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Danish architect Bjarke Ingels

Nothing Is Random. An interview with architect Bjarke Ingels 0

Interviewed by Anna Iltnere

Produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation 

The architect Bjarke Ingels (1974, BIG group) brought “The Little Mermaid” to Shanghai's EXPO 2010 by getting changes made in Denmark's rule of law that stated that the iconic Copenhagen sculpture (created in 1913 and depicting a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale character) may not be removed from the country. Protests by the descendants of the sculptor, Edward Eriksen, were fruitless. While “The Little Mermaid” was in China, in the Danish pavilion created by BIG group, the sculpture's empty spot in Copenhagen Harbor was filled by an installation created by the artist Ai Weiwei – a real-time video of how “The Little Mermaid” was fairing away from home. Ingels jokes that, at the time, that was the only non-censored direct video-link from China to Europe. The deeper message behind the transfer, however, was one aimed at the Chinese – send originals, not copies...

Danish pavilion EXPO 2010 Shanghai

At 38, the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is the world's youngest “starchitect” – two years ago, The Wall Street Journal named him the world's most innovative architect – and he never does anything simply. The buildings designed by this son of an engineer and a dentist balance on the border between a utopian game and functional pragmatism. It seems that the secret to his success is the fact that none of his “games” are whims, but rather original solutions to completely real needs. The tallest building in Copenhagen will be finished in 2017 – an architecturally untypical power station that will not only transform rubbish into heat, but will also serve as a ski slope in the utterly flat cityscape of Copenhagen; it will be the only place in the city, indeed – in the region, for downhill skiing. “To create the city of our dreams”, as Ingels said in his interview with This dream is rooted in the belief that sustainable architecture does not have to mean that people must give up their daily habits; instead, it can do the exact opposite – give extra enjoyment. Ingels calls this “hedonistic sustainability”. While the unbelievers snicker, BIG group's almost-fantasy projects are being realized one after the other – more than 20 have been finished, about ten are under construction, and 20 will soon be underway. In 2008 their Copenhagen apartment complex that is shaped liked a mountain, Mountain Dwellings, was finished; its perforated wall – which lets natural light into the parking garage – from a distance really does look a bit like Mt. Everest. 35 of these projects are featured in BIG group's book, “Yes is More” (also published in Latvian), which came out in 2009 and is more like a comic book than an architectural digest. 

Twelve finalists were announced in March, including BIG group, for designing the new Nobel museum in Stockholm. Some of the other finalists are Rem Koolhaas' led OMA (where Ingels once worked), David Chipperfield Architects, the Japanese firm SANAA, and the Swiss company Herzog & de Meuron. It should be mentioned that in contrast to these established architectural “big fish”, BIG group came on the scene only in 2005 (Ingels and a partner had headed the architectural offices of PLOT up to that point), and immediately began to collect laurels. In 2010, Ingels opened an affiliate office in New York. They're currently working on a 600-unit apartment building in Manhattan with a view of the Hudson River; it will be completed in 2016 and is Ingels' first building to be built in New York. By trying to put an end to the era of vertical columns of sky-scrapers, the project “West 57” will bring a completely new type of residential architecture to New York. On a side note, in 2009 Ingels, along with two colleagues, established the design offices of KiBiSi (Lars Larsen, Bjarke Ingels Group and Jens Martin Skibsted), and their products have already been included in the MoMA collection.

Residential building West 57th Street, New York. To be completed in 2016

On 7 May, Bjarke Ingels was in Tallinn to give the lecture, “Theatre of Architecture”. The title wasn't simply borrowed – the lecture actually did take place on the stage of a theater with red velvet seats, pink stage-lights and the smoke of a discoteque. Various layouts of BIG group's projects were set up on the stage, but in the middle, on a pedestal, was a brightly-lit model for Tallinn's new city hall; titled “The Public Village”, BIG group won the international competition to design it, and are currently working on it. The lecture took place in a historical building – The Centre for Russian Culture (the former House of the Officers of the Fleet in Tallinn) – which is a shining example of neoclassic architecture. It was constructed after World War II, when Tallinn was still home to the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet. With a triangular gable and six Corinthian-style, square columns with capitals, the structure was finished in 1954. Remaining from the once-grandiose interior is a large collection of navy-themed paintings and a round ceiling-painting that features naval scenes. When Ingels was on the stage, a sickle and hammer “leered down” from above him, while red stars lined the edges of the stage... As he presented projects created by BIG group on the stage's screen, colorful blobs of light from a spinning disco ball danced across the red carpet of the opulent foyer, and a DJ was setting up his equipment for the after-party.

Three hours before the start of the lecture, the local Estonian TV station films Ingels in the park adjacent to the Centre for Russian Culture. I've arrived at the moment that the cameras have just finished filming Ingels' “baby-face” (as the magazine Fast Company described him two years ago), and I am reminded of an article in The New Yorker that said that he looks more like a nightclub DJ than an architect. Broad-shouldered and a bit incensing, Bjarke Ingels makes one think of a content, young tomcat. We greet one another and he settles onto a sunny park bench, his brown eyes lightly taunting.

You travel a lot and give guest lectures; it makes one wonder how much do you actually participate in the development phases of your projects. What is your role in the BIG collective? 

I don't even give that many lectures. I've given up many things so that I could concentrate more on working in the office. In any case... are you concerned? (Laughs)

Oh, dear – no. I'm just trying to find out if you're a “control freak” at work, or maybe you do the exact opposite – delegate to others?

You see, you'll never have intelligent and creative people around you if you treat them as executive morons. In that sense, every cooperative job demands trust. And trust is a good way to be demanding. I've been lucky in that I have really talented colleagues. I don't have to be at every meeting. I can rely on their competence and loyalty. As a result, I can spend more time in the office instead of running around... 

But what is your role, then? 

I am closely involved in all of BIG's projects. Sometimes you have to pay attention precisely to the smallest of details, because the concept of a building can manifest through small-scale elements. But sometimes it is quite the opposite case – it's the “big picture” that is decisive – and then I focus on that.

Architecture, in large part, is the ability to focus on that which is most important. If I spent the same amount of energy and money on all aspects of a project, then the result would be a monotone smear. You must know how to analyze the situation in order to see the central element, the most acute problem, and then focus on that. Then the job transforms into a study – Where is its hidden potential? 

Mountain Dwellings (2008). Copenhagen

You came into architecture relatively early, and you were deemed a “starchitect” at just over 30 years of age. Do you sometimes feel like “the Justin Bieber” of architecture? When you began to work, did other architects take you seriously? 

There was no Justin Bieber at the time!

We were lucky in the opportunities that we got and that we knew how to use them. We were realizing projects that left an impression from the very start, and that's how we became noticed. Not because teenage girls were falling in love with us... (laughs). After all, we created Harbour Baths in Copenhagen's harbor [in 2003, as a PLOT project – A.I.], which allowed people to swim there – you couldn't do that before then. We made average residential buildings in Copenhagen, like Mountain Dwellings (2008) and 8 House (2010), into architectural structures. Mountain Dwellings is a man-made, ten-story mountain with gardens, but 8 House creates a commune – you can ride your bike from the first floor to the top floor, and maybe meet your neighbors along the way. I don't think that age or star-status have any meaning if one is able to create something meaningful for society by way of architectural projects.

What is the meaning of “pragmatic utopia”? – which is how you, and others, characterize your architectural handwriting.

The guidelines for pragmatic utopia are the following – the ambition to create “a better world” can be translated into a practical and achievable goal. You can't create an ideal world with the snap of your fingers. But you can, however, comprehend that a city is never finished. It is in a continual state of evolution. At every moment there exist needs – the drive to fix something, to change it. In addition, these aren't just all sorts of opportunities that could or couldn't be done; rather, it is the architect's duty to truly improve the situation. To raise your ears and hear what it is that is missing, and to weave it into the project. It is not enough to simply answer the given question. You have to make sure that a whole bunch of very quiet issues are also taken care of. I think that a great example of pragmatic utopia is  Amagerforbraending in Copenhagen, which we started working on three months ago. It will process municipal waste and provide the city with heat. It will be the tallest structure in Copenhagen.

Waste treatment plant, power plant and ski slope Amagerforbraending in Copenhagen. To be completed in 2017

We have cold winters – we had snow for six months this year – but there aren't any hills in the city; it's a six-hour trip to the nearest downhill skiing runs in the south of Sweden. Thanks to the immense size of the power plant, we could make the roof into a ski slope. In 2017, you'll be able to go to Copenhagen, a city without hills, and downhill ski in the center of town! Now, that sounds like a utopian idea, doesn't it? But we brought it to life by combining a power station with a public park. Completely practical things, but with non-traditional solutions that came about from simply thinking about creative synergy and combination. In this way, we can build the city of our dreams.

Is it possible to point out the most acute problems that contemporary architecture has to deal with, on a whole?

I'm very careful when it comes to talking about generalities. I think that individual places have their own needs, concerns, requirements and, after all, their own climate. A universal problem could be the divide between an architect's care, and an undesirable, carefree attitude when it comes to designing buildings for specific sites. You have to carefully analyze the situation, listen to what they're saying on the streets and in the local media, and observe the behavior of the inhabitants; what is missing and what is there too much of, and what has maybe just appeared. In this way, you can come up with unbelievable ideas that you never would have thought of otherwise. An architect is like a midwife assisting the city with birthing. On the other hand, if there already is a done idea that you're trying to stretch so as to fit any possible situation, the point is lost. In addition, an architect like that blocks the way for solutions that might have arisen if he/she had been more sensitive. Soviet-era modernistic architecture has created a ton of problems specifically because it was forced upon from the outside, in an attempt at copying examples from around the world in which the architecture had developed naturally. One and the same answer to different questions – no, that doesn't work; and it buries any potential uniqueness.

What did you identify as necessary – as missing from Tallinn – when you came up with the winning project for its City Hall? 

The title of the project for Tallinn's City Hall is “The Public Village”. It is a huge institution that contains a slew of departments and services, and it must all fit into one building. And the location created its own dilemma: on the side where the sea is, is Linnahall – a gigantic, soviet-era construction; adjacent is the Old Town – a charming pedestrian town with human-sized medieval architecture; and not too far away there is an old industrial complex.

Tallinn Town Hall project Public Village. Construction has not yet started

We have planned for several smaller-sized buildings in “The Public Village”, all next to each other and each one containing a certain governmental division. At the same time, the buildings are connected in places, which helps it retain its identity as a unified public institution. Architecturally, the project is laid out as a medieval city, but it doesn't loose its wholeness because it gives off the impression of being one, huge structure. The first floor has been raised above ground, thereby making space for an open-air marketplace. The glass walls and roofs allow for daylight to enter the complex, they provide a good view of the outdoor surroundings, and they allow for two-way transparency between the politicians and the people in the market. The architectural solution was permeated by the idea of a post-soviet democracy that wants to become more open, more attractive, and less totalitarian. We've included a “democratic periscope” – a high “tower” from which the city's mayor can get a good view of city life. (Laughs) The main inspirations for its shape were this post-soviet democracy, and how to scale-down a large institution to human size and integrate it into the urban environment. 

Taking a quick look into the past – what was the most useful thing that you learned by working at the architectural offices of OMA, with Rem Koolhaas?

That was an interesting environment because of its extreme multiculturalism, and in addition, every employee represented a completely different view of what architecture should be like. There was absolutely no unity. There were even people there about whom I couldn't understand what the hell had driven them to work with Rem – if they had previously worked at other architectural offices, such as with Daniel Liebeskind or with Peter Eisenman, whose practices greatly differed from what and how OMA operated. But I learned that what these people brought were all of these different viewpoints. Even though it may create a rather unbearable chaos, it allows you to look at situations from an infinite number of angles. Just like in journalism, where it's necessary to comprehend opposing opinions in order for the article to be well-rounded. The thing is, in this kind of environment of diverse views, one can discover something really interesting. One-sidedness is dangerous because you miss out on everything that is going on on the other side of the wall. 

Describe the house you grew up in.

(Smiles) A small, modernist “cigar box” from 1957 – on a beautiful slope by a lake. 50 km north from the center of Copenhagen. Very modest, functional architecture, but in a truly beautiful forested environment...

Your first love was drawing comics. It can be seen in the way that you communicate architecture to the reader, e.g., in the book “YES IS MORE”, that this love has not disappeared. Does this habit also pop up when you design buildings? 

Maybe in the sense that I'm taken with stories. Architecture frames the life that takes place in the city and the building. In architecture, it's always important why everything is the way it is. And that is precisely so that you can comprehend that every building manifests a certain possibility. Buildings look different because they “act” differently. The lines, form and materials in every building are exactly the way they are because they indicate a certain potential – they solve concrete problems. Nothing is random. In my opinion, the story dictates the form. When I began drawing comics, I was really into the production of graphics and beautiful drawings. But if you're missing the story, the contents, then it's just outer beauty. What gives you a high is when the narrative and the illustrations become one whole. The same goes for architecture: if the material shell and the life that goes on inside it are about one and the same thing.