Architect Bjarke Ingels stands inside the New York office of BIG
The public swimming and diving platform on the Copenhagen Harbor
Copenhagen’s 8 House, which helped put Ingels on the map
A perspective of the planned Phoenix Observation Tower, located in Phoenix, Arizona
BIG’s plans for the new Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah
Bjarke Ingels Goes Big and Gets Them Built
Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
By Saundra Marcel
Portrait by Matthew Williams; project images courtesy of BIG
It was 2010, and Bjarke Ingels had decided to take a break from the business of architecture. He would move from Copenhagen to New York City, teach at Harvard, and finally have time to write that novel he’d been dreaming of. With his visa and teaching position secured, the book outline written, Ingels was packed and ready to hightail it out of Denmark.
At this point, Ingels was already well on his way to earning a reputation abroad as the wunderkind of architecture, taking the profession by storm with his youth (then 35), photogenic good looks, and eccentric obsession with movies. His burgeoning brand of “rock star architect” was proving true each time he won away a high-dollar commission from an older, more established firm with a fast-and-furious firecracker sales pitch.
His company, Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, was only four years old but already racking up a stunning portfolio of built projects and competition wins. Impressive projects, like the 8 House, Copenhagen’s largest ever private development—an enormous, figure eight-shaped complex that combines both commercial and residential spaces like a layered cake. Or the aptly named Mountain Dwellings, where upwardly trekking driveways in between green-roofed units appear like a concrete hill on Denmark’s otherwise flat topography. Or just down the road from that, the VM Houses, boldly featuring sharp, jutting-out balconies in every direction that make it feel both very different and a little dangerous. And his most controversial commission, the Astana National Library for the dictator of Kazakhstan. This metal doughnut-designed building was a gem of a rendering, but construction was quietly abandoned early on after the theatrics of working within a corrupt, bribe-laden government proved too risky to continue.
Although “theatrical” and “risky” are two adjectives that certainly describe Ingels’ flair. It seemed that Ingels’ career was proving to be unstoppable. So why, then, did he want to get away? “I just thought it was possible to disappear for six months to do something else, which would also allow me to take a break,” says Ingels. But that break never happened. Instead, Ingels was tapped by billionaire real estate mogul Douglas Durst to work on W57, a massive residential complex in New York City. But Ingels wasn’t all too concerned about his foiled plans. “When Durst came to my office and told me about this ‘little project’ by Manhattan standards, I thought, ‘What the hell. Fuck it. Go there for fun, or go there for work.’”
It is now three years later, and BIG is bigger than ever—with seven additional partners and 147 employees. Ingels really has flourished in America’s enterprising culture, and he appreciates all the opportunities that have abounded. “What’s amazing about America is this ‘OK, let’s go’ attitude. When an American sees something that he or she likes, they want one,” he says. Although Ingels may be an outside-the-box thinking rock star, he is a realist at the core. It’s perhaps why developers have been so keen on working with him. “One of Bjarke’s many talents is designing things that can get built,” said Durst in a 2012 New Yorker profile on Ingels. He is an architect who seems to share an enthusiasm with developers for getting things done at a clipping pace. “There is nothing cooler in the world than built buildings,” says Ingels. “We spend so much time fantasizing about how to solve problems, choosing materials, resolving conflicts, and inventing new forms. So many times, projects can die, for all kinds of reasons. When they finally start materializing, it is so physically rewarding, it’s insane.” It seems the “rock star” status may have sunken into his psyche. Ingels has a tendency to compare himself to famed predecessors like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe—bold moves, seeing as these gentlemen are among the most influential architects of all time.
His critics, however, wouldn’t go that far. In a publication of architectural criticism devoted to Ingels’ work called CLOG: BIG, architect and critic Kyle May concludes that while “the body of BIG’s work is undeniably compelling and elegant at first glance… when translated into built form, the work to date lacks the understanding that a ‘master builder’ or ‘master craftsman’ would employ.” May calls into question the quality of BIG’s completed work, which he attributes to two things: the company’s accelerated pace of output and the types of projects Ingels typically chooses, which are usually residential and developer-driven. It is at this tense intersection between quality and efficiency where Ingels operates. So, as wealthy developer buddies like Durst continue to bear hug the BIG machine, his architecture peers increasingly question what this chumminess really means.
But Ingels doesn’t care. This is the guy whose most notable published work, Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution, is an extended comic book. The voices of his critics are only discernable in more highbrow inner circles, and he’s clearly not living in these same seemingly ivory towers. “To me, it’s never about dumbing down the information, it’s about getting the information to the readers,” says Ingels. “I think very few people read architecture theory. Not even architects read it. And nobody else is reading it. It’s more difficult to make something that actually becomes a blockbuster. If you can do that, then you’re going to get the maximum amount of revelation to the maximum amount of people. And that interests me more than doing an amazing, insightful, deep book that is so dry and boring that nobody can get past page two.”
Someday he will publish the thrilling mystery he’s been promising, a work of fiction using figures we know from history—Le Corbusier, Antoni Gaudí, and Louis Khan—and a character we know from right now: Bjarke Ingels. “There’s a lot of famous architects that died under suspicious or unusual circumstances,” he says. “What I want is to create a vehicle to talk about architecture, but in a form that will inspire people to read it. How can you make this interesting to the masses? Place it in a murder mystery.” Injecting fun into architecture is what Ingels does best.
He wants that blockbuster, whether it’s a book or a building. That’s why he wanted a break in 2010, and why W57 galvanized him. “I never had an idea about being a businessman, about having my own company, about being an entrepreneur.” So while his partners manage the day-to-day banalities of running a company, Ingels breathes fresh flair and fun into ongoing projects with an eye always toward presentation and the next big sensation. Rock star architect, not yet master. But he’s only 38. In the steeped and slow world of architecture, where some wait their entire careers to literally build their dreams, that’s just the beginning.
Given Ingels’ passion for movies (Inception is his favorite), it isn’t surprising that he’s already thought about making one. “The idea was to make a film almost like the way you make buildings: by reassembling existing materials. Like if you take everything Jack Nicholson was ever in and edit the shit out of it, in the editing you can make a new film,” he says of the idea. “But it never materialized. We applied for some funding, we did some ‘statements of art,’ and then we entered some competitions for architecture. We got no funding for the film and we won everything else we entered. So there we were, back to where we came from.”
“Oh well, I guess it goes to show you. I went to architecture school, not film school, so that’s why I’m an architect, not a filmmaker.” he says. “Story of my life. Every time I try to get away.”