Bjarke Ingels interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba
Jeffrey Inaba: Let’s start by discussing the creative process at BIG. You’ve mentioned that a good idea and a good joke are similar because in each case the listener immediately ‘gets’ it. The punch line is something one hasn’t heard before, yet despite that it comes across as inevitable. Can you elaborate?
Bjarke Ingels: I think a good joke reveals the possibility of a parallel world. When telling a joke, the teller builds up a context by describing specific facts and conditions that are recognizable and reasonable, and then when the punch line arrives, although it rhymes with the premise you’ve established as reality, the outcome is unexpected and therefore funny or surreal. In that sense, the joke serves as an alternative reality nested within reality.
Developing architecture can be the same thing: there is a build up, the formulation of an argument, an analysis that establishes conditions that are pragmatic and recognizable, even boring, but then once the punch line is delivered in the form of a proposal, it might be unexpected even as it completely plugs into the build-up that you have just accepted as the context. The genealogies of something funny and something brilliant or innovative or paradigm changing are all very similar. Quite often the brainstorming process in our office starts with a dry analysis and then once we look at the facts we search for things that are surreal or funny, because if there is something surprising to you, it might also be surprising to a world that hasn't yet accommodated this surprising fact. Looking for the weird stuff is looking for the question that will trigger a more interesting answer.
JI: As you suggest, the architect essentially performs two roles: to analyze a problem and then to propose a solution. This basic procedure differs greatly from one office to the next. It could be done in a mundane way that leads to a predictable answer, or it could be carried out so that both the question and answer exceed one’s expectations. Can you talk about how BIG reformulates this basic procedure?
BI: When we design a project we look for irregularities. What prevents an architect, if he or she is doing a school, from finding a really nice school and just repeating it? Why do we start over every time? I think the reason for doing a new design and not just replicating an established typology is that there is always a condition, either in the context, or in the economy, that has changed. In the case of the school, it might be a change in pedagogical philosophy. Once that shift is discovered there is a reason for doing things differently. And one way to approach this new context is to try to introduce something you would not find in the previous situation, something completely alien to the established stereotype. A lot of humor is based on the unexpected presence of random objects in an unlikely place. I think the 19c French writer Comte de Lautréamont said, "Beautiful is the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table."
JI: For every architect, there is the challenge of being as experimental as possible while also successfully communicating the rewards of the experiment to others. One of the reasons why BIG’s proposals effectively communicate its ideas is the familiarity of its forms. Can you discuss how this is a result of the design process? It’s interesting that an unexpected idea emerges even though the architectural forms or references are sometimes familiar.
BI: With almost every project we do, there is some kind of phantom answer, an imaginary traditional solution. An architect has to take into account that there is an implied solution and that no matter what the proposal, the scheme is going to be competing against it. For instance, we are doing a project on Manhattan’s West Side that is an entire city block. We started by looking at the classic response to the urban block, which in the case of Manhattan is the loft typology that occupies the block’s entire depth, or it is the skyscraper in which part or even the whole block is extruded upward to the maximum extent. We tried to ask ourselves if it was possible to introduce another typology – in this case, the perimeter block – the classic European typology of a thick wall of program that encircles an oasis at its center. We did three projects in Copenhagen that try to escape the perimeter block in one form or another, and it's ironic that once we get a chance to deal with a different urban condition, we are drawn back to it. In the Manhattan context, there is an unusual encounter between the perimeter block and the asymmetry of the site (one side faces the Hudson River). We are transforming the generic orthogonal massing to a tilted one that takes advantage of the views to the water and the abundance of light. By introducing a generic typology to an unusual context that requires specific manipulations, the unexpected can result. With most of the things we do, we start with one of the classics and we try to criticize it in order to find a reason to do something else.
JI: It’s refreshing that you’re not anxious about your influences; though often unstated, for most architects there are other architects that reside in the background of one’s mind that serve as sources of inspiration. You seem to welcome the influence of others, and you might even say that they conspire in the outcome of your creative process. Would you explain to the particular architects who loom large in the BIG world?
BI: In the beginning of our monograph, Yes Is More, we pay tribute to some of our heroes, such as Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi, obviously Rem Koolhaas, and even Barack Obama – by introducing them in the genealogy of the phrase "yes is more." And I definitely would have included Le Corbusier had he said anything remotely related to "yes is more.” As with evolution rather than revolution, I don't believe in starting from scratch. The world is a long evolutionary laboratory where typologies have evolved because they have certain attributes that make them successful. So you can say that the city today is a sort of fossil memory of all the typologies that worked, and all the buildings that eventually get knocked down or that never get built metaphorically fill the graveyard of all the species that died before they could pass their attributes on to the next generation. The ideas that our ancestors developed and spent decades and centuries honing are pretty good starting points for us.
JI: You’ve talked about how you enjoy it when your projects have a surreal aspect. A central feature of the surrealist mode of operating is the Paranoiac-Critical Method, in which paranoia’s potential to be a creative force stems from its revelation of things in the world that others don’t see. Is this something you’re referring to when you say a project has a surreal quality?
BI: For me, a good artwork, including a work of architecture, is a project that expands our perception of the world: somehow it highlights aspects of society that are unnoticed, but once perceived, are impossible not to observe. A painting that might capture light in different ways, or music that introduces the beauty of certain sounds that would normally be heard as noise, such widens a person’s perception. In architecture, when a building physically accommodates certain aspects of human life, a person becomes more aware of those aspects of being alive. So in that sense, this idea of the paranoid – of noticing aspects of the world that other people don't see – is a very powerful tool for the architect.
There’s another element about the paranoid that may be useful to discuss. After Guggenheim Bilbao, architects gained a certain global claim to fame that created starchitects, with people drawn to these eccentric, crazy, wild, creative artist types. This phenomenon cements the image of the architect as an irresponsible and arrogant auteur and not the guy to call to solve a problem. Even though it has been good for the profession to get a class of celebrities, as a result, it has become tricky for architects to make people understand the complexities of doing an architectural project. Designing a project is almost like taking a snapshot of the world, translating all of the world’s immaterial structures (cultural, economic, political, social) into a physical form so that the proposed building doesn't run up against the immaterial structures, but accommodates them instead. If the project is attentive and observant of the world, it will reveal to the public immaterial aspects that have not yet been seen, and create a path to their materialization.
An architect is often up against the fact that to do anything requires the permission of hundreds of decision makers. So before being able to experiment, the architect has to convince the client that it is feasible and profitable, convince the builders that it can be built, convince neighbors that it's not going to cast a shadow on their lawn, convince the politicians that it is what they want in the city, and convince the lawyers that it is legal according to the given building requirements. This army of people, who are not necessarily interested in architecture, have to understand that architecture doesn’t just concern the aesthetic domain of architects or isn’t something that only a limited few have an appreciation for, but that it's the art and science of our collective community, and about making sure that our cities and buildings are fit for the way we want to live. On that account, I'm currently working on an idea of the paranoid that starts with the counterfactual question, “What if Gaudí hadn't died when he was working on his Manhattan skyscraper?” His project was this cluster of rounded phallic towers that contained a huge public space inside. It was a completely different kind of structure that might have spawned a different Manhattan high-rise. But it never happened, partly because Gaudí was killed by a streetcar and didn’t live to complete the project.
JI: Do you think perhaps it was murder by urbanism? Did the immaterial and material conditions of the city join forces to kill him?
BI: You often hear architects, myself included, whine about all the factors that killed a certain project. I think the world has become immune to whining architects. In the novel I’m writing I'm trying to suggest that maybe it wasn’t only the economic or political conditions, the production apparatus or the unions that killed Gaudi’s project, but that maybe there was an actual conspiracy that killed him, and that caused his projects to remain unrealized. It is an incredible coincidence that the history of architecture is overcrowded with architects who died under weird circumstances. To name a few, Carlo Scarpa fell down a staircase and broke his neck. Louis Kahn was found dead in the men’s room at Grand Central Station. Eero Saarinen died at the age of forty-four from a miscarried surgery. Right before Frank Lloyd Wright had his major breakthroughs – projects such as Fallingwater, the Guggenheim and Johnson Wax which are considered his significant contributions to architectural history – his entire family was butchered in an arson attack at Taliesin. Maybe he was supposed to be there and his family wasn't? Maybe the attack was a preemptive strike and he was away only by chance? Some American architect apparently died falling out of a window while sleepwalking. That sounds like a really lazy cover-up.
It's a highly paranoid theory of course, but the main idea is to allegorically reveal the forces that inhibit the free unfolding of architecture. Our world could be much more accommodating, ecological and enjoyable than it is; our cities could be more fit for human life, more adaptive to the specific climates where they are located. The reason they’re not is that there are interests that are unconcerned with the common good, and not invested in creating the best world possible. By claiming that these interests have formed an unholy alliance and are systematically killing architecture’s protagonists, perhaps it’s possible to get a bigger audience interested in understanding the challenges faced by architects. There’s nothing like a good old fashion conspiracy theory to get people’s attention; whining architects do not exactly make a bestseller.
JI: Like the work of most architects, yours addresses environmental concerns and is ecologically responsive, which you explain in detail with many of BIG’s projects. But I also sense that your interest in environmental parameters is not just for the sake of making a better, greener world. While there is a dimension of responsibility in the designs, is that the only imperative? Are there other reasons for engaging these issues?
BI: I have always felt that architecture, being this nebulous, esoteric, artistic discourse, is vulnerable when talking to an investor, developer, user or anyone that has a very specific need they want architecture to meet. However, if architecture can create an alliance with something more tangible, such as science, or play an active role in saving the future of our planet, it will more powerfully position the architect to be an active problem solver. Therefore, I am curious to discover how architecture might gain an ally by siding with sustainability.
One approach that interests us is to capitalize on sustainability’s aesthetic byproducts. For the MoMA exhibition, "Architecture Without Architects: An Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture," (1964) Bernard Rudofsky coined the term "vernacular architecture". He was criticizing the International Style’s universal aesthetic, and the fact that urban development and housing projects all over the world were starting to look similar, predictable, and boring. He sought to demonstrate that people everywhere and through the centuries had found ways to naturally maximize urban living conditions by using locally available materials and techniques that responded to the local climate. Such varied architectures had different vocabularies and styles that had evolved not from aesthetic or academic concerns but empirically over time. The exhibition was one long display of examples, such as buildings in Yemen with ventilation chimneys, and Spanish underground villages that used the soil’s thermal mass to insulate dwellings and regulate temperature. We’d like to explore a Vernacular 2.0, not for a nostalgic return to an original form of dwelling, but to calculate and model the effects of the environment on our structures and to do what we call "engineering without engines", in which we engineer the dependence on machinery out of the building and ask the permanent formal attributes of the architecture to fulfill the performance. One could say that the problem with the International Style was that making identical buildings in Morocco, Paris, Copenhagen and northern Norway was possible only because mechanical systems compensated for the supposed universal applicability of the design. The building systems expended energy doing what the building form was supposed to do. The architecture of our modernist legacy are bad for what they are designed for (namely, human occupation), so the challenge is to rediscover the potential of vernacular vocabularies, to use our engineering skills to make buildings that, because of their form – the way they tilt, the way they orient, the size and positioning of windows, the extent of overhangs – respond to the local climate.
This way, a building wouldn’t need a LEED certificate to be recognized as sustainable and it wouldn’t be necessary to remind people that it has low energy use in order for it to be interesting. It would simply look different because it is performing differently, triggering new and unexpected aesthetics. Incorporating a vernacular logic would instigate an evolution away from modernism and its faith in machinic building systems.
JI: So you’re saying that in order for a building to be faithfully built to a modernist aesthetic, the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems (MEP) had to compensate for the building’s image and perform overtime to respond to the local climate, however hot or cold. The MEP then was the universalizing agent of modern architecture. The Vernacular 2.0 you’re talking about reduces the amount of necessary MEP machinery, and the environmental responses that follow become the basis for a highly specific aesthetic that’s empirically engineered rather than subjectively expressive. It’s a sort of gene theory for contemporary architecture.
BI: Exactly. It is not a discovered vernacular, but a created vernacular. We don't have the time to let the vernacular evolve over centuries. We have to evolve it quicker, and happily we have tools to test various models. With software applications such as Grasshopper, we can script the parametric engine that will allow us to quickly discover the optimum typology, overhang, orientation, etc. As a result, we can develop a new vernacular vocabulary that is efficient within a certain climate zone.
The Köppen-Geiger climate classification world map reveals how such climate zones are unrelated to national boundaries and appear in multiple areas across the planet, symmetrically in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. (For example, the arid subtropical zone occurs in parts of North America, South America, Africa and Asia.) A typology that has been bred in Latin America might be as efficient in Northern Asia, which although spatially and culturally discontinuous, shares a similar climate. If we exchange ideas about local vernacular architectures, we can use cutting edge tools to evolve, distill and create new vernaculars that have relevance across diverse geographies.
JI: Let's turn to the topic of technology. What do you see as the capacity in architecture for different kinds of design software? You seem to be making a distinction between current software that is used as to aesthetically develop a project versus software that is used as a tool to probe and explore architecture’s functional performance. In other words, using a script to find an optimum overhang is more performance driven than aesthetically driven. In terms of how architects work today, what do you see as the prevailing mode in which modeling software is used, and what is its evolutionary potential?
BI: We’ve never been a software-driven company. I like technology as much as anyone else, but I see it as a tool among many tools. We use a variety of approaches to examine a single problem, be it a physical model, a drawing, a diagram, whatever. Every time we acquire a new tool it influences our work, because obviously the stuff you can do with a hammer is different from the stuff you can do with a scalpel. When we got a laser cutter, it created an explosion of certain forms and the same happened with our 3D printer. But one of the biggest leaps that we’ve experienced has been the introduction of Grasshopper. Grasshopper – the plug-in for Rhino that makes parametric scripting more intuitive – is, to my mind, as big a revolution as Steve Jobs’ development of the graphic user interface for Mac OS. Prior to that, computers were for geeks, but with the graphic user interface, any idiot could use a computer so the PC exploded. The same thing applies with scripting; you don't have to keep all this weird code inside your head. The Grasshopper interface essentially models complex equations via graphical and numerical input for each variable, which is then intuitively scripted in the form of a flow-chart.
We have always been interested in parametrics. We are not creative artists; we need a reason for things to be what they are, and we somehow have to outsource sovereign decision making to parameters beyond our own personalities. Grasshopper makes the design process less about the art of drawing and more about a set of responses. The evolutionary process is accelerated by instantly testing many different variables: the computer spits out the result. This has meant a direct and hands on translation of an abstract idea into a literal, physical outcome.
JI: Okay. Let’s discuss urbanism: how do you think urbanism differs from architecture, given that urbanism sometimes works paradoxically to prove a prior idea only to propel it into the future, rather than architecture, which, given its scale, can be inherently experimental?
BI: You are touching on something relevant for the contemporary state of urbanism. Urbanism, even more than architecture, deals with the future’s unknown possibilities: technological breakthroughs, social experiments, population explosions and new means of mobility. But strangely, urbanism has become obsessed with the past and with elevating the results when a city is not planned, almost as a way to plan for the future, as if all the found conditions we have in cities is the result of a ‘right’ way of planning.
I think there’s a very simple reason for why this has happened: the world has grown scared of big planning ideas because of the heroic modernist master plans that imposed and executed without hesitation diagrammatic structures upon the city. And understandably so; a lot of mono-programmed sterile projects and ghettos resulted from this approach. In modernism’s wake, there was a newfound appreciation for the inner-city areas that had grown organically over centuries and where buildings exhibited a nice mix of programs and forms. There’s a desire to replicate it in the future because it seems nice. But we need to recommit to the idea of realizing experiments. Like you say, perhaps architecture’s more limited impact and shorter timeframe allow an unusual idea to gain momentum and become viable. We almost lost interest in urban-scaled work because consistently, the particular things we found interesting to propose for competitions would cause us to lose; a big or clear idea would prevent us from ever getting to the table.
But recently we got involved in two urban studies. One we are doing for Copenhagen. The city has an overall strategic vision from 1947 called the Finger Plan. We have been commissioned to make the long-term perspective for 2047. For it we are proposing "The Loop City," which foresees a region fusing Southern Sweden, Eastern Denmark, Copenhagen and Malmö into a new loop that spans two cultures, two nationalities and two languages, all made possible by a new 4 km crossing between Helsingør (Denmark) and Helsingborg (Sweden), the hometown of Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet. The whole development plan is based on what we call “Ten Big Bets.” About a decade ago Samsung came up with an idea to "make a big bet." They said to themselves, "We don't know what is going to happen in the future. We're certain there are a lot of competing alternatives out there, but we're somewhat convinced that flat screens ‘are the future.’ We can't say with 100% certainty but that's our big bet and we're going to throw all our resources into flat screen technology.” Rather than develop thousands of various competing products they said, "Okay, let's fucking do flat screens and let's do them better than anyone else." As a result, they have become the world leader in flat screens. We are trying to do the same with Copenhagen. We are saying, “Let's make ten big bets in which the master plan supports development in ten fields. Rather than risk doing nothing based on the known fact that the future is uncertain, we propose to put our money on our best options. If some of these bets pay off it is going to create incredible possibilities. And if it doesn't happen in the way we hope, at least we tried.” One example is found in Danish history when, fifty years ago, the Danish government made a big bet on supporting and subsidizing windmill technologies. As a result, Denmark is now one of the world leaders in this field.
The other, maybe more future-obsessed urban project we are doing is for Audi, which looks at the issue of mobility. The challenge is not to provide more buses, trains, or subways; you can make more but they all operate in pretty much the same way: fixed stations that cater to a specific audience that needs to go from one densely populated area to another. The car serves another purpose. Outside the city, it is fantastic: it's a highly efficient way of moving between thinly populated areas, and it offers enormous freedom and flexibility for individual mobility, which is highly competitive and desirable. But in the city it becomes a problem – creating, noise, and particle pollution. Flying cars might be technically feasible, but they will remain very expensive since combustion engines and fuels are not exactly getting cheaper.
We looked instead to developing information technology, and in particular researched Moore's Law of accelerating advances and Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of the Singularity. In trying to make a Kurzweilian prediction about the development of car intelligence, we came to the conclusion that by 2030 driverless cars will be financially available to a broad audience; already one of the latest Audis can park itself if you get close enough to the parking stall for it to recognize its location. Once cars enter future cities, we imagine that the manual override will be disengaged: your car will no longer operate individually and will start behaving in concert with other cars, almost as a collective form of transportation. Centralized coordination would enable cars to circulate with four times their current urban density and with far less congestion. A similar model is used in certain elevator systems; the passenger keys in the destination floor and the system tells the person which car to take, rather than the passenger waiting for the first car to arrive and then telling the elevator where to go. Using the same number of elevator towers as a conventional model, this centrally coordinated system more efficiently delivers passengers.
One of the main social potentials we have found through studying driverless cars within the city is that even by quadrupling the density of cars, we can liberate space. The current necessary apartheid between cars, bicycles, pedestrians, etc., could be loosened and flexibly-negotiated because it would be easier to transmit information to cars about where and where not to travel. In this very near future city, car and pedestrian space could flexibly expand and contract over the course of the day. Pedestrian detection systems in vehicles would allow both cars and people to move between each other with more density, without having to constantly worry about hitting or being hit by someone else. Cars could travel through intersections without fully stopping because coordination would allow them to literally ‘weave’ through the traffic.
We are using Berlin as a case study to speculate on this future city. It’s possible all the buildings themselves will remain unchanged, but all of the space and pavement between them would be radically transformed – not by removing cars, but by ensuring that in a twenty-four hour cycle, space is allocated to whatever form of human movement is most needed.
JI: What's interesting about both of these projects is that they are like science fiction: a long term projection and speculation that require an understanding of given technology and how the development of those technologies might play out. That is the task of science fiction as well; it has to be based on premises that you can accept as being plausible. You can't have a science fiction that is so hypothetical that you don't understand what the givens are with respect to the present condition. In this way, our discussion of urbanism parallels what you were saying about paradigm shifts and jokes: they are set up to reveal what we can speculate about concerning the future. This is a way of working relevant to architects. It is very different from an open-ended, ‘what if’ way of thinking, and doesn’t assume that the future is unpredictable, or that there are so many variables that we can't precisely assume how anything will evolve.
BI: We're trying to go beyond the apathy that occurs when we say, "Oh we can't determine anything with certainty so therefore we are going to do nothing."…in which case nothing changes. You end up paralyzing or petrifying existing conditions forever into the future. It is a much more interesting scenario to not just grab things out of thin air but to try to understand recent developments and propensities, and come up with a qualified wager of what will happen. Of course, as the plan moves along it might swerve from its course as the people involved gather intelligence – that is part of evolution. Evolution is not a matter of not having to look ahead; it's one of not fixing one’s destination in an inflexible way. Let’s say we start planning ahead with the possibility of driverless cars in the next twenty years. We can set a series of goals, figure out how to meet those goals, and then navigate along that course. But if there is no course, we are all essentially going nowhere and we end up elevating the status quo into an ideal condition.
It's funny you mention science fiction, because science fiction is almost the best way of explaining everything we do. It's also the genre I enjoy, mostly because of Philip K. Dick’s definition: science fiction is not necessarily a space opera, not necessarily a story that takes place in the far future. It is a story that is propelled by a single, innovative idea concerning some aspect of the economy, technology, social relations or political systems that triggers a different condition, and the unfolding of the plot becomes an exploration of all the various possible consequences of this new idea. Both the author and the reader can speculate along the way about the side effects of it. We try to do this not only with urbanism but with architecture as well; we try to make architecture the way that Philip K. Dick creates stories, by introducing a single innovative and differentiating idea whose implications are collaboratively and extensively explored.
JI: One last question as a way to discuss BIG’s future. At a certain point an architect reckons with his or her mortality and the anxiety of having a limited amount of remaining time to do more architecture. This mid-life crisis cliché, which now often emerges as a mid-youth crisis, is apt because it represents a moment of potential mutation or hybridization in one’s own evolution. Now that your office is approaching 10 years of being in business (first as PLOT and now as BIG), what is your appraisal so far, and what are your plans for the future?
BI: You could say BIG spent the first five years trying to bring a little bit of the world to Copenhagen by introducing ideas to the Danish context that had been in hibernation for awhile. The last five years have been about introducing Copenhagen ideas to an international context by continuing the experiments we have been conducting here in other countries and cultures.
We are about to open an office in New York because we now have some significant possibilities in Manhattan and elsewhere in the States. Over the last five years I have also had a consistent involvement with American academia, through teaching at Rice, Harvard and Columbia. I always feel most at home in American academia because of the international faculty and student body, combined with the collaborative relationship between universities and businesses. I see a much greater potential in America to breed a fertile hybrid between public and private initiative, practice and academia, pragmatism and idealism, observing and dreaming, than in a social democratic Scandinavian context where public versus private is seen as good against evil. The country that invented Surf and Turf seems to be the ultimate place to explore intellectual BIGAMY. [Laughs]
A very significant part of the way we work is to transfer concepts from one situation to another: migration is an integral part of evolution. I'm trying to figure out what the Darwinian equivalent of moving from Copenhagen to New York is. When we called our company BIG it was kind of cute in a Danish context. I'm wondering how charming it is in an American context. For the last ten years, we have had a home market of five million people and we have been operating in a place where as a young kid it’s possible to get a private meeting with the mayor. It holds big potentials as well as obvious limitations. You can also say designing socially and environmentally responsibly in a Danish context is a bit like trying to make Jennifer Connelly look beautiful – whereas doing it in an American context seems much more of a Herculean task. We've matured to take this larger challenge and responsibility. In that sense we are prepared for the next step; after all, it can’t be a coincidence that they call it the BIG Apple.