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.”