Movers & Shakers

Bjarke Ingels

The Danish wunderkind has attracted international acclaim for his innovative creations, ranging from a power plant-ski slope to an inside-out zoo – and all because he’s a yes-man at heart


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At just 41 years old, Bjarke Ingels may already be a superstar on the global architectural scene, but he does not see himself as a revolutionary.

As principal of the Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), he and his 300-strong team have built a global reputation on the back of a diverse and original body of work, ranging from housing projects and mixed-use developments to museums, cultural exhibits and sports facilities. Yet while Ingels’ creations are frequently both strange and wonderful, they are also highly functional: take his 8 House in Copenhagen – a 10-storey, bow-shaped urban block where it’s possible to walk or cycle alongside terraced gardens all the way to the top – or Amager Bakke, a waste-to-energy plant topped by a ski slope.

Ingels says his design philosophy is “pragmatic utopia”: an ideal that seeks solutions to real-world problems not at the expense of architectural vision, but by bending the vision to meet the challenge, through a Darwin-esque ‘mating’ of apparently incompatible design elements to create new, stronger hybrids. Meanwhile, the BIG manifesto, Yes Is More – a comic strip-style book and exhibition dedicated to demystifying the studio’s architectural process – celebrates the transformative power that saying ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’ to society’s needs and desires can bring.

Key projects

Kistefos Sculpture Park, 2015, under construction
A new art gallery for a Norwegian sculpture park is designed to twist across the river below. Ingels has described the design as the group’s “first experiment with social infrastructure – a building that serves as a bridge – or a cultural institution that serves as a piece of infrastructure.” The 1,400sqm museum will be the new centrepoint of the existing Kistefos Sculpture Park in the municipality of Jevnaker, north of Oslo, which exhibits work by acclaimed artists including Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson. The museum is scheduled to be completed in early 2019.

Copenhagen Harbour Bath, 2003, complete
A recreational bathing facility in an urban harbour landscape, the Copenhagen Harbour Bath – conceived under the auspices of PLOT – makes it possible for the Danish capital’s residents and visitors to swim in the open air in the middle of the city. BIG is currently working on a winter bath extension to the facility, combining hot and cold and indoor and outdoor experiences.

The LEGO House, 2013, under construction
According to BIG, LEGO’s experience centre in Billund, Denmark, will be both “innovative and systematic … combining the functionality of the modular space with the iconic character of a sculptural building.” For Ingels, it’s “a boy’s dream come true… I couldn’t think of a more ideal client for an architectural project than the very plastic brick that first got us all hooked on building.” (Interior Design, 24 December 2013)

Washington Redskins stadium, 2016, in progress
BIG has designed a National Football League (NFL) stadium around the idea of creating a destination that serves more than just football fans on matchdays. A moat-style water body around the stadium will be used for surfing and kayaking, and even double as a large-scale ice rink in winter. Other leisure facilities could include a Redskins museum and specially designed space for pre-game ‘tailgate’ parties.

Zootopia, 2013, in progress
BIG’s vision for Givskud Zoo in southern Denmark turns the original idea of a zoo on its head, with animals roaming free and humans observing from hidden vantage points built into the landscape. The aim, says BIG, is to “both enhance the quality of life for the animals as well as for the keepers and guests – but indeed also to discover ideas and opportunities that we will be able to transfer back to the urban jungle. Who knows, perhaps a rhino can teach us something about how we live, or could live in the future.”

Amager Bakke, 2010, under construction
This Copenhagen power plant successfully combines the wow-factor with economic, environmental and social functionality. How? Not only does it convert waste into energy, but it also has a ski slope on its roof. The project, says BIG, redefines “the relationship between the waste plant and the city. It will be both iconic and integrated, a destination in itself and a gift to the citizens of Copenhagen.”

Audemars Piguet museum, 2014, in progress
BIG won a contest to expand the headquarters of luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet in Vallée de Joux, Switzerland, to include a new design museum. The 2,400sqm pavilion will be dedicated to telling the story of Audemars Piguet’s history.

BIG’s intertwining spiral design is inspired by a mechanical timepiece.

Europa City, 2015, in progress
Developer Alliages begins construction on Europa City in 2017. Located 16km (10m) from Paris, it will open in 2020. Ingels says it will combine “authentic, lively, dense urban environments and streetscapes with open landscapes ... to create a new and interesting urban hybrid.” The project will include a theme park, urban farm, waterpark, hotel, snow park, theatres and restaurants.

Rise to fame

Bjarke Ingels was born in 1974 in Copenhagen. As a boy, he loved comic books and wanted to be a graphic novelist. To improve his drawing, he enrolled in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where he discovered a greater passion for architecture. From there, he went to the Escola Tecnica Superior d’Arquitectura in Barcelona, Spain. He graduated in 1998 and went to work for Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. In 2001, he co-founded PLOT Architects with Belgian architect Julien De Smedt, before going solo in 2005. His firm, BIG, now has offices in Copenhagen, New York and Beijing. Ingels is a 2016 RIBA Honorary International Fellow and has lectured at US universities including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Rice. He is a frequent speaker at events ranging from the TED Conference to the World Economic Forum.

Ingels on…

Bjarke Ingels
Bjarke Ingels

Darwinism
“Rather than revolution, we’re much more interested in evolution – this idea that things gradually evolve by adapting to the changes of the world. Darwin is one of the people who best describes our design process.” (TED Conference, 2009)

Occupying the middle ground
“On one hand, the vast majority of firms can be said to be major corporate companies that make predictable and boring boxes of high standards. On the other is an expressive avant-garde that produce designs that are often as impractical and overpriced as they are spectacular. BIG attempts to occupy the middle ground, or overlap, where careful analysis and rigour allows us to identify real reasons – needs, concerns, demands or desires – for doing things differently.” (Interior Design, 24 December 2013)

Being playful
“People always somehow misunderstand the light-heartedness of our discourse, the fact that we just play around. If you want to break the mould, if you want to do something surprising or different, [you need to do] three times the work to make it convincing. You have to take the playfulness really seriously to get it to work.” (Wired, May 2011)
‘Hedonistic sustainability’

“[There’s a] general misconception that sustainability is a question of how much of our existing quality of life are we prepared to sacrifice in order to afford becoming sustainable. But sustainability can’t be ... some kind of moral sacrifice or political dilemma or philanthropic cause. It has to be a design challenge.” (TED Conference, 2011) Industry and leisure

“It seems to be almost a law of culture that the infrastructure of the industry of the past gets reinvented for the culture and leisure of the present. A decommissioned power plant becomes an art museum or a discontinued train line becomes the High Line. What if this idea of social infrastructure could happen proactively – instead of waiting for a power plant to become obsolete, we could already conceive of it as having positive social side effects?” (Interior Design, 24 December 2013)

Failure
“Failure is part of the nature of all experiments. Any kind of hypothetical, deductive methodology involves a lot of failed experimentation … For every success, we have a freak show of bastards that didn’t make the cut.” (TED Blog, 30 October 2009)

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