Bjarke Ingels: a BIG architect with a mission

Bjarke Ingels_Image_ by Ulrik Jantzen_02

Last year’s speaker Bjarke Ingels – he spoke on both TED and TEDxAmsterdam – is an architect who doesn’t plant the earth with buildings from an aesthetic point of view only. He seeks to create architecture that is socially, economically, and environmentally perfect.

When asked about his drive, Bjarke responds: “I’m fundamentally interested in looking at life as this ongoing project that’s constantly evolving. We know where we’re coming from but we don’t know where we’re going. I want to contribute to that in any way I can.”

That’s a beautifully simple way of putting it.

Bjarke Ingels (born October 2, 1974 in Copenhagen) heads the architectural practice BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group which he founded in 2006. This group of architects, designers and thinkers operate within the fields of architecture, urbanism, research and development.

Bjarke turned his love for architecture and his passion for the way people want to live into a series of compelling and sometimes controversial public buildings. He is known for spectacular buildings like The Mountain in Ørestad, The VM Houses and most recently, the hijacking of the Mermaid statue to his Danish pavilion at Shanghai’s World Expo.

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The VM Houses

His original fantasy though was to become a cartoonist. “I thought that the School of Architecture on the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was a smart way to get some drawing skills. But then I got interested in architecture. Of course, I had no clue about architecture. I knew of Jørn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House, and the engineer Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower. My architectural knowledge pretty much stopped there.”

Watching cartoons, he remembers how he got interested in the drawings and images, not so much in the stories. “So when I got into architecture, I thought that architecture was all about form. Slowly I realized that behind form there’s a concept – the result of how you choose to organize life and activities in the building. It’s the same with cartoons. You deploy the images in sequence and there’s a composition to communicate the story that you try to tell.”

Up till now, he never lost his boyhood curiosity for comics. Therefore his first catalog Yes is More about the evolution of 30 projects from his Danish practice was designed in comic book format, because according to Bjarke “that’s the best way to tell stories about architecture.”

What can architecture add to the world? “Architecture is the final layer. It’s the human manipulation of the surface of the planet to make sure that if fits the way we want to live. Architecture is the art of translating all the immaterial structures of society – social, cultural, economical and political – and translating them into physical structures.”

“Every time we do an architectural project, we take a snapshot of reality. It’s a way of creating awareness about how we live our lives and how we organize our planet. It makes things visible that might otherwise escape your attention.”

In Bjarke’s vision it’s necessary that architecture actually listens and articulates. Not architecture that is preconceived and squeezed into the world. Architecture should ‘arise from the world’, Bjarke thinks. “Climate change brought the big picture more into the immediate agenda because of the growing concern for our future”, he says. “Which is a good thing for our profession because the political decision makers want good architecture. I believe that young architects will have that long term vision too when they create other buildings.”

Asked what kind of BIG-buildings will spread the planet, Bjarke says: “We’re interested in creating a dialogue with a structure’s location. Buildings should respond to the local environment and climate in a sort of ‘conversation’ to make it inhabitable for human life.”

Traditionally this response has been mechanical. “In a cold country you burn oil to heat the building, in a warm country to cool the building and in most countries to pump air in and out the building”, explains Bjarke. “As a result modern buildings always look the same, whether in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America or Siberia. The big challenge is to reinvent the power of architecture. Instead of using machines to make the buildings, we have to respond to the local climate to make it inhabitable.”

“This pursuit of local climate-centred architecture could be a way of massively enriching the vocabulary of architecture. Cities are going to look very different, depending on where they are.”

Bjarke spoke very passionately about this “climate architecture” at the first edition of TEDxAmsterdam in 2009. “TEDxAmsterdam was a super intense 24 hour version of the actual TED, to the extent where it seemed that everybody involved had gone bananas”, he recalls.

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“One of the highlights was that after a sort of creepy lecture about all the benefits of eating insects, Marcel Dicke crowded the lobby with chocolate bugs which people ate up. It was a clear sign how everybody just went all in.”

He also specifically recalls two groups of graphic designers: Lava and Silo Design. “I thought these guys were very inspiring, I’m sure we’ll be working with those graphic designers at some point.”

Bjarke supports the idea of TED’s ‘ideas worth spreading’, especially because cooperation between people is necessary. “It’s the same with architecture. As an architect you can’t do anything on your own. You don’t have the power or the resources to realize even the smallest of your visions.”

“At my company BIG we’re interested in spreading big ideas, and we want to get everybody involved. That’s how we can mobilize the forces of society to actually change buildings and cities that fit our life, rather than accepting that the things are what they are, even if they don’t actually fit the way we want to live anymore.”

He gives two examples of big ideas he’s currently working on, both of which are about loops. “One is the National Library of Kazakhstan, which is a ring of books that is wrapped with a loop of public facilities, turning it into a mobius strip in the form of the building, inside and out.

ANL_Image by BIG_03

ANL_Image by BIG_02

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the new national library astana, kazakhstan by BIG architects
all images courtesy BIG architects

“Also we’re doing a study on a ‘loop city’ that connects all of the southern Swedish cities with the metropolitan region of Copenhagen in 2047. The main idea is that a train line becomes a linear infrastructure where people ride on the roof while power is built below, as is waste management, water treatment, etc. It’s going on display on The Venice Biennale in August.”

When talking about this futuristic project, Bjarke mentions his interest in science and fiction, which happens to be TEDxAmsterdam’s theme of 2010. “Author Philip K. Dick defines science and fiction the same way I like to define architecture: it’s not a space opera and it’s not a story that happens in the future. It’s a genre where the story is propelled by an innovative idea. The entire unfolding of the plot is a philosophical exploration of all the consequences of that idea – social, economical and political.”

“For the writer as well as for the reader it’s a question of playing with this idea and try to take it to the extreme of what would be the consequence of this idea, and how it will effect the way people act. It’s almost like a philosophical narrative exploration of the power of an idea. Our projects are based on one strong idea too: we turn things upside down and everything becomes a architectural exploration of the consequence of that idea.”

Finally Bjarke has two suggestions for TEDxAmsterdam. “Please invite science fiction writers Iain [M] Banks and Ray Kurzweil. I’m sure they will give a very interesting vision of the future.”

TEDxAmsterdam: Bjarke Ingels.

More on the Danish pavillion at the Shanghai World Expo.

Categorized as news, speaker.