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Audemars Piguet Museum in Basel

A visionary with his feet on the ground

Bjarke Ingels is planning our future.

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels combines the visionary with the tangible. He seeks – and finds – answers to the great challenges of the present and the future.

VIA 57 West, New York VIA 57 WEST, New York, USA © Iwan Baan

“Architecture”, says Bjarke Ingels, “seems to be in a dilemma – it is either naively Utopian or cripplingly pragmatic.” The 41-year-old Dane has made it his job to solve this dilemma. It almost comes as a surprise to hear Ingels describe himself as being more interested in evolution than revolution. Moving, twisting, tilting, fanning – that’s how the Ingels design style could be summarized. Whether it is the spiraling high-rises of Coconut Grove at Grand Bay in Miami or 11th Avenue in New York, the designs for the “Inhabited Hills” at the Hualien Residences in Taiwan or the “Sluishuis” in Amsterdam – these designs all have one thing in common: the innovative forms are never created for their own sake. Form no longer follows function, but rather introduces new functions.

Take, for example, the asymmetrical VIA-57-WEST pyramid on the banks of the Hudson River, which causes a stir even among the high-rises of New York City: a displaced pyramid that connects a green inner courtyard with the steeply rising facade of a skyscraper. Or the power plant in Copenhagen, the roof of which can also be used as an urban ski slope. Then there are the inexpensive floating student accommodation clusters in coastal cities, sustainably made from well insulated former shipping containers. Another example is the highway intersection where the unused areas are turned into parks.

Steve Benisty
“We don’t design buildings for architects, we design buildings for people who work in power plants, who work in schools, who run museums.”

Bjarke Ingels

Answers to the challenges of our time

Coconut Grove Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida ©Azeez Bakare

Ingels, the founder of BIG studio in Copenhagen, is not a disconnected town planner who designs people’s urban environments on the drawing board in a way that dictates how they should live. He embodies a new generation of architects who no longer see the sense in outlandish prestige buildings, but instead seek honest solutions to the great challenges of our time: urbanization, migration, natural disasters and poverty. He is a visionary thinker who has both feet firmly on the ground.

It is rather convenient, then, that Ingels is able to express his philosophy in slogans that are as easy to quote as they are to retweet. “Yes is more” is one of his credos, a mixture of all the design principles of the last hundred years – from minimalism to functionalism. Another concept is called BIGamy, according to which a building should ideally fulfill hybrid functions. But the fundamental question that still remains is: how can a building be social, economical and ecological all at once?

“We don’t design buildings for architects”, says Ingels. “We design buildings for people who work in power plants, who work in schools, who run museums.”

Ingels designs pragmatic utopias

To achieve this, Ingels also combines principles that seem at first glance to be rather incompatible – pragmatic utopias, or hedonistic sustainability. The latter approach stating that green design can only be successful if it is more desirable than the status quo. “Sustainability has become a kind of neo-Protestant idea”, says Ingels. People believe that “it has to hurt to do good.”

The Mountain in Copenhagen The Mountain Dwellings, Copenhagen, Denmark ©Carsten Kring

Mountain Dwellings, one of his early designs, perhaps best describes what is meant by this. A Copenhagen penthouse residential estate on a slanting slope above a car park for residents, it is, according to Ingels, “the best example of what we call "architectural alchemy". The idea is that if we cannot create gold, at least we can create added value by mixing traditional elements such as apartments and car parks, and in this case even give people the opportunity of not having to choose between a life with a garden or a life in the city.”

A fearless architect

Rem Koolhaas, his mentor, once said that Ingels was the first architect ’with no fear”. This fearlessness now appears to have become his greatest asset. His company, BIG, is scooping up one architectural prize after another. He has more than a dozen buildings currently under construction, including the new Google Headquarters and the second tower of the new World Trade Center, and projects as far apart as China, the Faroe Islands and Mexico.

Google North Bayshore Google in North Bayshore, California, USA ©MIR

But Bjarke Ingels stopped being merely a builder of skyscrapers a long time ago – he also creates thought structures. The Dane is not only an architect, he is also equal parts pop star, prophet and philosopher. He has become a traveling salesman of issues of the future, part of the globally-minded movers and shakers who fly from one thought-leadership conference to another to present their version of a better tomorrow to the public.

There is one thing, however, that distinguishes Ingels from other oft-quoted speakers. Instead of witty maxims and slick PowerPoint slides, he brings with him practical solutions. BIG buildings always offer the promise that people’s lives will become better because of them.

Text: Michael Moorstedt

For more information:

“Hot to cold – An Odyssey of Architectural Adaptation”, Taschen Verlag 2016

Photo: Bjarke Ingels ©Steve Benisty

Photo top: Draft of the new museum of Audemars Piguet in Vallée de Joux, Switzerland, where the swiss watch manufacture has been founded in 1875 ©BIG

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