Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, founder of the upstart—and remarkably successful—firm BIG, sat down with AN West Coast editor Sam Lubell while on a recent trip to Los Angeles. The conversation was a collaboration with Big City Forum, an LA-based project designed to encourage creative and sustainable cities.
You’ve certainly catapulted into elite status. You’re the man of the hour here. How do you see this recognition?
I think moving to New York and opening an office there has given us more presence on this side of the Atlantic. It’s amazing how big a divide the Atlantic is in terms of architecture. In Europe it’s shocking how little you know about American architecture except maybe the Case Study Houses and the work of a select few like Frank Gehry. I think the same divide goes the other way. Being here now and starting to do stuff in the Americas has probably created a little more attention.
You describe your work as pragmatic utopian architecture. A combination of sculptural forms with practicality.
One of our latest ideological pursuits is the notion of hedonistic sustainability. What if sustainability actually becomes a way of increasing life quality? For example, in our waste to energy plant in Copenhagen we’re using the sheer mass of a power plant to explore the fact that Copenhagen doesn’t have the topography for skiing. By installing an elevator we can create a man-made ski slope and save people the eight-hour bus ride to Sweden. It’s a decent hill, 350 meters tall, so you can actually do some serious skiing there. Factories aren’t just places for work. They actually turn trash into electricity and can serve as a giant park.
A lot of people hope sustainable architecture will evolve and be more inspired. Do you think what you’re doing is the next evolution of sustainable architecture?
For quite a while the notion was that sustainability was so important that it had to happen at the expense of everything else—this Protestant idea that it has to hurt to do good. If everybody gets the idea that sustainable life is less fun than normal life then it becomes a very undesirable proposition. Who wants to opt for something less nice?
You have these formal plans that are very practical. In this day when everything moves so fast and attention spans are so short how do you fight the urge to focus too much on form?
I think the level of sobriety in our work is that we’re committed to the fact that our buildings look differently because they perform differently. It’s the spark that triggers the design. They respond to completely different conditions, they answer completely different questions, they solve different problems and they exploit different potentials. The architecture is less an expression of our preconception than it is an expression of the specific qualities or ideas that that project is pursuing. The Figure 8 building in Copenhagen looks like a distorted 8 because it allows the townhouses and the apartments to gravitate toward the sun and the view. It allows the commercial spaces to be as deep as they want to be. As a result you wind up getting this path that lets you bicycle all the way to the top of the building. The distorted skew of the building is not a result of some sort of craziness. It’s a result of some very practical optimizations of the conditions for each program and the facilitation of this public invasion.
Some people complain that there’s now a global style divorced from its region. Do you think that’s a bad thing? Or do you think it’s more important to respond to the immediate site?
I think both are important. Each project needs to understand its climatic context, its cultural context, its urban context, its infrastructural context. A lot of our early work was dealing with the culture and the conditions of Copenhagen. As a result it’s a series of projects that try to develop the local typologies one step further. Now that we’re doing projects in Shanghai and Shenzen and Astana and Athens and Hamburg and Stockholm and New York and Vancouver and maybe in LA, we’re having some interesting conversations. Each time it’s an opportunity to understand the possibilities and the limitations of the specific urban typologies and of the local lifestyle and culture.
A lot of architectural discourse is run in academia. Sometimes it can be removed from the constraints and realities of everyday life. Do you think academia can have too large a role in the discourse of architecture?
I think when academia is too removed from the actual conditions that architecture faces, it loses its role. I think the interesting thing is of course the overlap (between academia and practice). Essentially I’m always trying to use academia as a way of, at a slower pace, pursuing ideas that interest our office in general.
Who have been your biggest influences?
An incredible amount of architects have been very inspirational. Right now I’m reading Buckminster Fuller’s Oblivion. And Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture. A major part of the book is talking about building closets and stuff like that; it’s so down and dirty pragmatic. It’s got a blatant proposition of: don’t look at all these different elements of art history and architectural history; look at organizing the practicalities of human life. Look at the movements of the housewife through the kitchen and use that as the driving point of your design. Which back then must have seemed ridiculously profane.
In the U.S. a lot of architecture is driven by developers. Do you have thoughts on how architects can return to prominence in terms of getting their role back as the leaders in building?
By addressing issues that actually matter to people in general. By actually making sense. I think essentially the idea of the starchitect as the creative genius that makes weird and impossible and spectacular stuff has been good in the sense of creating a popular appeal for architecture. Projects like the Guggenheim Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall have really achieved that. And I think the good thing about the star system is it makes people attracted to something at first because of something maybe superficial, but eventually they’ll develop a more profound interest. It’s probably been not so constructive in the sense that it created the idea that architects are people you call if you have an absurd amount of money and you want a lot of attention. You can actually create some kind of crazy icon that is technically difficult and expensive to realize, but it will put your city and its new icon on the cover of the international media. But you wouldn’t really call an architect if you wanted to solve a problem. I think [it’s about] reacquiring that trust to be somebody who can actually turn all the real concerns and demands of people into interesting propositions for future cities and buildings.
Your firm has built a lot of work recently. But with the amount of notoriety you’ve received and the scope of commissions you’re now receiving, there may be questions about your ability to match your current recognition with accomplishments. Are you worried about being what some called Zaha and Rem before they started building a lot—the so-called “paper architects?”
We started building quite early. Our first building commission was the VM House, a 250,000-square-foot apartment building that we got through the luck of running into a developer who actually had the courage to give us this commission based on the trust that we developed in the design process. This was at a point when we had not even built a dog house.
We’ve been very committed to real world issues and building from day one. We never did wonderful and impossible oil paintings. I think in that sense the project always starts with the performance of the building, and then it explores “what experience does the performance generate?”
For some the greatest innovation in architecture is being able to bridge disciplines—visual arts, sciences, new media, technology— and new ways of thinking. It seems like that’s something you’ve been able to exploit, the multi-disciplinary approach.
I think the fact that given architects never build for themselves but for everybody else, we always need to—in the design process—plug in intelligence from these different professions. Architecture gets informed by the various specialists who actually have the requirements that we need to incorporate into the architecture. We need to somehow be able to communicate these ideas to the outside world. If you can’t relay your ideas to the clients, to the consultants, to the city architects, to the politicians, to the neighbors, to the community board, it will never get built. In that sense you really need to exercise a discipline that allows you to transmit ideas across the boundaries of professions.
I read you didn’t always want to be an architect? So you have sort of an outside perspective.
My family is completely devoid of architects. I wanted to be a graphic novelist originally. I enrolled in the Royal Danish Art Academy. The Architecture school was the easiest one to get in. Then I had a plan that once I hatched out how to do it, I would return to my original trajectory of becoming a graphic novelist. Then I sort of got sidetracked for 15 years. Then with the publication of Yes Is More we found a way back into graphic novels, just a different kind than originally envisioned.
You came out of Rem’s office. Are there any areas that you strongly part ways with him in outlook?
Obviously I learned a lot there. I think he’s a great writer and architect. He is evidently the Le Corbusier of our times. I think we have a radically different atmosphere in the [BIG] office. I think the social conditions are quite different and probably more Scandinavian at BIG.
My reading of Rem’s work is probably different than everybody else. But often people see something dark and cynical in OMA’s work. Whereas our work is never really ironic. It is this idea of turning pleasing into a radical agenda. Having this sunny social and environmental outlook on things. Instead of having a discourse that is negatively driven having one that is positive. I like the Schopenhauer quote that you can do what you want, but you cannot want what you want. Each project has a propensity to become something, and if you try to force it into becoming something else you’ll ruin its potential. And it’s the same way with an architectural practice. We couldn’t really choose to be anything other than what we are.
Do you have any dream projects?
Right now I’d love to do something in LA. We’re actually having two interesting conversations here right now. What I’m interested in is the fact that the climate here is the climate in the world that is most suited for human life. It is the climate in the world where you actually have the least need for buildings in order to live. So therefore it holds an incredible potential for a radical approach to sustainability, because you hardly need the building.