Bjarke Ingels

New architecture world

Bjarke Ingels presented his work at Belgrade Design Week 

Playboy magazine Serbia, May 2010

By Branko Cecen

Bjarke Ingels, world superstar of contemporary architecture, is using the mixture of his creativity, optimism and disarming personality trying to change the surface of earth in accordance to how modern people would love to live. The results are spectacular. He will present them soon at Belgrade Design Week.

On Zira island, mountains consist of buildings that will be built. Seven buildings shaped into seven legendary peaks of the mountain-state.

“Zira is an attempt to merge the notion of landscape and city by creating an artificial ecosystem where the entire island and its urban development not only resembles mountains – but also operates like mountains. Mountains are ecosystems. They create shelter from the wind, the accumulate heat from the sun and collect rainwater in streams and lakes. In the same way the inhabited mountains of Zira Island form manmade landscapes of terraces and roofgardens that take part in a manmade ecosystem of renewable resources, thermal flows, passive and active solar gains and water – and waste management”, says Bjarke Ingels, the director and founder of big (Bjarke Ingels Group), an architecture studio from copenhagen, for the Serbian edition of Playboy.

It is outrageous how young Bjarke is. Not because he is wearing jeans, all-stars trainers and a print t-shirt, something that architects of his caliber simply don’t do. Not even because he is 36, as that isn’t the first youth either.

Since he graduated in 1998, he won more than thirty competitions for designs of incredible buildings or whole city-districts, alone or representing some of the teams. This year, big will represent Denmark with its pavilion at the expo in Shanghai. Bjarke is a visiting professor at columbia, Harvard and rice university.

He has won more than 20 awards for architecture, 15 of them are international. He designed the manifesto of his studio as a comic book. And on the top of that, his favorite philosopher is Nitzsche. How does 36 now sound to you?

He actually wanted to draw comic books – graphic novels. Since there is no faculty where he could specialize this, he enrolled architecture to upgrade his drawing. Alongside, he is suddenly getting turned on architecture and starts to like the mix of the two art disciplines:

“I was working on a comic called archi-woman, about a superhero that would design buildings to battle his enemies – in addition she would always get dispensations for height limits and instant permits and super cheap construction costs – and of course – always happy clients, neighbors and users. But of course- those were way too unrealistic superpowers – flying or shooting giant spider webs seems a lot more believable.”

Somewhere between these problems and wishes lies the manifesto, which Bjarke designed in form of a comic book. He explained in icon magazine that since architects usually jump over the text and immediately focus on photos, the idea was to use comics to smuggle medicine into the pudding. The medicine is presented with a disarmingly optimistic but in the same time pragmatic vison of architecture, concised in a seemingly sily catchword yes is more, a paraphrase of less is more, the slogan of the minimalistic vison of the world, art and everything else. The optimism lies in the promotion of Bjarke’s fight with architectonic windmills – clients’ requests, legal, financial, technological and other restrictions, which in the end turn the project into a compromise between the initially created and the possible solution.

“I don’t believe in compromise”, says Bjarke. “compromise is what happens when all parties are equally unhappy. rather I believe in finding these impossible back bending designs that twist and turn to make everybody happy without stepping on anyone’s toes. In fact I believe that committing yourself to satisfy every single demand – reasonable or otherwise – can be a way to drive architecture over the edge of the ordinary and into unseen and untested hybrids of forms and function.” Yes Is More. clear? No? Never mind. Now you will see how Darwin and Nietzsche fit in this.

“At least I think Darwin is one of the people that best explained how we work. His famous evolutionary tree from “The Origin Of Species” could practically be a diagram of how we work. Life and architecture evolves through generations of design meetings in a process of excess and selection – way too many individuals – or ideas – are born, than can possibly survive. Only the ones that live long enough to mate, pass on their attributes to the next design meeting – and gradually a new idea evolves.”

Bjarke’s first workplace was at rem Koolhaas’ studio oma. rem is more than a famous architect – he was a kind of mentor to Bjarke, maybe even an idol.

“At the time I arrived there, I was convinced that oma was like this cult where everyone had the same approach and was driven by the same ambition and understanding”, Bjarke said for icon: “And that was so massively not the case… I sometimes thought I was the only one who had actually read any of the books, at least the words in them. Instead of the organized, clear and orderly process, it was anarchy. rem would never give you the scheme, he would just demand that you come up with something. And as a result, of course, I think there was an incredible waste of effort… so much wasted effort and ambition discarded almost without conversation.”

However successful the collaboration was, regarding competitions and awards won, Bjarke thought that all this must be possible to achieve more efficiently and better and… less awkwardly. When years later, Koolhaas dropped by at the big studio during his travel through copenhagen, he was evidently disappointed with the joyful atmosphere in Bjarke’s studio. “When I was establishing big I believed that I can do this incredible interesting work and to have fun alongside, that everything doesn’t have to be so… rough.”

That is why he had created the company which equally strictly selects ideas and solutions, but based on the mutual goals set, talks and discussions, and while during all other time 70 people of different ages, nationalities and races have fun: “I think the anatomy of a joke and a brilliant idea is often quite related. What makes you laugh is the fact that you hear an entire story, you are presented with the contaxt and all the facts. When the punchline drops you laugh because it totally surprises you, but at the same time makes perfect sense – just a completely upside-down unexpected sort of sense. It is the same with an innovative idea – it is perfectly logical and natural, yet completely unforeseen and fresh. So a relaxed and humorous workspace is not only more fun – it is also potentially more ingenious.”

Not only potentially, it seems. When big competed for the construction of two buildings for an institution with the core business of finding solutions for life in accordance with the environment, the clients said to Bjarke and his architects: “We don’t want a monument, we want a live building”. The main project dictated a pretty basic shape – two edifices, one 100 and the other 200 meters tall. Only the facade was left for interpretation. “Then we asked ourselves, why don’t we re-think about the facades and see if we can think out this new frame, maybe the buildings could evolve into something new”, Bjarke said.

They won the competition with the facades, which from top to ground are covered with perforated aluminum plates, resembling a wrinkled, cut dress. The plates block the sunlight and are oriented towards soft light from the north. The closed part of the façade consists of details born in cooperation with a company working on usage of solar energy. Glass ducts collecting solar energy dry the air and reduce the energy usage for 70 percent, “through an ingenious way of thermal flow usage of the air, salt and osmosis”. The wrinkled dress moves and forms the main entrances, urban squares, panoramic meeting rooms… “The result is that a possibly classical architecture of this building has evolved into an economic and ecologically sustainable one”, Bjarke explains.

He has already seen many of his projects realized and some of them are incorporated in the lives of many people. Does the way that his projects change people’s lives surprise him?

“No – on the contrary. I am very aware of the fact that architecture is the art and science of continually refurbishing the surface of our planet, so it actually fits better to the way we want to live. We architects have the power – and the responsibility – to design the framework of our life, so it allows us – and even stimulates us – to do what we want, rather than forcing us into preconceived molds that restrict our freedom of expression and the unfolding of our lives.”

But, how can he know exactly what I need?

“Understanding precedes action – you cannot act on the world before you know how it works. To acquire the best possible understanding we combine all kinds of knowledge gathering: quantitative and qualitative data, personal experience and trial and error. Sometimes we simply combine different life forms that normally only exist separately – i.e. combining the suburban house with a garden with a penthouse apartment with spectacular views. Essentially that’s how all of the incredible diversity of the biosphere evolved – by combining the attributes of two parents with often very different personalities and qualities – and over generations all the plants and animals of the planet evolved. We attempt to do the same – only much, much faster.”

In Helsingore a nautical museum is being built, designed by big, but there also follows a lawsuit: The Danish Architect’s Society has sued the client because they allowed Bjarke and his friends to break one of the conditions set by the competition and by doing this they have put others in an uneven position. “Someone from the other studios called and asked if they can place some content outside the water fronts and they have been refused. We didn’t ask anything. Basically, we don’t ask because we can get no for an answer. We think that it is much better to present a smart project, than to think what we are going to do with it.”

This one and similar examples have caused that many people in contemporary architecture believe that a good part of Bjarke’s success lies in his disarming personality, in his capability to bring the client closely related to his project, not the other way around. Bjarke never said that this is not true, but he reminds us about the frustration with small budgets, restrictive construction rules, misunderstandings with neighbors of new buildings…

“If you are a sculptor – you can simply hammer on a block of marble until it looks like the woman you’re trying to portray. All you need is your hammer and chisel and a big block of stone. If you are an architect you need to convince an army of decision makers that this is the right way to go – your colleagues, your consultants, the clients, the users, the neighbors, the contractors, the city officials etc.. So in a way – your ability to transmit your ideas to people around you, is your hammer and chisel. If you can’t get all the others to buy into the idea, it will simply never happen. So I can’t think of anything more important than spreading ideas – except I guess for actually coming up with big ideas in the first place”.

This is exactly when the success contributes, contributes a lot. Bjarke is aware of this and that is what he told us. However, where is our infamous philosopher friend Nietzche here?

“Nietzsche’s most radical idea was to liberate thinking from a moral and ideological straight jacket and rather considering the art and science of creating concepts. The artist-philosopher was not a guardian of the truth or what Nietzsche called “a monkey of his own ideals”, but rather a free spirit capable of coining new concepts and new ideas to fit a constantly evolving universe. His famous statement that the man is not a goal but a bridge – not a final result but part of an evolutionary process, works perfectly with our view on architecture. It isn’t a static or final entity – but an ongoing exploration of how to make the world a better place. Architecture is a bridge to reach the goal of maximizing the potential, liberating an unrestricted unfolding of human life.”

If he is capable to understand Nietzche with optimism, then it certainly must be that the world looks full of bright potential, from Bjarke Ingels’ viewpoint. However, even if we live in a world that differs a lot from his own, maybe one day we will get a chance to stand bellow the arch of the buildings which he creates with his colleagues in big, and at least for a moment feel their enthusiasm, faith in people, the own power and the right to change the planet.

Christian Kerez

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Isay Weinfeld

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Bozana Komljenovic

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