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Monday28 July 2014

Profile: Bjarke Ingels

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The Danish architect’s presence at last week’s Downing Street forum is testament to his optimistic can-do attitude towards cities

The last Danish architect to advise the government on the future of cities was Jan Gehl, advocate of small-scale urbanism and bicycles. But Bjarke Ingels’s presence at Downing Street last week suggests that, right now, more radical solutions are needed.

The person responsible for the list of speakers was David Cameron’s senior policy adviser Rohan Silva, whose Australian girlfriend Kate McTiernan is an architect in London. He wanted architects with ideas, who wouldn’t use the forum to moan about the planning system. Ingels, who is tech savvy, upbeat and sunny, was just the kind of architect he was looking for.

And, as befits someone who named his practice BIG, Ingels has the kind of ambition that UK cities need. Such early promise was evident when he entered BD’s Young Architect of the Year Awards as Plot with his then-partner Julien de Smedt in 2002 and then again in 2004. Paul Monaghan, who chaired the jury that year, said Plot would have won but it had yet to build anything. “It was clear they were on the cusp of something then,” he says.

Quite what that “something” is can be hard to pin down. There is no shortage of manifestos, including Yes is More, a graphic novel, which Ingels self-published in 2009 and is now available in 10 languages; his TED talk on “hedonistic sustainability”; as well as regular appearances on TV in Denmark — where he presented a series on Danish design — and in the US where he now lives.

But while his detractors claim he is more concerned about being understood on CNN than by his peers, he delivers radical results — such as his housing project Mountain Dwellings, on the island of Ørestad near Copenhagen, where apartments sit on a naturally ventilated garage that acts as a sloping “podium”. Across its perforated facade, BIG has remastered a photograph of Mount Everest.

His power though, is making clients believe in BIG’s madcap ideas over less risky ones. The city of Copenhagen chose the practice to design a power plant that doubles as a ski slope — an audacious idea that made it into Time magazine. The authorities appear to have got cold feet, but rather than hand-wringing about what he can’t change, Ingels directs his energy into being liked.

Being likable has not played much of a role in architectural stardom, but Ingels is from a generation where the ability to project oneself as nice and approachable — either through magazines and TV or social media like Twitter — can deliver benefits. Ingels gets that. “Rather than being radical by saying fuck the establishment, fuck gravity, fuck the neighbours, fuck the budget, fuck the context — we want to try to turn pleasing into a radical agenda,” he said in his 2005 manifesto BIGamy.

The son of a dentist and an engineer, his first passion was cartoons and he discovered architecture almost accidentally when he was at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy studying drawing. He followed his training at the Técnica Superior de Arquitectura in Barcelona with a stint at OMA. His time in Rotterdam was formative, but there appears to be little love lost between him and his former boss.

Ingels told a Barbican audience last week — sharing a stage with OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu — that he quit OMA because of “the grinding deadlines”, “the vague feedback”and his bosses’ “alpha male” behaviour. Even if he claims not to have enjoyed his time, he thrived. “A lot of people at OMA looked like death warmed up,” says an architect who was a frequent visitor to the office. “He was always shiny. I thought he looked different from everyone else.”

A lot of people at OMA looked like death warmed up. He was always shiny. I thought he looked different from everyone else

Despite some similarities, he is not the next Rem, says the engineer Hanif Kara, who has worked with both of them. “The one big difference is that Ingels is keen to build very quickly,” he says. And he was never going to settle for being a Danish architect. In fact he barely goes to Denmark but this does not stop the office being a magnet for students — a third of the office are interns, which has led some to question how profitable BIG would be if it paid all its employees a proper wage.

But since becoming AIA-registered the work has flooded in.

“He has pissed off some American architects,” says a London-based consultant — “mainly because he’s hoovering up clients”.

These include the Kimball Art Centre, which last month picked him to extend the museum, and developer Durst Fetner, for whom he’s designing a 600-unit residential complex on Manhattan’s East Side.

Ingels’ success and fame has also made some people suspicious. At the Darkside networking dinner at the Venice Biennale in 2010, Ingels became annoyed other guests didn’t share his optimism about the future. He got up from the table and slammed the door shut, announcing: “You can’t leave until I hear something everybody’s read from Wired.”

Architects who were there were amused. “He’s full of life,” says one of the guests, “but he makes it all look very easy and life is more serious and complicated that that.”

But that’s not how everyone views him. Paul Nakazawa, architect and Harvard academic, says: “There’s a pragmatic side to Bjarke which actually allows him to be fantastical… He turns pragmatism into something that’s liberating rather than restricting. That’s why people are attracted to him.”

And this also makes him a perfect choice for politicians who don’t really know what they want, but hope that somewhere, through BIG’s atmospheric renderings and dream-like buildings, there’s a superman with some answers.

Best of times

He gave visitors to the 2010 Shanghai Expo a sense of sustainable living in Copenhagen by moving the Little Mermaid statue to China, complete with a pool of water from the harbour. Visitors on bikes viewed it from spiralling cycle lanes.

Worst of times

The Danish press exposed BIG’s use of low-paid interns saying that if its wages were in line with the profession’s national average in 2009 a pre-tax profit of 2.5 million kr (£280,000) would actually represent a 4 million kr (£450,000) deficit.

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