Why we’re building the future with Bjarke Ingels

Bjarke Ingels has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He has been awarded Innovator of the Year by the Wall Street Journal. And he has been celebrated as one of the 100 Most Creative People In Business in Fast Company.

Others have called him “the movie star of architecture”, “the undisputed king of the architectural one-liner” and said he has “revolutionised how architecture is communicated, and also experienced”. He has won at least 26 major awards, spoken at 10 Downing Street and taught at Harvard and Yale. Netflix has made a show about him.

His daring, unique and attention-grabbing buildings include a mountain-shaped apartment block in Copenhagen, a skyscraper that resembles a hash sign in Seoul, and a proposal to turn Battersea Power Station in London into “the world’s tallest Tesla coils”.

Having built the first 3D printed hotel, and rebuilt Noma – the world’s best restaurant, he’s now building Google’s Headquarters in Silicon Valley, and a lunar base for NASA.

As Ingels himself puts it, he sees no reason why architecture has to be “a box with another box on top.”

Noma, the world's best restaurant

By Bjarke Ingels Group

NASA Lunar habitat

By Bjarke Ingels Group

More than anyone else, Ingels and his architectural practice, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group – have rethought how architecture needs to interact with the environment. In his 2011 TED talk Ingels laid out his concept of “hedonistic sustainability.”

It posited that reducing our environmental impact should also increase our quality of life, and that it was architects’ job to figure out how this should work. As such, many of BIG’s works resemble land art as much as they do architecture.

For example, in the foothills of Mount Fuji, BIG is designing an entire town in partnership with Toyota, envisaged as a utopia for clean transport technology.

In the mountains of Switzerland it has built a spiral-shaped museum for the luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet that rises seamlessly out of the ground, perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape, with a roof of regional grasses that helps control the building’s temperature.

And in his hometown of Copenhagen, Ingels has constructed CopenHill, a 279 feet tall power plant where garbage is burned to generate low-carbon energy in a process so clean BIG was able to build a ski slope on top of it.

Copenhill Power Plant, Copenhagen

By Bjarke Ingels Group

Copenhill Power Plant, Copenhagen

By Bjarke Ingels Group

Ingels is a populist. As one commentator put it, he has the ability to synthesise big ideas for big audiences. It is true that his buildings seldom come without a “gawp factor”. But it’s also true that they come from a place often ignored by other architects: that of captivating storytelling.

Where others hide behind verbose language or complicated metaphors to justify their work, Ingels’ designs are concise, idealistic and straightforward. It is sometimes said that if a child can’t understand an idea, then perhaps it’s not a very good idea in the first place.

“In architecture, there’s this myth, or misunderstanding, that if what you’re saying makes no sense, or nobody can understand it, then it must be really profound,” Ingels said recently. “And that if what you’re saying is crystal clear, then it can’t be very deep.”

As may be apparent by now, Ingels’ designs also come with a healthy serving of fun. That’s not always a word associated with architects.

Certainly not every architect would delight in having the Danish web address big.dk.

In 2013 BIG was asked to create a new headquarters for Lego in the iconic Danish toy company’s hometown of Billund. Ingels, who considered the commission something akin to his patriotic duty, came up with a 12,000 square metre multi-level ziggurat filled with 25 million Lego bricks.

It opened in 2017. Viewed from above it appears as 21 staggered blocks that themselves resemble Lego, with nine roof terraces containing children’s play areas.

From the Billund Airport Gift Shop visitors may in turn purchase the Lego Architecture set of the Lego House, comprised of 774 pieces. "A challenging set to put together," according to the Amazon reviewer Laurie.

Lego museum

By Bjarke Ingels Group

Lego Museum

By Bjarke Ingels Group

Frank Gehry had to wait until he was 75 before work began on his first building in New York. Frank Lloyd Wright was in his 80s.

Bjarke Ingels arrived in the city with a bang in 2016 with W57, a 467 foot metal-clad tetrahedron-shaped apartment block with commanding views of the Hudson River, organised around a central courtyard with a sloping roof punctuated by terraces.

He was 42.

That same year Rem Koolhaas had this to say about his former employee. “Bjarke is the first major architect who disconnected the profession completely from angst. He threw out all the ballast and soared. With that, he is completely in tune with the thinkers of Silicon Valley, who want to make the world a better place without the existential hand-wringing that the previous generations felt was crucial to earn utopianist credibility.”

Today BIG has offices in New York, London and Copenhagen, with a large number of projects currently on the go throughout Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East. Boldface clients include Google, the NYPD and Noma, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant repeatedly voted the best in the world.

Bjarke Ingels grew up in a flat-roofed single-storey 1950s wooden house on the suburban coast, north of Copenhagen. His mother, Elisabet Ingels is a dentist, his father, Knud Jensen is a fibre-optic cable engineer. As a teenager his ambition was to be a comic book artist.

Back then architects still worked with pen and ink, so Ingels saw enrolling in an architecture degree as a good way to further his career as a graphic novelist. In 1993, he began a six year course at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of Arts.

He spent his fourth year in Barcelona, an experience he credits with transforming him into “a completely new person.”

There he became obsessed with Rem Koolhaas, and his Rotterdam-based firm oma, the architectural practice that eschewed any single distinctive aesthetic in favour of buildings that used the best of modern technology and materials to speak to the needs of a particular site and client. Ingels had found a way into architecture that appealed to him – appreciating that it could both be informed by the world around us and become a part of it, too.

By the midway point of his fifth year he had assembled a student portfolio full of designs, including a car showroom he imagined building underground, and turned up at oma that Christmas to present it.

They were not expecting him.

Remembering the credits on a previous oma project he’d read about in a Spanish architecture magazine, Ingels asked to see one of the listed architects, Gary Bates. “In comes this man, who’s quite young and he was really annoyed,” Ingels later recalled. “He was saying ‘I’m sorry… I don’t recall ever having spoken with you.’”

But Bates was so impressed with the young upstart’s portfolio – plus an overload of charisma that would later prove valuable in securing BIG commissions – that Ingels won him over. He walked out with a six month internship, the only job he’s ever applied for.

By 2001 he was back in Copenhagen to establish his own firm with his oma colleague Julien De Smedt, which the pair called PLOT. (Ingels is a cinema fan – in particular, the movies of Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. The latter being especially adept at creating head-turning projects that grab both big prizes and large audiences.)

PLOT wasted little time in racking up national attention with their idiosyncratic, inventive designs.

Their first major achievement was the VM Houses in Ørestad, Copenhagen, in 2005. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unity d’Habitation concept, a vertical “garden city” that focused on communal living for all its inhabitants to shop, play and live together, the two residential blocks formed the shape of the letters V and M, as seen from the sky.

The design emphasised daylight and privacy, with each of the 209 units offering diagonal views of surrounding fields, rather than the neighbouring building. On completion VM Houses won an award for the best building in Scandinavia. PLOT was later awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.

Google Campus, Silicon Valley

By Bjarke Ingels Group

Vollebak Island, Nova Scotia

By Bjarke Ingels Group

In 2005 Ingels disbanded PLOT to establish BIG, which today employs more than 600 people.

Early hits included the 25 metre high Copenhagen apartment complex Mountain Dwellings, that combined 10,000 square metres of apartment space with 20,000 square metres of parking space, the apartments scaling the diagonally sloping roof of the garage, their undersides covered in aluminium and painted bright colours exactly matching the palate used by Verner Panton, the celebrated Danish furniture designer.

In 2010 he designed a pavilion in the shape of a loop – Ingels loves a loop – for the Danish World Expo pavilion in Shanghai. The open-air steel structure was based around a bicycle path that could accommodate 300 cyclists. In the centre was a pool of imported Copenhagen harbour water in which visitors were invited to swim.

More controversial was his request to uproot The Little Mermaid, the 175 kilogram bronze statue and homage to Hans Christian Andersen, one of Denmark’s leading tourist attractions, from its home on a rock in Copenhagen’s harbour, and install it in the pavilion. Ingels got his wish, though objections were raised in parliament.

Ingels explained that he wanted to exhibit “a part of Denmark itself”, rather than the more usual Expo material of “state propaganda in paper-mâché.”

Around the same time he released his first book, Yes is More, a radical architectural manifesto in the form of a 400 page graphic novel. In it, Ingels writes "What if design could be the opposite of politics? Not by ignoring conflict but by feeding from it. A way to incorporate and integrate differences, not through compromises or by choosing sides, but by tying conflicting interests into a Gordian knot of new ideas."

Today he is more obsessed than ever with designing with the sustainable future of the planet in mind. The construction and operation of buildings account for almost 40 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, according to a UN report.

His “hedonistic sustainability” motto runs through the work that comes out of BIG’s offices, from the construction of the Dryline, a 12km long park / flood defence barrier forming a protective ribbon in southern Manhattan that also includes public spaces, bicycle shelters and skateboard ramps, to the plan to transform Penang Island’s south shore into a series of resilient artificial islands.

Ingels might seem like he’s surfing the zeitgeist. After all, while architecture has been slower than many industries to address the huge problems fancying the planet, it has slowly come round to the idea of putting sustainability front and centre.

But in fact, this idea has always been there in Ingels’ work.

And even earlier than that.

Like all Danish teenagers, at the end of high school, aged 19, Ingels was invited to write a thesis.

The title, which refers to the 1992 U.N summit, was ‘Environmental Policy on Global, Regional, National, Local and Individual Level: A Follow-Up on the Rio Conference’.

These days Ingels would have come up with something much more fun and attention-grabbing than that as a title.

Back then, he still got the best mark in his class.

Vollebak Island, Nova Scotia

By Bjarke Ingels Group