The man who thinks BIG

Bjarke Ingels’ mind-bending designs have made him the world’s most influential young architect. Having helped redefine Copenhagen, now he’s taking on the USA

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2013)

In Bjarke Ingels’ world, energy plants double as ski slopes and blow smoke rings; housing complexes look like mountains and have bike lanes up to rooftop gardens; and towers look, in the architect’s own words, “like the Guggenheim turned inside out and put on a stick”.

Ingels, 38, is the architectural darling of the TED Talks generation, a walking fountain of big ideas and pithy mantras who has become as synonymous with progressive Copenhagen as Noma and pretty girls on sit-up bikes. He’s also probably the world’s most influential architect under 40 and was named the Wall Street Journal’s architectural innovator of the year in 2011. Wacky as his designs may be, they work.

“There’s always been this idea that being revolutionary, radical, avant garde or whatever, is somehow being against something,” says Ingels over the phone from New York, where he has a second office for his company, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). “For us, it’s the opposite of that – it’s about trying to meet as many criteria as possible without compromising. We want to say: you can have cyclists here, you can have baby strollers, you can be green. And you should make it all fun. We take functionality seriously but we take the element of enjoyment equally seriously.”

One project that sums up the Ingels philosophy is the new Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant on the edge of Copenhagen, due to complete in 2016. Even aside from the 31,000m2 ski area occupying the roof, with green, blue and black runs, the plan for Copenhagen’s tallest building looks more like a giant Apple product than a factory, boasting a curved monochrome exterior festooned with planters, watered by run-off from the factory’s own ecosystem. When the smokestack releases a tonne of CO2 it pumps out a giant smoke ring, which can be lit up at night; the smokestack houses a Willy Wonka-esque glass elevator from where people can see the inner workings of the plant.

This is classic Ingels. BIG’s design for the new Tallinn Town Hall has a giant mirrored “democratic periscope” in its main hall, so officials deciding policy can see the outside world and the outside world can see them (“They can check ministers aren’t playing Angry Birds,” says Ingels). All BIG projects are packed with similarly cheeky touches that provide ways for people to interact.

Ingels spends around 100 days a year in Copenhagen, where BIG maintains its head office, but the rest of the year he’s in New York, living in a Tribeca loft and driving a black Porsche around town. “Life is a lot of fun,” he says. “New York is the capital of the cosmopolitan world and it’s inspiring.”

The North American commissions are piling up, too, from the Phoenix Observation Tower shaped like a giant honey dipper (the “Guggenheim on a stick”) to a twisting block of flats in Miami, and a 150m-high Vancouver tower that curves and widens from a narrow base. “We go through hundreds of models for projects like these and often we discover that the most expressive, crazy designs are the most logical.”

His best-known North American building at the moment, though, has more in common with the Copenhagen housing blocks he’s most famous for. The pyramid-shaped West 57 apartment building will dramatically alter the largely unloved stretch of Hell’s Kitchen overlooking the Hudson River when it’s finished late next year (although it won’t open until 2015). Its twisted cut-out pyramid shape allows for a central courtyard filled with greenery and maximises light through every apartment. “It’s a kind of hybrid between this European idea of a block with communal space, but tailored to the density required in New York,” says Ingels, who initially moved to the US to oversee the project, as well as to teach at Yale and Columbia.

Architecture was a second-choice career for Ingels, who grew up in Hellerup, north of Copenhagen, with a dentist mother and an engineer father. At school, he says, “I was the kid drawing the posters for the school comedy and designs for sweatshirts.” His first love was graphic novels and he only went to study architecture at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy because there was nowhere to learn to be a comic book artist. “I was basically thinking, right, I can learn to draw backgrounds for my illustrations. Up until then, I’d drawn humans, fighting, helicopters, and I needed somewhere to put them.”

The only architect he’d ever heard of was Sydney Opera House designer Jørn Utzon (“and everyone in Denmark has heard of him”). He says it took a few years until he was fully engaged. “I became puzzled, I guess. It was essentially: ‘Why are new buildings so boring?’ Everyone loves old buildings – the towers, the arches, the ornamentation, the funky stuff – and I couldn’t work out why new buildings weren’t the same.” He came to the conclusion that architecture was “not some autonomous art form – it’s art and science and everything, but most of all it’s about life.”

While still studying in Barcelona, the first step to success was setting up a practice with three fellow students, which he did in 1999, and subsequently winning a competition to design an extension to Copenhagen University. This led him to work for Dutch architecture star Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. Returning to Copenhagen in 2001, he set up an agency called PLOT with Belgian colleague Julien De Smedt. PLOT co-designed the now-iconic wooden Islands Brygge Harbour Baths and created the VM Houses, a breezy 2004 update of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation concept in the newly developing Ørestad district. In a vote of confidence in his own design, Ingels moved in.

“Back then, the playfulness that we wanted in our designs actually seemed very un-Danish,” he says. “You had this school of architecture that was very classical and we felt like we were going against the prevailing thinking. It’s odd that, 13 years later, we’re seen as the epitome of Danish design.”

When Ingels went off on his own in 2006, BIG’s first assignment was The Mountain, down the road from the VM Houses in Ørestad. The brief was to create a housing block attached to a multistorey car park. Ingels came up with a cascading mountain of homes, each with its own roof garden fed by a giant watering system. People could park right outside their homes in a cathedral-like car park, served by an escalator, where holes in the exterior projected a giant image of Mt Everest. It won a clutch of awards, featured in a parkour video and established Ingels as a visionary who could reimagine even the most mundane spaces.

“You don’t often get critically acclaimed mixed-use housing,” says Ingels, who again decided to move into his own creation when it was completed in 2008. “It’s always a catch-22 – until someone’s done it, everyone’s afraid of the idea. We showed that you can take an odd combination and turn it into something attractive and functional.”

Housing projects such as these and the new Superkilen park – a beautiful temple to multiculturalism in a deprived corner of Nørrebro, filled with a Thai boxing ring and neon signs for everything from Russian hotels to Chinese beauty parlours – have helped create a new architectural identity for Copenhagen. “We’ve contributed to changing the city’s understanding of itself.”

There’s certainly an air of zeitgeist-y populism about BIG, which laid out its philosophy in a 2009 graphic-novel manifesto entitled Yes is More that invoked the Darwinian idea of adaptation and the Nietzschean notion that you should say yes to yourself rather than no to others. His other neat mantras include “Hedonistic Sustainability” and “Utopian Pragmatism”. In classic Scandinavian style, he’s next planning to write a conspiracy thriller about the death of architects, ending with a fight scene atop the West 57 building in New York. Oh, and he casually says that his next big challenge is to “radicalise the US high-rise”.

If some architects have accused BIG of not being ‘high design’ (New York architect Philip Ryan has said that Ingels should be compared to Apple rather than Herzog and de Meuron or Zaha Hadid), Ingels is unrepentant. “We’re looking at mixed-use housing blocks and power plants the way you’d look at an art museum. We’re making buildings designed for people, not architects.”

There is evidence that the BIG way is spreading. Not only are many of Copenhagen’s top architecture firms now run by former BIG architects, but Ingels says that “universities in the US are looking at our work the whole time”. He sees it as evidence that peoples’ views of buildings and how we interact with them are changing. “Just 13 years ago, we’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting a ski slope on an energy plant,” he says, “but we’ve widened the scope of what’s possible.”

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