CLAD interview

Bjarke Ingels

The Danish architect on Lego and Lego House and the culture at BIG


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Lego House recently opened in Billund, Denmark. What did that project mean to you?
If BIG had been founded for one single building, it would have been this one. It’s such a joyful exploration of all of the different potential expressions of Lego.

Like any Dane, I grew up with Lego. What’s unique about Lego as a toy is that it’s actually not a toy, it’s a vehicle for systematic creativity that enables the child to create its own world and then to inhabit that world through play.

As architects, we have the ability to build the world we’d like to live in. The sense of empowerment that architecture can give when it’s working well is the same kind of empowerment that Lego gives a child.

What’s the team like at BIG?
Of course, I founded the company and I’m the creative leader, but I’ve never kept it a secret that I work with great, gifted people. Of the partners at BIG, about half of them were interns in the early days of the company, so we’ve been together for a ridiculously long time. We’ve developed a culture through friendship and collaboration that’s very strong.

So you wouldn’t agree when you’re sometimes portrayed as a kind of lone genius?
The truth is that collaboration is about collective effort and it’s also about individual contribution – so both are actually true. There wouldn’t be any BIG without me and there wouldn’t be any BIG without all the ‘BIGsters’.

I don’t see that there’s a dichotomy. Has Steven Spielberg made you think that he’s the only one contributing to his films? Not really. But, of course, he’s the director and he also consistently manages to put together a team that can deliver something that other directors don’t.

What challenges have you faced as a firm?
We launched BIG in 2005 and we were doing some big projects, like 8 House complex in Copenhagen and the Danish Maritime Museum in Helsingør. But by the fall of 2007, we were going down. I took control of our finances for a year, let go of 35 people, cut down everything I could, including lunches and our cleaning services, borrowed some money and managed to turn the company around.

After that, I hired Sheela Maini Søgaard, who is now a partner and CEO of the firm. Sheela has a really healthy confrontational attitude. She started phoning late payers, getting them to cough up. Where architects are typically overly optimistic, Sheela has a healthy scepticism. We needed that.

The culture at BIG – which includes parties, a ‘BIG band’ and even cycling trips over the Andes – is well known. Did you set out to create this?
It’s not an agenda, it’s more a question of how you’d like to lead your life. Architects tend to work long hours, but even working a normal day is still half your waking hours, so you’d better have a good time doing it.

It’s not just about the parties though. If you put a lot of like-minded, energetic, passionate, brilliant, creative people in a room with some fascinating problems to solve and a big deadline at the end, it’s practically like a party. So even without intoxicating substances, it’s a blast.

Why did you decide to relocate from New York to Copenhagen?
The last few years have been dominated by America, but there’s no doubt that Europe is back at full throttle. I’m keen to spend a few years focusing on opportunities in Europe. We’ve got plenty to be excited about.

Bjarke Ingels was interviewed by Magali Robathan. Read the full article in CLADmag issue 4 2017

Key dates

2001
Bjarke Ingels launches PLOT with Julien De Smedt

2005
Ingels launches the Bjarke Ingels Group in Copenhagen

2009
BIG becomes a partnership with eight partners: Bjarke Ingels, Sheela Maini Søgaard, Kai-Uwe Bergmann, Andreas Klok Pedersen, David Zahle, Jakob Lange, Finn Nørkjær and Thomas Christoffersen

2010
BIG opens its New York office

2014
Research and development lab BIG ideas is born

2015
BIG appoints four new partners: Beat Schenk, Daniel Sundlin, Jakob Sand and Brian Yang

2016
BIG’s London office opens in Kings Cross

2017
BIG launches its own in-house engineering, landscape, interior and space planning department

Cooming soon .......

The theatre will be both stage and actor in the city of Tirana - Bjarke Ingels

The National Theatre of Albania is a three-in-one cultural venue shaped like a bow tie. Designed in collaboration with British consultancy Theatre Projects, the venue has been commissioned to host local and touring theatre companies

Like a collective campus rather than a monolithic stadium – Bjarke Ingels

East Austin District is a sports and entertainment neighbourhood in Texas sheltering stadia and arenas under a dramatic chequered roofscape. The roof’s design is inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s grid system for dividing America’s fields, forests and towns into square-mile sections

Cascading work environments connecting Googlers across multiple floors – Bjarke Ingels

A scheme for Google’s headquarters has been designed by Heatherwick Studio and BIG. The 11-storey ‘landscraper’ proposal will be the first wholly owned and designed Google building outside the US

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Copenhagen Zoo’s new panda enclosure will be shaped like an enormous yin-yang symbol, half for the female and half for the male panda. The habitat features bamboo, trees, rocks, logs, waterfalls, pools and streams

Collective commuting, individual freedom, near supersonic speed – Bjarke Ingels

BIG and Virgin Hyperloop One, the world’s first Hyperloop high-speed transport system, are pursuing a passenger and cargo network in the United Arab Emirates. BIG designed the system’s stations, control centre and pods

A lively urban fabric that combines radically different streetscapes – Bjarke Ingels

EuropaCity is a huge development on the outskirts of Paris covering more than 300,000sqm offering a mix of retail, culture and leisure

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