It might be an understatement to say that Bjarke Ingels' firm the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has gone gangbusters. In a climate where much new construction is being delayed indefinitely and architecture firms are shrinking in size, BIG was recently awarded three high-profile contracts: The Greenland National Gallery of Art, Copenhagen's future 700-million-dollar waste to energy plant, and their first project in North America, a 600-unit residential building on West 57th Street in Manhattan. We caught up with Ingels right before he gave the keynote speech at the Global Green Cities Symposium last Thursday. He briefed us on his recent projects, how New York is becoming more and more like Copenhagen, and why "Bigamy" could be the next great concept in design.
"Since we've opened an office in New York we've begun to pay more attention to the Americas," says Ingels.
It seems that it's really the United States that's been paying more attention to the progressive environmental programs and policies of Denmark, which is where B.I.G. is headquartered. For example, Copenhagen is known to be one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, boasting over 350 km of bike lanes and Strøget, a pedestrian-only shopping area, is a very popular section of the city.
"You can say the skyline of Manhattan is almost like purely the product of the forces of finance, commerce and industry and over the last 10 years there's been this new agenda to make the city more inhabitable for human life and life forms in general," says Ingels. "New York has created more miles of bicycle lanes in the last three years than are in the entire city of Copenhagen, and there is the plan to plant 1,000,000 trees, and the pedestrianization of Times Square—there's a whole series of interventions and what we're trying to do in our W 57th Street Project is to introduce the Copenhagen courtyard as the heart of the city block."
Though New York has embraced the pedestrian zones, bike infrastructure, and Copenhagen Courtyard, Ingels says there's room for one more import: district heating.
"We just won a competition to design a waste to energy plant in Copenhagen and I think where there's massive potential [for waste to energy] in the US. For example, there was this story of a massive barge sailing up and down the Hudson river and out on the Atlantic ocean because they couldn't get rid of the trash. In Denmark we only landfill 4.2 percent of our waste; 42 percent is recycled and 54 percent is used as fuel for the production of electricity and heat. In a city like Copenhagen, something like 97 percent of the homes have "district heating" which means homes get the excess heat from the production of power so there's no fuel consumed just to heat homes—the excess heat is coming from other processes that actually create heat!"
Though the environmental credentials of the future energy plant are interesting, what will be atop the plant is the real attention-getter: a ski slope.
"This waste to energy plant is a giant factory and it's not only the tallest, but also the biggest building in all of Copenhagen. Instead of merely making a visitor center where school teachers drag their kids to learn about how trash is turned into energy, we could turn it into a real destination simply by exploiting the fact that Copenhagen has the climate but not the topography for skiing…So it's not only economically and ecologically sustainable in that it transforms trash into heat and energy, it is also socially sustainable because it creates a park and a social program that would otherwise not exist in Denmark."
"This is an idea that possesses great potential because you have a lot of really large scale infrastructural investments. [The waste to energy plant] is a 700 million dollar project and the part that makes it socially interesting—the ski slope—is almost nothing considering the overall investment. So if somehow you can harness these great forces of economy and infrastructure and use them to create a socially desirable by product you have the potential of hedonistic sustainability."
Marrying sustainable design with something fun and desirable is the core of Ingels' concept of "hedonistic sustainability," a concept that he presented at the symposium.
"With hedonistic sustainability, sustainability is not a sacrifice or not a question of how much of your current lifestyle are you able to sacrifice, but how sustainable buildings actually increase the quality of life," says Ingels. "If sustainability becomes a design challenge more than a moral obligation, then people can live exactly the way they want to—we can design society around their lifestyle."
"The next book we're working on has the working title 'Bigamy' with the subtitle or tagline 'you can have both,'" says Ingels. "Quite often the potential for innovation is to explore seeming mutually exclusive concepts. As soon a you mix things and explore the overlaps between programs you can explore synergies, like the idea of hedonistic sustainability."
Though "bigamy" and "hedonistic sustainability" were two very interesting concepts coming from B.I.G., a burning question on our minds here at Dwell was how the recent events in the Middle East might be affecting future projects.
"I was starting to consider if I was an 'omen.' In August of 2008 we were selected to design the National Bank of Iceland; two months later that wasn't happening anymore," says Ingels referring to the country's declaration of bankruptcy. "I was actually just in Libya looking at two [potential] projects. We landed on the day when the Tunisian government resigned. But we have no projects in the Middle East right now. And the Libyan projects are on hold."
After the interview, I dropped in on his keynote address at the symposium. The people sitting next to me—the Director of SF Environment and an advisor to Carbon War Room—hadn't heard of Ingels, and politely asked "do you know who this guy is?" when he came up onstage. But after being introduced to the ideas of architectural alchemy, hedonistic sustainability, and Bigamy, they were very excited about the presentation, dancing in their seats and bobbing their heads to the catchy Top 40 songs that accompanied videos of his projects. Ingels, with his slogans and pop-culture references, accomplished exactly what he says his tactics (like his archicomic "Yes is More") need to.
"I think it's important to be conscious of what you do because architecture is such a collective effort," he says. "If you can't transmit [the concept] to the team, and the collaborators, and the clients, and the decision makers and all the NIMBYist neighbors, then it's not going to happen."
Upon his conclusion, I think the audience was Starchitect struck—and for all the right reasons.
For more about Bjarke Ingels' work, see this article on his Mountain Dwellings project featured in Dwell's September 2009 issue.