Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has been described as a wunderkind and pop star of the architectural world.
What he really is is exceptionally busy.
At just 38, Ingels has already achieved a stature and portfolio befitting the name of his firm: BIG, short for the Bjarke Ingels Group.
Ingels has dashed across the globe, winning design competitions and landing commissions for more than 100 projects — 22 already completed, eight under construction — from Shanghai to Coconut Grove.
In the flat city of Copenhagen, he’s covering a waste-to-energy plant with a ski slope — and outfitting the plant’s smokestack to puff giant smoke rings.
He’s designing an entire city in the suburbs of Paris — and a lush, wind-powered resort community on what’s now a desolate island in Azerbaijan.
In Manhattan, he’s building an apartment building that twists and peaks like a pyramid.
BIG has done all this in only eight years, in a field where so much is rarely accomplished so fast.
“This is unprecedented in some regards. I’m not sure I know of another case where a young person has emerged with such force and so rapidly,” said Preston Scott Cohen, chairman of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Ingels designs playful buildings, parks and museums that aren’t just meant to look cool — though they do. The sometimes strange, always striking designs are all driven by sensible, sensitive urban planning principles that Ingels eagerly shares.
With tousled, golden brown hair and an all-black wardrobe, he’s known for his enthusiasm in explaining why he’s plunking a ski slope onto a garbage facility (it creates a public value and connects neighborhoods, and the smoke rings raise environmental consciousness) or building a pyramid in New York (because the shape preserves neighbors’ views while creating better ones for the new building).
He sometimes lectures and tweets.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the young star is especially loved by students, and not just for his work. At a recent lecture at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach, a young woman in the audience told Ingels she likes his work — and him. Type his name into Google, and the search engine suggests looking up “Bjarke Ingels girlfriend.”
What’s the secret?
All of the attention makes some wonder whether the secret behind BIG’s fame is just a well-oiled media machine. Others have complained Ingels oversimplifies the design process by breezing through it in a few animated slides.
BIG explains the firm’s approach to architecture as trying to find “the balance of programmatic mixtures on the triple bottom line of the social, economic and ecological outcome.” Issues like sustainability, open access and even better government all become design challenges.
Take Europa City, for example.
BIG just won a design contest for the 80-hectacre project in the Triangle de Gonesse. The firm proposes to create an ultra-dense, multilayer hub of urban life where there are now only open fields. From above, Europa City takes the shape of an undulating oval. On the ground, the entire site is connected by a continuous loop, elevated walkways, bike paths and mass transportation stops. The whole thing is covered by a roof that’s actually a green park. There are thermal baths, skiing and cultural programming. Power comes from the sun, biofuels and geothermal energy, with excess heat and rainwater captured and reused.
BIG faces a similar task in Miami Beach, where the firm is part of a development team vying to land a billion-dollar plan to rethink the city’s convention center. Instead of creating something out of nothing, as in Europa City, the challenge is to redesign a center that is becoming obsolete and turn the surrounding, often desolate parking lots into a destination for culture, leisure and living.
BIG is one of two finalists for the project. Their competitor is Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The firm is led by Rem Koolhaas, winner of the architecture’s most revered prize, the Pritzker. Both firms are known for designs that channel utopian ideas about how architecture can create a better urban condition. Any similarity in approach might be attributable to the fact that Koolhaas was an early mentor for Ingels.
In his fifth year of architecture school at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of the Arts, Ingels landed an internship at OMA. After graduating, he returned to the firm and helped overhaul the now-iconic Seattle public library.
“He was a very significant part of my education as an architect. He published one of his books, S,M,L,XL, the year I started studying architecture. So in some ways, I read Rem Koolhaas before I read Le Corbusier,” Ingels said.
But whereas Koolhaas is known for being uningratiating in his radical plans, Ingels is known for his willingness to incorporate the concerns of his clients, neighbors and anyone else with a stake, into his designs.
His book, Yes is More, written in comic book form, describes this desire to please as a new form of radicalism.
“What if trying to make everybody happy did not have to lead to compromise or the lowest common denominator? It could be a way to find the ever elusive summersault that twists and turns in order to fulfill every desire and avoid stepping on anyone’s toes.”
Ingels likens the approach to portraiture.
“As an artist, it is your job to fully express the subject you are portraying, and in that process you get to express yourself. And I think this is our approach to urbanism,” he said. “We don’t feel obstructed when we receive feedback or criticism ... we actually receive the ingredients we need to create a successful community.”
In Miami Beach, BIG rearranged its entire convention center plan to keep the Jackie Gleason Theater after a public campaign mobilized against tearing it down. In Fort Lauderdale, where Ingels is working on a three-building apartment complex, plans call for relocating — rather than chopping down — a massive rain tree that environmentalists have rallied for. The tree, which now stands pretty much alone in a vacant lot, will be part of a new public park.
Whereas Ingels argues this kind of flexibility ultimately creates better urban conditions, others see weakness.
“He’s very optimistic when you talk to him about that, and for good reason. Why can’t you satisfy the client’s demands and still make something great?” asked Kyle May, editor in chief of CLOG, an architecture quarterly that dedicated its first issue to taking a critical look at BIG. “I think a lot of architects would say that the client doesn’t always know what’s best for a project, and that’s why you hire an architect ... sometimes those fights are necessary.”
While his work takes him around the world, Ingels has been spending lots of time in Florida.
In addition to his Fort Lauderdale project, the Marina Lofts (which features Lego-looking buildings, one of which appears torn from the bottom like a sheet of paper,) Ingels designed two twirling condo towers going up in Coconut Grove. Developers at the Terra Group gave Ingels his Florida debut, hiring him for the Grove at Grand Bay project.
Plans call for two luxury condo buildings, each twisting from its base to create views of Biscayne Bay while staying out of each other’s way.
“There are some architects that all they care about is their sculpture,” said David Martin, president of Terra Group. “He on the other hand, really approaches things in a really genuine humble, manner and is really conscientious and respectful.”
As Ingels amasses more and more projects — just this month, he landed the Europa City project and won a design contest to create better access to some of the Smithsonian’s less-visited museums — he is already thinking about how to leave a legacy beyond buildings.
“If a significant part of what you do as an architect is that you come up with new ideas, you come up with new approaches of how to deal with a certain city or a culture or climate, you won’t be able to have a massive impact on your own,” he said. “But if the ideas you develop, if you can communicate them in ways that people can pick them up, you can actually create ripples in the water.”
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