Op-ed: With Masterplanet, Bjarke Ingels’s architecture has become universal—and incapable of admitting difference

Little BIG Planet

Op-ed: With Masterplanet, Bjarke Ingels’s architecture has become universal—and incapable of admitting difference

In the palm of his hand? (Greg Rosenke /Unsplash)

Something more than hubris animates Bjarke Ingels’s latest project/promotional effort Masterplanet, or so he’d have you believe. To hear the architect tell it, he felt compelled by a personal and professional ethos to “solve” climate change, something he calls “hedonistic sustainability.”

Ingels first rolled out the idea in a 2011 TED Talk, the context for which was the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (his hometown). Despite its intended goal of exacting decarbonization pledges from participant nations, the summit accomplished absolutely nothing. The failure lay not just with the assembled world leaders—in one of Ingels’s slides, they slump in a pantomime of political deadlock—but also basic branding. According to Ingels, any sustainability that proceeds from “some kind of a moral sacrifice, or political dilemma, or philanthropical [sic] cause” will never gain any traction. What is needed is an epicurean alternative that cultivates ecological mindfulness and personal indulgence in equal measure.

Though little progress in the arena of climate governance has been made since, hedonistic sustainability has evolved by leaps and bounds, moving from a captivating parti to an entire design philosophy that underpins nearly all of Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) projects. Within this constellation of work, there are playful buildings and schemes for buildings with geological pretensions (the newly opened CopenHill powerplant), while others are not even earthbound (Mars Science City). And then there’s Masterplanet, whose expertly honed pitch is designed to appeal to those dour global leaders in Copenhagen, the same way a sword may appeal to one having to unloose the Gordian Knot.

Though the proposal was formally announced late last month in a profile for Time magazine, Ingels teased it way back in January at the Columbia School for Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Playing to the impressionable sensibilities of his mostly young audience, Ingels unspools his pitch with flair. Masterplanet, he says, tackles “the intermittent problem” afflicting solar and wind energy production today—namely, that they are not constant and always subject to externalities as fickle as the weather. The solution isn’t around but over, with Ingels proposing a “unified supergrid” that would supersede locality altogether, thereby making energy a globally shared resource. Since it’s always sunny or windy somewhere, this means “the light side [to] power the dark side.” (One squirms at the phrasing, which was followed by Ingels’s suggestion that London could be the recipient of Cape Town’s surplus energy production.)

The global connectivity of the supergrid will supposedly be independent of whether material or energy is transmitted through it, making it ideal for handling other societal functions from waste disposal to pollution mediation. Once these components have all been linked together, we are left with a true planetary system, in which the world has been remade in a way that makes sense. The textual coda to Ingels’s Columbia presentation lecture hammers it home: What you’ve just seen aren’t merely ideas but form a solution. And an easy one at that—with the deployment of a few more strategically placed cables and pipes, climate change can be avoided, and life can go right back to normal. We might even have some fun.

Obviously, Masterplanet has attracted criticism from all corners, as Ingels anticipated it would. One of the most salient came from Elizabeth Yeampierre, of the New York City–based climate justice group Uprose. In the same Time story, Yeampierre rightly pointed out that BIG’s project sweeps the predominant cause of the climate crisis—Euro-American extraction regimes—under the rug. Yet even this critique accepts Masterplanet as an architecture project, which it is not. There is no design content here, only a wonkish avalanche of graphs and icons.

When Masterplanet announces what it is, i.e. a plan, we should listen. But what a plan is, and what it does, requires definition.

As Manfredo Tafuri notes in Architecture and Utopia, the plan was first developed within the architectural discipline. Through the architect, the rational organization of space was first made possible. But during the course of capitalist development’s “going global,” the plan was adopted not as a design tool but an economic one, enabling the organization of production, circulation, and consumption on a planetary scale. Deprived of one of their fundamental capacities, the architect was relegated to an ancillary role—an artist, technician, or, barring these options, a small business owner. Answering to this deflationary state of affairs, Ingels has launched a counterrevolution to reclaim the plan as the sole province of the architect, by becoming more than one: As the plan is now policy, Ingels has set out to become a policymaker.

Perhaps the number one reason for Ingels’s immense success is his ability to make his personality and architectural practice conform exactly to the prerogatives of his corporate or governmental clients. His architecture has become universal in the sense that it is unable to admit difference. This is not a complaint in a formal register; the similarity of BIG’s projects is a byproduct of their underlying rationalism. Loop City, the Big U in New York City, the Woven City for Toyota, and the Zira Island master plan resemble one another not because they were derived from the same aesthetic rulebook, or because they share in profligacy for size, but because in each one of them design is only a machine for corporate valorization. The built manifestation of a project is no longer relevant, as critic Kate Wagner has observed—what’s important is PR. But what that PR is being sought for is equally crucial; PR here is a means to power.

There is, in all this repositioning, a perverted shadow of the architect’s old autonomy, which deluded spatial practitioners as varied as Le Corbusier, Cedric Price, and even Constant Nieuwenhuys into thinking they could orchestrate production and consumption at a massive scale. Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus for Algiers, Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt, and Nieuwenhuys’s chimerical New Babylon also betray personal visions of transformation, from contracted puppets dancing at the end of the client’s strings into powerful redirectors of capital. Failing this, what does an architect with Ingels’s ambition do? They become the trusted advisor whispering in the ear of a president, a prime minister, a mayor, etc. This is the architect-as-public-intellectual who, while proclaiming to embody the best of the discipline by advocating that “design matters,” ensures their work is unobjectionable, rational, hypnagogic within limits, and unwaveringly optimistic, never once succumbing to fatalism: All problems, however large or complex, nevertheless lead to an equal and opposite solution. Recast as a neoliberal attaché available to the highest bidder, this architect is a fixer, a mercenary, a consultant, capable of solving anything from civil unrest to planetary apocalypse. Uniquely capable, in fact, seeing insights where politicians only experience gridlock and election turnover.

Now that Ingels has become another esteemed member of whatever courtly retinue will have him, there’s no value in nuance. Taking Yeampierre’s condemnation of universalism as a virtue, he loudly announces his displeasure with the political as a divide that he has transcended with pragmatic universalism, maintaining that the past is prologue and we are all now “in this together.” Of course, we all aren’t, but that’s not what sells—not to his fans, to the architectural press, and to the clients he pursues.

Kevin Rogan is a writer, designer, student, and dilettante who lives in New York.