Early arrival: Bjarke Ingels and the BIG phenomenon

On Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ 46th birthday, the website of his practice aptly lists a total of 46 projects completed by the firm. John Jervis observes the BIG phenomenon.

by John Jervis Published on : Oct 02, 2020

Amongst all the extraordinary things about Bjarke Ingels, the most extraordinary is his age. He will be 46 today. At that age, most architects have barely begun. Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano had each completed a couple of major projects, yet were still seen as young bucks. Rem Koolhaas (Ingels’ one-time boss) and Zaha Hadid were only just starting to turn their designs into reality. Ingels, on the other hand, has been hatching megastructures, in both size and impact, for well over a decade. Aptly, the website of his practice BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group – currently lists a total of 46 projects that have been completed by the firm, with 20 more under construction and many, many more “in progress”.

  • Bjarke Ingels with Serpentine Pavilion 2016 in the backdrop | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    Bjarke Ingels with Serpentine Pavilion 2016 in the backdrop Image: Iwan Baan
  • Bjarke Ingels in front of his design of a mixed-use tower in Frankfurt am Main (June 2015) | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    Bjarke Ingels in front of his design of a mixed-use tower in Frankfurt am Main (June 2015) Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bjarke Ingels first kicked himself into the international spotlight in the mid-2000s with two affordable housing-cum-urban solutions in Ørestad, a new district of his hometown, Copenhagen. The VM Houses (cranked takes on the Corbusian block) and The Mountain (a grid of garden flats raked across a sloped parking lot) were both eye-catching, both avant-garde, both award-winning. Another followed, 8 House, similarly literal in its naming, similarly garlanded, similarly innovative in its blend of housing, commerce and communal facilities, all topped off with green roofs and bicycle paths – although this time a little less affordable.

  • VM Houses in Copenhagen, Denmark | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    VM Houses in Copenhagen, Denmark Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • The Mountain in Copenhagen, Denmark | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    The Mountain in Copenhagen, Denmark Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • 8 House in Copenhagen, Denmark | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    8 House in Copenhagen, Denmark Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The upbeat, amicable and – above all – youthful Ingels marketed these projects to the architectural world with panache. Catchy aphorisms and earnest exhortations tumbled from his mouth, accompanied by a permanent grin, an impressive tan and a chiselled jaw – a package that turned some people on, and some off. He seemed, and still seems, ubiquitous on the global conference circuit, preaching his gospel of “pragmatic utopianism” and “yes is more”. The latter catchphrase was even adopted for an exhibition and “archicomic” in 2010, harking back to Ingels’ teenage ambition to pen graphic novels. Whether on conference slides or comic-book pages, his trademark diagrams with their transformative arrows are put to work explaining the conceptual evolution of BIG’s projects, encapsulating Ingels’ conviction that if you stick to the process and follow the parameters, you get the result. And, impressively, he’s generally right – the finished buildings even retain a certain iconographic chunkiness to prove it.

  • VIΛ 57 West in Manhattan, New York City | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    VIΛ 57 West in Manhattan, New York City Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Visualisation of ‘The Spiral’ at Hudson Yards in New York City | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    Visualisation of ‘The Spiral’ at Hudson Yards in New York City Image: © Tishman Speyer, Courtesy of BIG
  • BIG and Heatherwick Studio’s ongoing project for the new Google Headquarters in California | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    BIG and Heatherwick Studio’s ongoing project for the new Google Headquarters in California Image: © The 111th Group

By the time of 8 House’s completion in 2011, Ingels had heard the siren call of the United States, moving to New York and promptly showering it with construction sites. These have since given birth to such projects as the pyramidal Via 57 West ‘courtscraper’ in Midtown West; The Spiral skyscraper alongside the High Line, with its encircling, ascending green ribbon; and The XI, a pair of contorted luxury condos in Chelsea. The list goes on, even if one enticing New York assignment – 2 World Trade Center –seems to have been recently wrenched from his grasp. Fortunately, the biggest prize of the lot is now rising on the opposite coast – BIG’s collaboration with Heatherwick Studio on Google’s canopied headquarters at Mountain View, California.

It would be hard to dispute that Ingels is the most vital of the current crop of starchitects, particularly as his predecessors recede into their practices. It’s a status that attracts both brickbats and jealousy, a professional hazard that Ingels takes with good grace. It also seems to have exacerbated a certain messianic tendency – in BIG world, utopias are being created, ecosystems generated and problems solved like postmodernism never happened. Certainly, America can no longer contain him – BIG’s stamp is currently affixed to any number of ecocities and hi-tech campuses across Asia, including ambitious examples in Penang, Chongqing and Shizuoka. The green credentials of such projects have been queried, however, as has a recent willingness on the part of this self-proclaimed “good guy” to consort with problematic regimes.

  • CopenHill: BIG’s iconic waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen, Denmark | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    CopenHill: BIG’s iconic waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen, Denmark Image: Rasmus Hjortshoj
  • Museé Atelier Audemars Piguet in Le Brassus, Switzerland | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    Museé Atelier Audemars Piguet in Le Brassus, Switzerland Image: Iwan Baan
  • The LEGO House in Billund, Denmark | STIR Birthday Tribute | STIRworld
    The LEGO House in Billund, Denmark Image: Kim Christensen

Yet this blowback can’t hide the fact that BIG still produces the goods with a thrilling regularity. You would think that expansion would lead to overstretch, but there’s no sign of that. The Twist – a museum-cum-bridge for Kistefos Sculpture Park in Jevnaker, Norway – has been a huge practical, critical and Insta-success, with its dazzling aluminium-clad structure inspired by a stack of books. Ingels returned to his hometown to produce another award-winner: the long-awaited Copenhill, a green-walled waste-to-energy plant, with a hiking trail, climbing wall and three-pisted ski slope atop its mountainous form. Again, the list of memorable projects could go on, perhaps touching on the sculptural, spiralling Museé Atelier Audemars Piguet, sunk into a hillside amidst the watch-making workshops of La Vallée de Joux; or the Lego House in Billund – “a literal manifestation of the infinite possibilities of the Lego brick”; or even new designs for the near-supersonic pods of the Hyperloop One in Dubai. Despite the passing of the years, Ingels’ mind still seems endlessly fertile; his pursuit of innovation relentless; his excitement about architecture’s potential to improve our lot undimmed. And his appetite for work is almost frightening. Perhaps age isn’t the most extraordinary thing about Bjarke Ingels after all.

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