Artificial ski slopes
Architectural education for kids
Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction
The work of the Danish architectural practice Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, depicts a global urbanism where formally exciting buildings, landforms, and spaces frame a socially engaged, athletic public life. To date, little of this world has been realized, but BIG’s built projects, most notably a trilogy of apartment buildings in the new Ørestad district of Copenhagen and the Danish pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, reveal the possibilities. With 8-House, in Ørestad, BIG mounted apartments in a gigantic, sloping numeral around twin courtyards with views to the open countryside. Its Expo pavilion captured the quality of life in Denmark’s cities through a public bicycle-rental station whorled around a swimming pool filled with Copenhagen harbor water. These projects have served as guarantors for new commissions, from Greenland to Shenzhen to Vancouver.
BIG’s design proposals, competition entries, and works in progress also exercise unusual influence. For each project, it produces campaigns of stylishly lit renderings supported by step-by-step cartoon diagrams, as if a new building came into the world as easily as flat-pack bookshelves. The proposals have slogans like “Engineering Without Engines” and “Hedonistic Sustainability,” and in their stories, Ingels himself is the narrator. BIG’s 2009 graphic novel, Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution, crystallizes this mode of presentation as Ingels the comic-book hero takes readers through thirty-five projects. Although a few projects in the book have indeed been built, the book’s conceit and design blur the boundaries between proposals and constructed architecture.
At thirty-eight, Ingels is one of the world’s most celebrated architects, and his career provides a new script for a profession that withholds distinction, if ever it comes, until much later in life. After interning at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, he launched a practice called PLOT, with Belgian architect Julien De Smedt, out of Copenhagen in 2001. Before PLOT sundered five years later, the two men had designed, among other projects, a remarkable housing complex nicknamed “the Mountain,” which became the focus of BIG’s early career prior to 8-House. Yes Is More also includes PLOT’s star-shaped Superharbor, which sits in the middle of the Baltic Sea, freeing up Denmark’s industrial waterfronts, as well as PLOT’s notorious solution to Copenhagen’s affordable-housing crisis, a kind of Great Wall of China–style apartment building that wraps around a popular park containing dozens of soccer fields. By devising and publicizing solutions for real conditions not yet identified by governments or developers, Ingels has invited opportunities rarely available to architects at any stage in their career.
A major public test for Ingels’s architecture will come in New York City, at the corner of West Fifty-seventh Street and the West Side Highway, where a pyramidal apartment tower said to be his synthesis of the American skyscraper and the Copenhagen courtyard building is now under construction. This commission, from the Durst Organization, allowed BIG to open an office in New York City, where Ingels says he was headed anyway. After bringing in seven new partners to head BIG with him, Ingels won a three-year working grant from the Danish State Arts Fund to write a novel, what he describes as “a Foucault’s Pendulum for architecture.”
I met Ingels for few early breakfasts during his first winter in New York City, the last time on President’s Day 2011, in an empty café in West Chelsea. The architect speaks a plosive English with a little uptalk.
THE BELIEVER: Why don’t your buildings look like buildings? For example, BIG won a recent competition for a waste-to-energy facility with a design that involves a ski slope.
BJARKE INGELS: I think our buildings look different because they perform differently. They combine or recombine essentially classical elements of the city in surprising ways, what I like to call “architectural alchemy.” By mixing traditional elements in nontraditional ways, you can create, if not gold, then added value or new possibilities. Cities are not all public works, opera houses, and cultural buildings. You know, they’re private places for living and working. Therefore they’re often built with a private motive, to resolve a function or to create something profitable. If all of those buildings are just lost opportunities that occupy space but don’t contribute to the city, the city grows really poor and lacking in qualities and experiences. Each time we get a project, we try to make clients happy but also weave it into the city, to contribute something to the urban realm. In the end, the enjoyability of a city is really the sum-total experience of all the constituent buildings.
The ski slope—the Amagerforbrænding Waste-to-Energy Plant—has a natural lineage of some ideas we have been pursuing steadily over the last ten years. It’s a sustainable factory; it sorts waste—recycles 42 percent, burns 54 percent for heat and electricity in Copenhagen. Four hundred thousand people get power from their own trash. That would just be a big box, a giant factory torturing the sky over Copenhagen. We not only wrapped it in a beautiful facade, but we turned it into a destination. We exploit the fact that it’s the tallest and biggest building in all of Copenhagen. We exploit the fact that Copenhagen has the climate for skiing, all the snow in the world, but no hills. So people will go there, regardless, for fun, and then maybe eventually be curious about what’s actually happening inside.
BLVR: And the incinerator exhaust collects in the smokestack, then periodically the plant puffs it out as smoke rings. It messages the city, right: more trash means more smoke rings?
BI: It’s a way of counting the uncountable. Do you want to know what one ton of CO2 looks like? Like that. Do you want to know how frequently we vent one of those into the air? That’s how frequently.