The Next Big Thing

At 36, Bjarke Ingels is the most famous young architect working today. His buildings, which marry sunny social and environmental sentiments to bulky, almost unpretty volumes, are all over the design blogs. He has been in every magazine from Domus to Details. A funny, eminently quotable orator, he’s a hot ticket at conferences. Last year he wowed the audience at TED; this year, the World Economic Forum, at Harvard. American architects love him. And architecture students want to be him. Tech savvy, spectacularly ambitious, and provocative without crushing the status quo, he’s architecture’s very own Lady Gaga.

Which ought to make sense to precisely no one. Set aside, for a moment, his age—the architectural equivalent of Bobby Fischer’s becoming a grand-master before being old enough to get a driver’s license. Ingels hails from Denmark, a nation with a rich but insular design tradition. It’s a place where striving for much beyond getting the latest Biomega bike is tacitly pooh-poohed.

Now, after three successful housing projects at home—including his latest, a mixed-used megabuilding at the southern tip of Copenhagen—Ingels and his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, are bringing their spirited brand of architecture to the rest of the world. They’re designing for private developers, public institutions, and dictators. They’re building in Sweden, China, and Kazakhstan. Next stop: New York, a city where reputations are cemented and shattered. He’s proof that working all the right levers of the modern age can cause some of architecture’s longstanding barriers to come crashing down: a young architect can get work, a Dane can go global, and a smart, utilitarian aesthetic can become unfathomably hip. “The world in general is opening up to innovation in design,” says Toshiko Mori, who hired Ingels to teach at Harvard a couple years ago. “Starchitecture is waning, and everyone is more interested in ecological design. He knows how to exploit that.”

Ingels’s headquarters takes up a massive, light-filled floor in an office building in the heart of Copenhagen’s Muslim district. Hans Christian Andersen is buried in a cemetery just across the street. Indoors, the place is a mess of desks and blue foam and impos-sibly young staffers who look like they’ve been plucked from a Benetton ad. In the thick of it all is Ingels, the ringmaster. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says “Obama is the new black,” and his hair sprouts wildly from his scalp; think Heathers-era Christian Slater but with a North Sea accent. On this day, a rainy Monday in mid-May, he slouches into a chair he designed and, as casually as you might comment on the weather, drops the news that a politician recently threatened to kill him.

“One of the members of the People’s Party, which is like the Danish equivalent of the Tea Party, made violent comments and death threats against me and the client of the Battery online,” he says. The Battery is a huge urban development Ingels has planned for Copenhagen, and it’s supposed to include the first mosque built in the city, drawing the animus of Denmark’s few but vocal racist wingnuts. “I was almost proud of it,” Ingels laughs. “When you get death threats from the right people—or the wrong people—it’s like a compliment.”

To call it a compliment might be a stretch, but it certainly shows that he has reached a level of public renown few architects ever attain—let alone thirtysomethings who stumbled into the profession almost by accident. The son of a dentist and an engineer, Ingels spent his teenage years nose down in comic books, preferring Frank Miller and Moebius to Mies van der Rohe and Rem Koolhaas. After high school, he wanted to keep drawing. Denmark didn’t have a cartoon academy, so he enrolled in architecture school; he had heard the first two years were nothing but drawing. “Then I forgot everything about comic books,” he says, “and became an architect.”

He describes his school years as an exercise in “serial monogamy.” He would fall in love with an architect, learn everything about him, lose interest, then fall in love with another architect. Koolhaas topped the crush list. “I started studying architecture in the early nineties, which was when S,M,L,XL was published,” Ingels says. “So my generation was reading Rem before we were reading Le Corbusier.”

Ingels went on to join Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture, working for a spell on the Seattle Central Library. It’s obvious that Koolhaas left a mammoth footprint on the young architect, though Ingels would never admit as much. Like Koolhaas, Ingels favors high-drama superstructures. And like Koolhaas, Ingels loves a good narrative. “One of the radical ideas in Delirious New York is that architecture isn’t a product of some kind of autonomous art form,” Ingels says. “It’s responding to a specific political or social or cultural context. In an article, you always give a story an angle. Projects have to be like that too. That I could really relate to.”

By the time Ingels finished architecture school, Silicon Valley was spitting out a new 22-year-old millionaire practically every week. He was fascinated by the technology and, perhaps even more, the avenues it threw open. Denmark, meanwhile, felt like it was stuck in the Middle Ages. Design is one of the country’s storied exports, with modernists like Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton, and Jørn Utzon looming large both at home and abroad. But the country is in many ways enslaved by its own legacy. “When we started in Copenhagen, there hadn’t been a new firm in Denmark for the last ten to twenty years,” Ingels says. “There were, like, six big offices that were swallowing all the jobs, and the common assumption was that it was impossible to make it on your own.”

There’s a Danish term called Jantelov—literally, “the law of Jante.” It means that no one is supposed to rise above the rest, and if he does, every other Dane has the right to cast him off. The expression is somewhat dated, a Danish friend tells me, now that Denmark has produced a laundry list of international celebrities (Viggo Mortensen, Connie Nielsen, Lars von Trier, etc.). Still, there’s a lingering sense that raw ambition is a curious American affect. Denmark is the world’s most economically egalitarian nation. Why angle for more than what the status quo has to offer?

Ingels wanted more—loads more—so in 2001, after briefly entertaining the notion of becoming a filmmaker (call it the von Trier effect), he started the architecture firm PLOT with Julien de Smedt, a Belgian and fellow OMA alum. At the time, Copenhagen was at the doorstep of a building boom. Ørestad, a vast new development scheme on a barren tract in southern Copenhagen, was already under way and would become known as a sort of starchitects’ playground, with contributions from the likes of Jean Nouvel and Daniel Libeskind. Ingels hadn’t so much as built a doghouse when he and de Smedt won the commission to design a hous-ing project there.

“There was an intern in our office who was playing tennis with one of his friends from school, and the father of that friend was the friend of this developer,” Ingels explains. “They all met at this house. And the father and the son were delayed, so the developer and the intern got to talking. At the time, we’d just done a competition where we got second prize for something called Better Cheaper Housing. The developer thought it sounded really interesting, so he came to our office, and it turned out the idea didn’t work for him. But the next day, I called him up because I knew he was going to a meeting about purchasing land [in Ørestad]. I asked him how it went. He can come across as kind of tough, so he was like, ‘What meeting? I have a lot of meetings.’ I said, ‘The one about purchasing land.’ ‘Ah, yeah,’ he said. ‘Can you design me some apartments, and can you design them so I can build them? And sell them?’ I’m like, ‘I’ll be over in twenty minutes.’”

The project was a pair of bulky structures that when seen from above look like the letters V and M. Called the VM Houses, they clock in at 269,000 square feet, which is crazy huge; most architects count themselves lucky to build something a quarter that size. PLOT’s concept here was, in Ingels’s words, a declaration of war against “the tyranny of the perimeter block”—the low-slung monoliths, with apartments or offices lumped around the edge of a courtyard, that dominate Copenhagen’s skyline. “So with VM, we tried to manipulate the block so we could get better, more generous views,” he says. “By twisting the perimeter block [into a V and an M], we got that.” Then, for kicks, they put a giant pixelated picture of Per Høpnfer, the developer, on the exterior. “I love the man,” Ingels says, laughing. “He’s a good-looking guy, and he makes the building look better.”

It was a clever move. The apartments sold out, and Høpnfer soon commissioned PLOT to design a second housing complex next door. Again, Ingels and de Smedt turned their hand to improving on the basic perimeter block. And again, they gave it a playful flourish, this time introducing a peak into Denmark’s hopelessly flat landscape. The Mountain Dwellings are 11 stories of apartment units built up like a ziggurat over a parking garage printed with an image of—what else?—Mount Everest. It’s nuts, almost to the point of shtick. But there’s a seductive logic at play. The stepped layout means that all the units get a garden patio. Ingels boasts that they’re “almost like a villa”—“suburban living with urban density.” That’s his idea of sustainability: not some new-fangled technology but natural light and fresh air and density. He dubs it “hedonistic sustainability.” As it happens, it’s standard stuff in Scandinavian design, with firm roots in those perimeter blocks he’s
dead set on upending.

About five months into the design of the Mountain Dwellings, Ingels and de Smedt split up. “I look at it this way,” Ingels says cheerfully. “Now we’re doing twice the architecture.” I press the point. He gives a canned answer, then tries to leaven the mood with a joke: “There wasn’t a woman or anything.” (It’s a response he’s trotted out in interviews before.) De Smedt is less politic if equally tight-lipped. Several months back, I cornered him at a lecture in New York and asked if he could spare a few minutes to chat about Ingels for this profile. “Why would I con-tribute to an article about my ex-partner?” he replied, clearly annoyed. Whatever the story, the Mountain Dwellings managed to get built. Once again, they sold out. And Ingels, who by then had started BIG, was already toiling away on the 8House, the final installation of his grand Danish housing experiment.

The 8House is 645,000 square feet of residences and commercial space at the southern edge of Ørestad. Less a building than an entire city block, it looks like a supersize, 3-D figure eight set down in the heart of a Johan Lundbye painting. The only thing around is a canal. On a clear day, if you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of Sweden.

The 8House is a culmination of many of Ingels’s ideas about socially and environmentally minded architecture. “Here we had 500 apartments, plus offices and shops,” Ingels says. “How do you make that feel like a neighborhood? Usually, it’s cosmetic: you slam on different facades. But fake diversity is just makeup on a boring project. We thought it’d be interesting to exploit the scale, to see if we could create real urban diversity where different typologies, through their differences, could occupy different parts of the building block.” The building is arranged like a tiered cake, with each layer catered to different occupants. The ground floor is reserved for shops because they have to be right on the street and don’t need direct sunlight. The next floor is full of two-story, garden-fronted row houses, followed by apartments and, on the top floor, penthouses.

The area’s master plan called for some connection between the building’s east and west sides. BIG responded by hollowing out the cake, then pinching it in the middle to create a small thoroughfare; thus was born the figure eight. Then, to open the building’s interior to light and views, it raised the structure at the northeast corner and pushed it down at the southwest. Greenery covers the slopes, insulating the residences. The whole shape sounds completely mad, and it is. But it’s clever too. It allows for a ramp that forms a complete loop around the structure—the perfect setup for riding a bicycle. (And everyone in Copenhagen has a bicycle.) “Where nothing is, everything is possible,” Ingels says, referring to Ørestad’s barren landscape. “Innovation is really possible.”

Ingels’s TED talk has gotten more than 67,000 views on YouTube (almost 20,000 more than Dave Eggers’s or Jane Goodall’s lectures). He has reprised the talk all over the world, adding stories here and removing details there, parceling out pieces for great strategic effect (for instance, see our interview with him on page 90 of the January 2010 issue). The lectures are part of a larger marketing package that exploits modern modes of communication to imbue Ingels—and even architecture itself—with the Twitter Age’s air of rakish informality. BIG produces slick films with sexy soundtracks to sell its ideas to clients, journalists, and whoever else wants to listen. The firm sends its news to the right blogs, along with sparkling renderings and punchy text that trade on the Internet’s fetish for pretty pictures and easy-to-digest content. Ingels himself is on Twitter, though he doesn’t tweet often; @BjarkeIngels’s bio is “Founding Architect of BIG, wannabe comicbook artist and accomplished mermaid abductor.”

Can life really be this great? Is it really possible for an architect to be this young and this successful? Ingels isn’t critic-proof. For all his talk about hedonistic sustainability, his firm has never done any kind of postoccupancy evaluation, so we can’t be sure how green his buildings really are. And he has raised plenty of eyebrows accepting work from clients of, shall we say, dubious moral fiber. One project is a library for the dictator of Kazakhstan, who’s so crooked he makes Putin look like Benjamin Disraeli. “You shouldn’t deny people good architecture just because they don’t have the right to vote,” Ingels says. “It’s kind of a luxury stance. In Europe, most of our public institutions were built under kings.” (For the record, Ingels once refused to plaster Moammar El-Gadhafi’s face on the side of a building.)

“In Denmark, he’s a little bit of a bad boy,” says Barry Bergdoll, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of architecture and design, “but for us he’s taking Scandinavian ideas and selling them to us in a hipper form. He’s making them smart and slightly smart-ass.” Ingels opened his Manhattan office in September. The occasion: he’s planning a low-slung residential building next to a power plant on the West Side Highway in partnership with Douglas Durst, Manhattan’s very own ecodeveloper (and the guy behind Cook + Fox’s Bank of America Tower). “What we’re looking for is similar to Mountain Dwellings,” Durst says. “The site is very constricted. We want to graft a New York solution onto a Danish concept.”

When Ingels heard about the job, his first instinct was to build a sky-scraper. “But then I thought the approach of not entering into some kind of high-rise pissing match, and instead providing an alternative typology with the same density, sounded interesting,” he says. “It could be interesting in New York to reintroduce the perimeter block, to introduce an oasis in the heart of an urban area. It seems like a quite fresh typology in a Manhattan context. So the tyranny of perimeter block we’ve been questioning in Copenhagen, suddenly, it became interesting to question the tyranny of the tower.” Of course, this being New York, the project is moving slowly, owing to what Ingels terms “creative turmoil.” It will be interesting to see how he navigates the bonfire of New York real estate, where everything—and nothing—is possible.

For Danes, Ingels brings to mind an old fairy tale. “Some people call him this character from H. C. Andersen,” says Jens Martin Skibsted, the founder of Biomega bikes and Ingels’s partner in the new product-design venture KiBiSi. “It’s a story about this king that sends three sons out to win the kingdom, and they have to pass a series of tests. One of them is incredibly naive, and by being so naive and direct in his approach he actually ends up winning the kingdom. What they’re saying about Ingels, in a way, is positive, because he wins the kingdom. But it’s also a bit of a criticism, because they’re saying his approach is somewhat naive, because it doesn’t have self-imposed constraints that the history has endorsed.” Call it Jantelov. Call it the truth. It won’t matter one way or the other when, years hence, Ingels is holding his Pritzker.

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