyers would be newbies, so every choice in this project was geared towards saving money. We designed each unit as a contiguous space, like a true loft apartment, so we wouldn’t need to construct extra walls.
We also obtained permission from the municipality to make the building sixteen meters deep instead of twelve, and compensated by using mostly glass facades, which is unusual.
To let more light into the structure, we included double-height spaces on one side. All this gave the impression of a luxurious and advanced housing type, while actually having been made with cost-effectiveness in mind for the novices.
The achievement of this project and the connection we developed with Per then led to the Mountain and 8-House.
BLVR: In every case, the plans for these housing developments kept growing in complexity. Unfortunately, in America, architects don’t have much of a say in how ambitious the designs can be.
I believe that the best results are achieved through collaboration. It’s not a situation where one party is characterized as “good” and the other as “bad.” Every individual involved has their own objectives.
The developer’s job is to ensure that the project is successful from their point of view. There’s often a misconception that public and private interests are incompatible, but in reality, when those two interests intersect, it usually leads to a beneficial result.
The city wants a vibrant and appealing neighbourhood, while the developer desires a location where people are keen to purchase apartments and businesses are willing to occupy the shops.
In a sense, the goals of both parties are similar. The key is to invest in those areas that bring advantages to all involved.
What has been the response to your concepts in the United States?
In the United States, the culture of inclusion is highly celebrated. It is a country which promotes the idea of having both steak and lobster, providing a place for people to practice bigamy without judgement.
Since its founding, America has been a place for different languages, cultures, and people to come together harmoniously.
This type of approach has been adopted in Denmark, as well, as it is believed that the only way to get things done is by taking into account all voices, no matter how small or irrational they may be.
BLVR: What feature were you not able to include in the West Fifty-seventh building that you wished you could have? Why was there not a green roof like the one on 8-House?
BI remarked that taking out the green roof was necessary due to the building’s slope and density.
He stated that the design was still in progress and there were still many sustainability issues to be determined.
He pointed out that there are two ways to approach a project: one is through a competition, where all the conditions are read, all questions are answered, and the hope is that the jury does not go off-topic.
The other is a long-term collaboration with clients, subcontractors, and real estate agents, where trust and relationships are formed.
He stated that designs like 8-House cannot win competitions, as it is not desirable enough in photos; one must explore it and move around it to fully understand it. He concluded that the same kind of process was used for West Fifty-seventh.
II. YOU ARE RAISED IN A STRUCTURE. YOU ATTEND CLASSES IN AN EDIFICE. YOU WORK IN AN EDIFICE.
BLVR: Architects have an inclination to discuss how architecture can be adapted to its surroundings. A structure is usually inextricably connected to its location or the environment.
However, BIG is comfortable with transporting architectural designs from one part of the world to the other. You have famously spoken of a skyscraper designed for a resort in northern Scandinavia that then found a new home in Shanghai on the Bund.
BI: When it comes to our projects, their parameters such as the program, environment, and the sun’s path through the sky contribute to their contextual nature. In terms of evolution, the moment of creation is nondirectional.
The success of the creation relies on whether it is allowed to live long enough to pass on its design attributes to the subsequent generation.
This is seen in both nature and architecture, where it’s not important where the idea came from, but how it performs when it is placed within its world.
As an example, the People’s Building was originally designed for a northern Swedish town, yet it was more at home when it was implemented in China.
We are currently working on a grand mosque in Copenhagen, and have attempted to take Islamic architecture, which is generally designed for the Middle Eastern climate, and translate it to the Scandinavian context of different light conditions.
BLVR: BIG’s designs often have an impactful, youthful allure. Constellations, mountains, and even edifices with faces or styles that spell out words have been included in their proposals. They have created a model of housing based on LEGO and a pavilion for the Shanghai Expo that was a bike store.
A few years ago, we were invited to create a crematorium for a Swedish cemetery, but we were unsuccessful.
This project, however, gave us something else: contemplation and hope. Our aim is to make our buildings as engaged as possible, so that they will not only meet their purpose but also provide space for potential unforeseen events and future life.
We also collaborated with Kaspar Astrup Schroder on My Playground, a movie about parkour which translates to an informal appropriation of the public space.
What they do in an unplanned manner, we try to do in a more conventional way, which includes submitting applications for building permits.
BLVR: My Playground offers a parkour tour of the Mountain in Ørestad, which I know BIG also films a lot of videos for. Is film an ideal way to communicate architecture, in addition to drawings?
BI: Film has a clear advantage when it comes to delving into the spatial aspects of a project. This is particularly true in the context of today’s short attention spans.
When constructing the 8-House, we looked for a way to illustrate the ideas in the design. We also noticed that due to its three-dimensional nature, there was no one definitive shot that could capture the whole.
Film is able to communicate the interconnectedness of the space and show how people interact with it. This allows for a better understanding of the environment as a setting for human activity.
BLVR: As an advocate for architecture-related education for children, what do you feel is the most important aspect of this?
It is not possible to escape architecture, as it is a part of our life from birth to adulthood. People, however, are not educated on why buildings look the way they do, and why they function the way they do.
Without this knowledge, they cannot demand more from the physical structure of society. They cannot go beyond the level of aesthetic beauty and ask if a building can be more generous with public space, or if it can be improved to better suit the inhabitants.
To be able to do this, people need to understand the history of architecture, and this knowledge is not currently being taught in school.
A picture of Bjarke Ingels, an architect, is presented. He is seen being interviewed, which speaks to his prominence in the field.
BLVR: Is it difficult for people to recognize what is right in front of them?
Perhaps the issue is that architecture is so commonplace it has become invisible; however, when one goes on vacation and comes across ancient churches, it becomes very noticeable.
BLVR: If you had a group of students for one day, what would you plan for them? What destination would you choose?
In Denmark, I would propose obtaining a large grant to bring everyone to the Sydney Opera House since it is the most noteworthy work of Danish architecture ever made. J.rn Utzon is without doubt the most renowned Danish architect.
Many times during architectural discussions, people try to make you pick between being socially conscious and urban or iconic and disregarding human activities and beliefs. The Sydney Opera House demonstrates that you can have both.
Its iconography is so intense that it is the most renowned building on the planet surpassing even the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids, which speaks to its closeness to Asia. It is amazing that a building from the 1960s is now the best-known building globally.
But the iconography of it has made you overlook its outstanding urban characteristics. It forms a great stage
. It is not a building you must remain outside of and admire, you can actually penetrate it and stroll around the shells and even take a look inside the lobbies. It is forming a man-made hill with a promenade and urban space.
BLVR: What type of work are you not doing at the moment? What would you enjoy working on?
BI is currently mainly focusing on the Americas, with Canada being an especially interesting option due to its banking system, vast land area, and immigration laws, which allow Vancouver to grow by thirty-eight thousand people per year.
They recently returned from a project in Guatemala, in which they are constructing an eight-and-a-half-kilometer highway to save time for commuters, as well as make it ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable.
One of the primary interventions is two bridges that will also house developments, with the highway running over the top and a layer of parking in between.
Currently, they are creating a master plan to make sure that the road integrates both city and nature, and is socially and ecologically sound.
BLVR: With your recent collaboration teaching a studio at Harvard between the Graduate School of Design and the Business School, and the opening of your new U.S. office amidst this recession, what is it that Bjarke Ingels Group is doing correctly?
Many people have asked us why we haven’t opened an office in China, where the economy is booming. Our goal is not to build a thousand buildings, but to make sure that the ones we do build are meaningful.
This is especially true for a consultancy such as ours, where there may not be a lot of room to insert intelligence into a situation like that of China, where thousands of towers are being constructed all at once.
Though the economies in the Americas may not be growing very quickly, or even declining, they are going through a period of transformation. There is an increasing awareness of how to make cities like New York more livable.
The Harvard studio, which was taught by Paul Nakazawa, who has degrees from both schools, sought to mobilize the energy of the Rio Olympics to provide lasting social, economic, and environmental benefits for the citizens of Rio.
so that the Olympics would not be just a two-week global event and only leave behind public debt and a mess to clean up.
III. PREFERRED ARMS
BI: It could be worthwhile to bring up one point, should there be enough time.
BLVR: Let’s do this.
I was originally planning to move to New York because I obtained a grant from the Danish State Arts Fund to write a book about conspiracy theories.
I had been applying for the grant for six years and had to resubmit the application each time the board changed. I finally got the grant and the book was intended to be a “Foucault’s Pendulum for architecture”.
I had just appointed seven new partners in my office and thought it might be a good time to leave for a while, so I considered teaching at Harvard and then writing the book.
However, we got the job from Durst and I decided to just open an office in New York instead, putting the book on hold.
The book is exploring the different forces in a city’s evolution, like Umberto Eco has done in his novels such as The Name of the Rose, which is made more interesting by using a popular fictional typology as a framework.
What inspired the decision to present architecture in the form of a novel?
BI: We have a strong desire to get our ideas about architecture to the public. That’s why we used a graphic novel for Yes Is More , to effectively depict our work.
This strategy was successful, with the novel being translated into nine languages and selling over fifty thousand copies. Even the biographies of people from reality shows in Denmark have sold more than that.
We need to find a way to engage people in stories about how our cities change and grow, and how cities aren’t just static objects.
BLVR: What’s the focus of your conspiracy piece? Do you have a protagonist?
One can investigate the fact that numerous prominent architects have died in unusual ways. This generates a paranoid scrutiny into the causes of their deaths.
For instance, what effect did Gaudi’s death have on architecture, since he was struck by a streetcar before having the chance to realize his ideas? It is possible to construct an entire narrative around the large number of architects who passed away due to unnatural causes.
At present, there is an increasing trend in Nordic crime literature, correct?
BI: Affirmative, that is correct.
BLVR: How is the progress? What sort of effort have you put in?
BI: As I can’t go to Canada for three years to type this out in a ski hut, I’ve hired a researcher. We’re constructing an architectural history for each of the deceased architects.
What was his artistic vision? What could potentially have been a groundbreaking accomplishment of a project that didn’t happen? Which interest group might have been affected negatively by the fulfillment of such a project.
Each of these will be a story looking at the hypothetical potential of something that didn’t happen. It will show the forces that were at stake in those projects and, on the other hand, who could have profited from the architect’s death.
This will eventually help construct a conspiracy theory.
BLVR: Previously, you mentioned that your academic journey began with Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large by Rem Koolhaas. What kind of texts have you been reading lately in preparation for the upcoming BIG publication and novel?
BI: At a young age, I was profoundly influenced by the first William Gibson trilogy; he had the foresight to recognize how a new medium can fabricate a whole new world.
I was also deeply moved by Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and Microserfs, which demonstrate that one can take the mundane and render it captivating and purposeful by carefully observing modern culture. As I studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, I felt uneasy since I had grown up in a secure and uneventful environment. But then I recall Coupland saying in an interview that he was a “middle-middle-middle class” individual. This gave me the inspiration to find poetry in the ordinary.
Science fiction has been my favorite medium. The reason I believe is due to Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction: a story where the plot and narrative are triggered by an idea, either cultural, political, or technological, that distinguishes the society of the story from ours.
The story and reader can both speculate about how the potential of this idea develops within the society. This is quite similar to architecture.
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