Known for his ideas of hedonistic sustainability and pragmatic utopianism, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is a sunny, cerebral and resolutely optimistic figure in the architectural firmament. A keen polymath, during our interview he cites everyone from Einstein and Kierkegaard to sci-fi writer William Gibson. The 45-year-old founded Bjarke Ingels Group (Big) in 2005 and now employs 550 staff working on projects from New York’s Dryline (a masterplan and storm barrier that will double as a waterfront park) to a panda enclosure in Copenhagen Zoo. Here, he talks here about the concept of “gift giving” in architecture and extraterrestrial infrastructure.
What guiding principles unite your ever-expanding team?
As an architect you don’t have political power because we don’t write the rules; and we don’t have economic power because we don’t write the cheques. We do have the power to give a gift to the world. That gift is offering something we haven’t been asked to do. That “extra” becomes the power of architecture. For instance, we recently opened the world’s cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in Copenhagen with a ski slope on the roof; it also has the tallest climbing wall in the world. That gift to the citizens of Copenhagen was an unidentified side-effect of the fact that there’s clean technology.
You’ve said that your buildings are bigamists. How so?
I like the term bigamy. It’s this idea that you don’t have to necessarily choose one or the other. Very often the most interesting way forward is a combination of the two. Like a child is the unlikely combination of maternal and paternal dna. It’s very much the often contradictory combination of attributes of mum and dad. I think that’s often the case in architecture. It might be an apartment building that’s also a parking structure like The Mountain in Copenhagen. At first when you suggest these ideas they feel like oxymorons. But when they are here they just feel like a new kind of unity.
Your projects have long lead times. A masterplan takes between 20 and 40 years. How does Big anticipate change and stay ahead of the curve?
Whenever we do a new project we always try to ask ourselves: “How has the world changed?” The eureka moment in any project is often when you discover the change. You’ve now found the question; all you have to do is answer it. You can start exploring its potential consequences and often that becomes the driving force of your design. Our first project, the Harbour Bath in Copenhagen, came from this idea that the port had suddenly become so clean we could swim in it: we wouldn’t have to sit in our car forever to get to the beach. Similarly, the consequence of clean technology is that a power plant is no longer a toxic, hideous, noisy and dirty thing; it can be the bedrock of maybe the most popular park in Copenhagen.
How do you foster a culture of looking forward without too much futurology?
Architecture is the art and science of turning fiction into fact. You speculate about something and you spend five or 10 years getting all the funds, getting all the permits. Suddenly that wild fiction becomes just the way it is. William Gibson, the grandfather of the cyberpunk genre, said: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Even so, you are known as a pragmatic utopian. Do you have any extraterrestrial plans in the offing?
I am somewhere between hopeful and confident that our practice will end up building on Mars. Architecture at its core is about making the environment that we have more inhabitable for human life. If we look back a little bit, life didn’t originate on land, it originated in the water. Sixty per cent of our body is water because our cells require water to function; they’ve evolved this complex organism, which is a human being, that can drink water and maintain a hydrated environment so that life can live where it didn’t evolve.
Similarly, as human beings we evolved in east Africa – as best we know – then, 60,000 years ago, we started migrating elsewhere. But to do so we had to invent all sorts of technology and artificial environments – like fire, fur and architecture – so that now we can live in Denmark. We’re already expanding and pushing our habitats. A natural part of this expansion is to cross a notion of space, to go to the moon and to Mars. Of course, it’s going to be difficult because we can’t breathe the air. But every time we expand our habitat we invent new technologies.
You are now a resident in New York (where Big has its HQ) but to what extent do you think your Danish background and ideas of Nordic design have been key to your success?
Migration is maybe a key ingredient in creativity, innovation or evolution. Because it was somehow when the monkey went from the jungle to the savannah that stuff happened. Every time you migrate it’s taking something that evolved in one context and deploying it in another. It was really when I moved to America that I felt that I was quite Danish; I noticed this unquestioned significance of the environment or social responsibility. In all our projects in Denmark we would try to maximise the invitation to hang out and linger in and around the project. Our first projects in America were met with scepticism and the thinking that “Won’t this approach attract homeless people and loitering?”
There’s a lot of social alienation as a consequence of modern technology. Do you think architects have an important social role here?
I think architecture has a major role to play in trying to rediscover physical connection, and what you could call “collective intimacy”, by offering spaces that are inviting. I looked at some statistics recently: the number of times that teenagers go out without their parents has been declining since 2007, which was when the iPhone came out. The self-reported sense of loneliness has been radically spiking since then.
All of the technology that makes us more connected in the virtual world makes us more disconnected in the physical world. If you look at something like Amazon, on the one hand it has had an incredible impact but on the other, shopping, the marketplace, is evaporating and is leaving a gap. You won’t meet your butcher or your baker or your neighbour because you are having everything delivered. We are at a moment where architecture has a great role to play in championing physical space and the great social encounters that it can accommodate.
Should architects think more about the effect that physical space has on our health?
One of the things we have looked into recently, especially with our work with Google [on the firm’s new campus in Sunnyvale, California] is the idea of biophilia. There’s quite a bit of research that shows if you have access to and views of living materials and the circadian rhythms of daylight it increases health, productivity and even creativity. Architects need to find ways to deliver protection from the elements while allowing greater connection to nature.
What will your legacy be?
I hope that what I will be remembered for is something I haven’t done yet. This year we’re opening 12 buildings, including two museums, two schools, the power plant and a habitat for pandas. [I feel like] the first 20 years is just trying to get to the table. I hope that this idea of the gift – that each time someone asks you for something you wedge in a little extra – can be taken to the next level.
Rem Koolhaas said you were the first major architect to disconnect the profession from angst. Is your lack of anxiety part of your success?
I think he’s referring to this optimistic activist attitude that is maybe different from the gloomy discourse of the revolutionary avant garde. Revolutionaries are always rebelling against something; it’s a negative agenda. You are a follower in reverse. I think you can be pragmatic and utopian: understand that things need to work economically but also ecologically. I think that mindset has meant that we have always been more happy and willing to engage in the imperfect situations of reality and pragmatically attempt to do something as utopian as possible within the boundaries of what’s possible. I worry as much as anyone. But my experience says that the world is getting better.
1974 Born in Copenhagen.
1998 Begins working for Rem Koolhaas at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (oma) in Rotterdam.
2003 After starting his own Copenhagen practice, Plot, in 2001, Ingels completes a unique series of open-air swimming baths on the city’s harbour.
2005 Bjarke Ingels Group (Big) is formed. The Mountain Dwellings residential project in Copenhagen is its first major success.
2012 Big opens a New York office. Major commissions include the Dryline flood-protection project and another mountain-like apartment building.
2019 The Méca Cultural Center in Bordeaux and Copenhill/Amager Bakke power-plant projects are completed.
Tatiana Bilbao jokes that she is on the hunt for “a double me”. If she could just find a way to manipulate science, she could spend her days at her eponymous architecture studio in Mexico City while her other self took the frequent flights that her job demands. Bilbao number two would have her work cut out: there would be regular flights to New York on the way to Yale, where she is a visiting professor (she has also taught at Harvard, Columbia and Rice University in Texas); hops to San Francisco to check on two ongoing developments there; and regular work-related trips to Europe. Also on the agenda would be trips to Mexican states Sinaloa, Michoacán and Baja California, where her homegrown projects span everything from residences and towers to a funeral home and a pilgrimage route.
Not that Bilbao – whose work is currently being shown at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art – would have it any other way. Born into a family of architects, she says that her father used to proclaim that it was “in her blood”. After a two-year stint working for Mexico City’s urban housing and development department after graduation, she left to form a studio with fellow architect Fernando Romero (who would go on to work on the capital’s now-cancelled new airport, as well as the Soumaya Museum) before going it alone in 2004. Since then she has become one of Mexico’s defining design voices – often an outspoken one. She’s informed by first-hand experience of the cumbersome procedures (and tangle of different interests) within government, coupled with a strong social conscience fomented by her academia. As such, architecture that simply looks to plant a flag or drop a shimmering new box into a landscape is anathema to Bilbao.
That may explain why she’s fought against the “shitty system” of building social housing in isolated areas with deficient infrastructure. Instead she has involved her studio in public projects that have pushed back against identikit homes, instead promoting prototypes and masterplans that rethink community interaction and home layout. With ongoing tweaks to the Culiacán Botanical Garden, a new monastery in Germany and travelling academic project (and future book) Two Sides of the Border, looking at the interdependence of the US-Mexico relationship, she may just need that body double.
How important is the idea of ‘place’ to your work?
I realised that it’s impossible to understand a place. Maybe you never get it but you have to commit to it. It’s more about the commitment to the place than understanding it. A foreign eye can notice things. I would like to think that my architecture is curious about engaging.
How do you choose what you take on?
A project needs to have an ethical basis that we share. I believe that architecture should serve people and not exploit them, so that could create a line between me and a project – and it has done in the past. If I see that the financial interest is more important than anything else, we won’t do that project. Or if there’s not a beneficial interest to a community or person then we don’t do it.
Would you say there’s been a shift in your work from high-end to thinking more socially?
When I left university I started working for the housing and urban planning department, so it’s been an interest forever and a line of research since I started. What has shifted, probably, is the size of the projects. Before, we were doing smaller projects and now they are larger scale with larger impacts. I see the change in the office: before, we had projects where the implications were easier to grasp. Right now it’s becoming more and more challenging.
You’ve been very vocal about housing in Mexico.
As I’ve been very vocal – and causing a lot of controversy – some people really don’t want me near. But others do. This is how we’ve ended up working on these projects. I think it’s basically pushing things like saying: “This is not correct, this shouldn’t be done like this, this should be done like this.” That’s how we worked in Acuña and Territorios de Gigantes and Mejorando la Unidad.
Is social housing still as bad in Mexico as when you first started speaking out?
Residents cannot live there; they are not places for living. They are boxes for storing people and people started to realise that they’re not places to create a life. The worst part is private developers being subsidised by the government to do those things and being allowed to do them by the government. I don’t believe that a government that has made housing a constitutional right for its citizens should give away the system of social housing to a private developer that will make money out of it. The equation just doesn’t sound right.
Does an architect have an obligation to be political?
Architecture is politics, absolutely. Because you’re building a space that is going to be lived in by someone else and making decisions on their behalf, I think that’s the basis of politics.
What motivates you to be so involved in academia?
Firstly it allows me to have feet on the ground; it roots me. Secondly it allows me to do a lot of research on topics I’m interested in that I cannot do in my office. And thirdly, because I learn so much; I need it every day.
Is there a project that you would still like to do?
I don’t [want to] imagine what is next because what I’m doing now is amazing: a monastery in Germany. That’s immersed me in a full set of new ideas and values that are opening many, many channels. I can’t think of anything nicer than what I am doing now, so just let it be.
1972 Born in Mexico City.
1996 Graduates in architecture and urbanism from Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana.
1998 Spends two years as an adviser for urban projects at Mexico City’s department for urban housing and development.
1999 Founds Laboratorio de la Ciudad de México, a studio with Fernando Romero.
2004 Launches Tatiana Bilbao Estudio. Builds the angular Exhibition Room in Jinhua Architecture Park, Zhejiang, China, at the invitation of artist Ai Weiwei.
2010 Starts work on a masterplan for a sustainable neighbourhood in Angangueo, Michoacán, for families affected by flooding.
2011 Designs a sanctuary as part of a group of international architects working on Mexico’s Pilgrim Route in the state of Jalisco.
2014 Receives the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture presented by the Locus Foundation and the Cité de l’Architecture of Paris, under the patronage of Unesco.
2019 Installs exhibit at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum as part of its The Architect’s Studio series. Runs until February.
John Pawson’s architecture is serious. And with projects ranging from the quietly designed Calvin Klein flagship in New York to a gracefully unadorned Czech monastery for Trappist monks, you might expect the man to be a little stoic. As it happens, the truth is quite the opposite.
Taking monocle through the past four decades of his practice, his dry British wit is often hilarious and the conversation bounds freely between work and family – clearly his two big passions in life. Perhaps it’s this warmth of personality that prevents Pawson, a self-proclaimed minimalist, from ever creating austere buildings. We learn why clients, from London’s Design Museum to Italian luxury leather accessories company Valextra, covet his signature style of architecture.
You’re a minimalist but one who creates everything from homes to homeware. How do you decide what is worth bringing into the world?
It’s interesting: there’s already a very good three-pronged fork, why then would I want to make my own three-pronged fork? But small things do change the atmosphere in the world of the home. I’m very interested in how subtle things can affect it. It’s not that I have to have everything done by me, of course. My wife Catherine recently bought some very beautiful knives and forks by David Chipperfield, which now sit alongside the set I designed. I do prefer my own cutlery though.
Your new book, ‘Anatomy of Minimum’, showcases your rural British family home. Tell us about its design.
It’s an amalgamation of a series of old agricultural buildings. The main reason for buying it was the location: it’s on an escarpment and looks down the valley, so you get these sweeping views west. Instead of building new I transformed the interior spaces – or I cleaned them up as it’s listed. I retained all the good stuff. I never make a move on a building until I am absolutely sure. I photograph everything on a site meticulously – on different days, different seasons – and make a record of the flora and fauna. I can only do a project for myself every 20 years as it’s a drain on the office resources.
How does a home designed for John Pawson differ from a John Pawson home for a client?
They’re always designed for me. Some people might like a bath so I’ll give them a bath but I think most people that come here want a place that has a certain atmosphere. Touch wood, I seem to be able to make it work. When you enter one of my buildings you feel something different.
How does your office operate on a day-to-day basis?
We’re 25 people, between here and Berlin – all architects. There is no support staff so everyone works fairly independently and people don’t tend to leave because of this independence. They’re all intelligent and creative, influenced by being in my studio, but many are not minimalists. They adapt but they bring quite a lot of themselves into each project.
Like a fashion house with you at the top guiding the vision?
Possibly but architecture is very different to fashion. I was always trying to explain to Calvin [Klein]: you can cut a pattern but you can’t start cutting into buildings – especially when they’re built. But then again, for him nothing was impossible.
You’ve had as much success with fashion brands as you have with religious buildings.
Even though some think it odd that I designed a Calvin Klein shop and a monastery, the monks are practical people and they saw in the Calvin Klein shop a space that would make a good church: the tables were altars and it had that generous ceiling height. But every different building type has a different function and a different atmosphere. That being said, Jesus gave communion at the kitchen table so you could see an altar as a copy of a kitchen table.
1949 Born in Halifax, England.
1981 Leaves London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture to start his practice.
2016 Design Museum opens in London, with interior designed by Pawson.
2019 Anatomy of Minimum is published.