The Innovator: Bjarke IngelsNovember 17, 2017
Growing up in Copenhagen, Bjarke Ingels wanted to be a cartoonist, but realizing making that dream a reality wasn’t going to be easy, he enrolled in the architecture program at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. “I spent the first 18 years of my life drawing people, animals, and vehicles in action, but not so much the background,” Ingels says. “I thought it couldn’t hurt to spend a few years getting better at drawing the buildings and landscapes.”
It turns out he found his true calling. After a stint with his “favorite architect,” Rem Koolhaas, at OMA, where he worked on the Seattle Central Public Library, and starting firm PLOT with friend and former OMA colleague Julien De Smedt, he went off on his own in 2005 and founded BIG in his hometown. Now with three offices (the others are in New York and London) and a team of more than 450, he’s putting his signature boundary-pushing touch on everything from hotels to power plants and museums. His MO: twisting the ordinary to create something extraordinary. “A lot of our projects deal with what I call architectural alchemy,” he says, where “by mixing traditional ingredients in untraditional ways, you can create, if not gold, then at least added value or extra life quality.”
Take the Amager Resource Center. Bjarke says BIG is creating “the cleanest waste energy power plant in the world” in an industrial neighborhood of Copenhagen near the city center that has become somewhat of an extreme sport destination. Since the plant turns waste into heating and electricity, and doesn’t release toxins from its chimney, Ingels and his team are turning the roof of the structure—the biggest and tallest in the city—into a public park and ski slope (which wraps down the side of the building), ultimately changing the preconceptions of what a power plant is. “It’s not something to be afraid of, but suddenly the bedrock for the coolest park in Copenhagen,” he says.
It speaks to his definition of sustainability, an underlying and unifying thread throughout many of BIG’s projects. “Instead of sustainability being a compromise, what if we simply made [being] sustainable better?” he asks. “It’s the idea that it’s not only great for the birds, but it’s also amazing for the citizens. At the end of the day, the architecture of the building is not the goal, it’s the means—if a building doesn’t create a framework for the life you want to live, then it fails in what it’s there for.” He points to an all-year community the firm is creating inside a cenote in Tulum, Mexico and the recently finished “courtscraper” residential building Via 57 West on the waterfront of Manhattan (BIG’s inaugural project in the city). The warped pyramid shape—a hybrid of a European perimeter block and a New York highrise—features a massive courtyard cut out of the center of the building, an oasis for residents. “The shape is a result of the environment we wanted to create, not the other way around,” he says. “We’re not imposing the form, we are discovering the form. Sometimes we are surprised by the design we’re discovering because, when we started out, we just knew what we wanted the building to be able to do, not what it should look like.”
That holds true for the Eleventh mixed-use project, which will house residential, retail, a small museum, and a Six Senses hotel on a full city block in West Chelsea along the High Line in New York. Two buildings, a west tower reaching 34 stories, and an east one with 24, seem to dance as they pull away from each other at the base—framing a small garden area—and then twist at the top, becoming wider to maximize river and city views. With a façade inspired by the historic warehouses of the district, the buildings “are recognizable, but at the same time, something mysterious is happening, with these windows flying from one side to the next,” he says. “You almost don’t notice what is going on until you start studying it.”
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. “I feel like we haven’t even started,” he says, adding that a secret to his success is surrounding himself with a talented team. “It doesn’t have to be me who comes up with the greatest idea, but it’s my responsibility to be the guardian of the greatest ideas, no matter where they come from.” Take two of BIG’s more creative recent openings in Denmark. There’s Lego House, an experiential center for the brand that looks like a colorful “cloud of interconnected [Lego] bricks,” he says, and the Tirpitz, a historic German WWII bunker-turned-museum, where walls were cut into the dunes. But he might be most excited about one of BIG’s more unusual projects: a new yin-and-yang shaped habitat for the pandas at the Copenhagen Zoo. “The name Bjarke means ‘little bear,’ so maybe it was somehow in the cards,” he says.