Ambitious New York architects in their thirties or forties, waiting to become famous, comfort themselves with the thought that fame comes later to architects than to people who launch Web sites, design dresses, or make horror movies. Construction is slow and costly, and you can’t do it on your own. You can’t, at twenty, borrow money on a credit card, work through your weekends, and end up with an airport terminal.
So the career of Bjarke Ingels—who recently moved from Denmark to New York, in part, so that he could oversee construction of a giant white wedge of an apartment building that will fill most of an empty block on West Fifty-seventh Street—is vexing to some of his contemporaries; they notice a “disconnect between age and success,” as one of them put it. At thirty-seven, Ingels is in the first rank of international architects, or nearly so: he has a body of admired work in Denmark, including a remarkable four-hundred-and-seventy-six-unit apartment building, forming a figure eight around two courtyards, in which you can bike, on an outdoor path, to the tenth floor. He has won prizes, spoken at 10 Downing Street, taught at Harvard and Yale. Student architects become fluttery when asking him to sign copies of his book, a combined monograph and manifesto, written in comic-book form, entitled “Yes Is More.”
And in offices in Copenhagen and New York scores of blue and white foam models show buildings that melt into the ground, or twist on the way up, or take the form of fractured cubes. Many of these are being built, or are likely to be built. Although Ingels has the swagger of a night-club d.j., he is acquiring the reach of a major international corporate practice; he is designing two of the world’s tallest buildings, which is not the usual work of a high-art architect. Some critics acknowledge the wry intelligence with which Ingels presents his designs but wonder if the work sometimes lacks nuance, or polish, or is too pliant to the needs of powerful clients. (With the phrase “Yes Is More,” Ingels has almost made such pliancy sound radical, or at least fun.) His active projects include a riverfront arts center in southwestern France, a city hall in Tallinn, Estonia, and a mixed-use development of ten million square feet in Tianjin, China. Ingels’s New York office space has expanded twice since I first met him, in December. His firm is the Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG; it pleases him that his Danish Web address is big.dk.
On a recent afternoon, he was driving a mid-nineties black Porsche up the West Side Highway, on his way to visit the site of his future contribution to Manhattan’s skyline and then take the car to the shop. Ingels, who was wearing a black jacket over a T-shirt that said “Free Ai Weiwei,” is quick-witted and personable, and rarely speaks without smiling. He looks like a former boy-band star who is not getting quite enough sleep in the next stage of his career. At a public event in SoHo last year, to discuss an analysis of BIG—most of it critical—that had filled an entire issue of CLOG, an architectural magazine, one question from the audience was about whether he was single.
We passed the elevated gray slabs of the Standard Hotel, designed by Ennead Architects. “It doesn’t even feel like pastiche,” Ingels said, appreciatively. “It feels as if somehow it was built in the fifties.” He found Frank Gehry’s I.A.C. Building, up the road, harder to praise. “They cold-bent the glass,” he said. “The shapes are as much as you can do without actually tailoring the glass. That part of it is kind of interesting.” The next building to the north, a condominium by Jean Nouvel, caused Ingels to recall a version of rock, paper, scissors that he played with friends when they were students. “There’s an iconic image of Nouvel smoking a cigar, so this was him,” he said, taking a hand off the steering wheel to make a V, with two fingers. “Toyo Ito, the Japanese architect, was doing ovals back then, all the time, so it was like an egg shape.” He made the shape with thumb and forefinger. “And then Rem Koolhaas”—the celebrated Dutch architect, who became Ingels’s first and only boss—“was ‘Fuck context!’ ” Ingels raised one finger. “We all loved all three architects, but we all had our favorite. My favorite was obviously Rem Koolhaas. The system was that Rem Koolhaas was more brutal than Toyo Ito, and Toyo Ito was more poetic than Jean Nouvel, and Jean Nouvel was more . . . French than Rem Koolhaas.”
Frank Gehry was seventy-five when construction began on his first Manhattan building. Jean Nouvel was fifty-nine. Frank Lloyd Wright was in his eighties. Among the past ten winners of the Pritzker Prize, the profession’s leading international award (and one that Ingels seems impatient to secure), six have not built in the city. Ingels’s New York, and North American, début will contain nearly nine hundred thousand square feet of apartments and ground-floor commercial space, and is expected to cost half a billion dollars, which—as Ingels pointed out, in a conversation about barriers to early success in architecture—is not outlandish in this context but still exceeds the budget of the most expensive film ever made.
The building, known for the moment as W57, will stand between Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth Streets, next to the West Side Highway. It will be unmissable from the river, and should present a dazzling view to drivers approaching from the south. The form of W57 is what you might have if snow drifted steeply into the corner of a yard, and then you removed the yard. Recessed ocean-liner balconies will interrupt the smooth slope, and so will a deep courtyard running from east to west. Its sharp northeastern peak will be forty-one stories high. As we passed the U.S.S. Intrepid, Ingels pointed ahead. “A gigantic triangle down to the waterfront!” he said. “It’s going to be the most insane view of anything in New York.”
Like several of Ingels’s projects, this one could be called the Mountain, although he already used that name for an apartment building in Copenhagen, in a country with no mountains. (For that city, Ingels has also designed a garbage-fuelled power plant, as yet unbuilt, that has a ski slope running down its side.) As he turned off the highway, Ingels said, “You can do architecture where it’s all about how expensive a veneer you are going to laminate onto the same box that everyone does, and where nothing is left if you strip off all the cosmetics”—he had just spoken of the “relatively generic modern high-rise” that Renzo Piano designed, several years ago, for the Times. “Or you can attempt to invent a new typology.” [cartoon id="a16885"]
Workers at the gate let us onto the site, with a warning about sinkholes, and with a few jokes about the complexity of the construction ahead. “We didn’t want you to get bored,” Ingels said. We walked across grassy rubble to the center, where the future courtyard—it may feel more like a canyon, despite grass and trees—will frame a westward view of the Hudson. “When I got this job, I was thinking, You can’t fuck up in New York and then sweep it under the carpet,” Ingels said. “It’s really going to be in everybody’s face. So I thought, Let’s do something really, really simple.” His client is Durst Fetner Residential, a partnership between the Durst Organization, whose projects have been largely in New York commercial real estate, and Sidney Fetner Associates, a firm of residential developers. Durst, which owns ten commercial towers in midtown Manhattan (including 4 Times Square, where The New Yorker is published), is not known for architectural bravura. To Ingels, a building with a courtyard “was the simplest thing I could imagine.” He laughed. “And then suddenly it became this . . . incredible thing.” It’s a key part of Ingels’s rhetoric to describe a building as an almost inevitable expression of the constraints acting upon it. He portrays W57 as an object straining, with absolute logic, to make the most of river views and sunlight, while giving up none of the density that the site’s zoning allows. “People will think we’re just crazy artists who are doing something wack,” he said, when in fact W57 occupies a singular “evolutionary niche.” (Such talk is complicated by the fact that BIG’s first scheme for the site involved more than one peak.)
He added, “It’ll raise the fundamental question: If you can do this, why is everything else a box with another box on top?” (That is, a flat-roofed skyscraper topped with air-conditioning and elevator machinery.) Ingels has ambitions to set precedents and, as he put it, “gently alter the course of history.” At this point in his career, Ingels is recognized not for exquisitely finished architecture but, rather, for precociously confident reimaginings of building types. “The way you really create change,” he said, is to “open a possibility that you can’t even argue with.” He added, “You can’t say that it’s impossible to do a courtyard building in Manhattan, because you can.” (Ingels was overlooking a few local predecessors to W57, including London Terrace Gardens, in Chelsea.) “Even with the same developers who’ve been here for the past three generations, and with the same building code, in the same city, the same market. It’s the same ingredients, mixed differently, to produce another effect.”
We walked back across the grass, and Ingels, in a rare dip in optimism, observed that, though construction was about to begin, everything could still turn to dust. “Take the Chicago Spire,” he said. That tower, a two-thousand-foot drill bit designed by Santiago Calatrava, was abandoned in 2008, after years of financial muddle, and is now just a hole in the ground.
He dropped off the car for repair and returned to his office, which overlooks the Hudson, at Twenty-sixth Street. It was a Friday, when BIG tends to hold an after-work office party involving costumes and the opportunity to “drink like Vikings”; that night, Ingels was planning to make an announcement about a key architectural competition that the firm had entered a few weeks earlier, for the Kimball Art Center, in Park City, Utah, the ski town that hosts the Sundance Film Festival. Ingels was impatient for his first North American competition win. With an hour or so to spare before the party, he decided on the shape of a pair of Miami apartment buildings.
A Christmas Eve dinner in Denmark begins with individual dishes of rice pudding. In one dish, there’s a single almond; whoever finds it gets a gift. When I had lunch with Ingels and his parents, last December, in the house where he grew up, on the suburban coastline north of Copenhagen, his mother accused her son of always cheating at the almond game. Elisabet Ingels is a dentist; Knud Jensen, Bjarke’s father, is an engineer of fibre-optic cables. (Their three children were called Ingels because it’s a more interesting name.) Over lunch, Elisabet said that it was Bjarke’s habit, before Christmas Eve dinners, “to come into the kitchen and take an almond and put it in his pocket, so he always gets an almond.” Bjarke disputed this, and, over his mother’s loud denials, told me that she took the excitement out of the game by hiding an almond in every pudding. “My mother has specific almond gifts for everybody!” He laughed. “Almonds-for-all is the end consequence of the welfare state.”
We were in a single-story house from the nineteen-fifties—a small rectangular box, clad in wood, with a flat roof, on a grassy bank that dropped down to a lake. Over lunch, there was talk of Bjarke’s ambition, when he was a teen-ager, to become a comic-book artist, and I saw some drawings, including an illustrated note that Bjarke had once created to remind himself to feed the cat. According to Elisabet, “Bjarke was in his own world, so things like feeding the cat—normal things—were not what Bjarke wanted to remember.” She spoke, with mock disdain, about the life he currently leads. (Ingels rents a Tribeca loft.) “Now he has got a personal assistant and a man coming to clean his room and a restaurant to make his food.” She called him Mr. Big.
Ingels was spending a few days in Copenhagen to see his family, check in with his Danish office, visit night clubs, meet government officials about the ski-slope garbage power plant, and talk with friends (gallery owners, filmmakers) over long meals. The restaurants he visited served food in the new Scandinavian style: many small dishes of scrupulously local and seasonal fare, with a waiter interrupting the conversation every few minutes to make a scolding announcement: “December cabbage!”
Over dinner with half a dozen people one night—a meal that, for all the delights of “oyster snow,” caused Ingels to reflect on restaurants where you have “a slightly stronger feeling that you’re actually eating”—he recalled how, at eighteen, he decided to study architecture. He ruled out a degree in fine art, because he didn’t have a suitable portfolio, and “back then my conception of contemporary art was canning your own feces, and I was more into telling stories, and drawing.” It was the early nineties, when architects still worked with pens, and Ingels saw a path to a career as a graphic novelist. “My thinking was, I’ll do architecture until I have a better idea,” he said. “And I simply never got a better idea.”
In 1993, he began a six-year course at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of Arts. At first, he was adept but not fully engaged. The fourth year, spent in Barcelona, transformed him into “a completely new person.” He had an intellectually inspiring roommate, read Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze, and became, he thinks, a better conceptual thinker for having to build sentences in a new language. And he “fell in love” with Koolhaas, whose firm, OMA, was then as much admired for unrealized designs—in particular, two library projects in Paris—as for finished buildings. As Ingels saw it, architects before Koolhaas had tended to establish themselves “by creating a specific aesthetic that’s based on certain assumptions—that, you know, curvy is more beautiful than rectangular, or concrete is cooler than brick or glass. And, essentially, what defines them as an architect are the things they don’t do. Whereas with Koolhaas, though he had a style, each project was informed by a certain take on a certain condition, so that it always started with a story about the city, a story about art and technology, a story about the institution of the library. Suddenly, I could see that architecture was really part of society and was even informed by what was occurring in society. And I was hooked.”
Returning to Copenhagen, Ingels recalled, he was “on fire, cranking out ideas.” Christian Madsbjerg, who runs a New York-based business consultancy and sits on the board of BIG, met Ingels around this time, and noted a level of confidence and ambition that was formidable and—given Denmark’s fondness for self-mockery—un-Danish. “Bjarke said, ‘There was Le Corbusier, there was Rem Koolhaas. And here I am!’ ” (Ingels is sure that he did not use those words.) By midway through that fifth year, Ingels had built up a portfolio of designs—including a car dealership, built underground—that was strong enough for him to secure an internship at OMA in Rotterdam. He was there for six months, but, he recalled, “I didn’t feel that I’d achieved what I’d set out to do—be part of the conception of a masterpiece.”
Returning to school, he completed his thesis project, a sloping combination of apartment building and sports hall for a site in Ørestad—a strip of unused land, about the size of Central Park, between central Copenhagen and the airport. This land had just been opened up for development. Upon graduating, in 1999, Ingels turned down several unsolicited job offers, and instead had hopes of getting his project built: “I thought that, at twenty-four, I could persuade clients to build a three-hundred-thousand-square-foot building. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
The plan was interrupted, that summer, by a call from OMA. The firm had just won a competition to design the Seattle Public Library. Ingels moved back to Rotterdam as the design was taking shape, in the form of an irregular stack of boxes, wrapped in a lattice of glass and steel. Ingels became the lead designer of those interior boxes, whose outline had already been sketched; the largest box held the main public collection of books, arranged on a spiral ramp ascending four floors.
He was at OMA for about a year—long enough to play a key role in one of the great American buildings of recent decades. By then, Ingels told me, “I felt I had paid my dues.” He was not keen to keep working on the library beyond the point where the role of an architectural firm “slides from being a creator to being a controller”—from design to documentation, and then to oversight of construction. Nor did he want to rise in rank at OMA, acquiring “more and more sorrows” and creating “space for designers beneath me in responsibility to crank out cool stuff.” And OMA could be a difficult place to work. Ingels said, “In architecture, there are so many constraints. You have all the constraints of the client, of the site conditions, of the economy, of gravity—you name it. But a highly unpredictable boss is yet another constraint.” He recalled episodes of yelling, and hurling of office supplies. He added, “I think you can have high competence, ambition, without having stress and fear as the motivating factor. It’s one of the ideas of ‘Yes Is More’: you can be critical through affirmation rather than negation. You can be critical by putting forward alternatives rather than spending all your energy whining about the alternatives you don’t like.”
He returned to Copenhagen and, with Julien De Smedt, a Belgian who had been an OMA colleague, set up a firm called PLOT. Ingels was at a stage when an ambitious architect might foresee spending a decade travelling the world, and working at three or four firms, before considering self-employment. Ingels and De Smedt, however, appeared to need no further orientation. Jeffrey Inaba, a friend of Ingels’s and a former OMA employee who now directs C-Lab, an architectural-research institute at Columbia University, described Ingels as “really mature” at that age, but added that, to some, an early focus on building might suggest a disagreeable lack of restlessness. Young graduates striving for originality, he said, often focus on “work that’s experimental or radical to the degree that it’s unbuildable.” In an effort to make a mark, such an architect may, for some time, make no mark at all in the built world. “With Bjarke, there is a sense of confidence in the profession—that at its core it works, and there isn’t a need to question it in a fundamental way,” Inaba said. “There’s a belief that making buildings is what an architect should do.”
The PLOT architects lived and worked in a shared apartment, and began to enter, and win, architectural competitions. They designed an indoor swimming pool in the form of a looping canal—the first of many loops in Ingels’s portfolio. The project later stalled, but it allowed PLOT to establish an office. Less than a year into the life of the firm, Per Høpfner, a local developer, heard about their work through a chance conversation with a PLOT intern, and came to visit. Ingels’s view of Høpfner was that he’d done “some of the worst projects” in Copenhagen, including “super-boring” apartment blocks. (Ingels added that Høpfner was also likely to describe these projects with a similar lack of enthusiasm.) “He’s kind of a tough cookie,” Ingels said. “On the surface, he seems like a typical crook—a good-looking guy with completely white hair, always suntanned. And then he’s very smart, and very frank.”
At the time of his visit, Høpfner was in the process of buying land in Ørestad. The city was selling lots zoned for dense, mid-rise residential use. A few days later, Ingels called him. Høpfner said, “I bought a site. So can you draw something?”
Ingels has compared designing a building to telling a joke. The punch line makes perfect sense, in the world of the joke, but still creates a moment of surprise, and may reveal “an alternative reality nested within reality.” A few years ago, Ingels made a short video to explain a design idea called the Escher Tower, and posted it online. He sat in his Copenhagen office, with an M. C. Escher print of an impossible, doubly oriented building leaning against a wall behind him. Handling a series of pink foam blocks, he talked to the camera about how, beyond a certain height, the primary load on a building shifts from being vertical (gravity) to being horizontal (wind). So people don’t build very tall buildings in the form of thin, wide monoliths with little foothold—even though thinness is desirable, at least in some climates, because it makes it easy to distribute daylight and ventilation. Within a few moves of his blocks, Ingels had reached his punch line: a tower that began, at the ground, as a slab oriented one way, and ended up as a slab oriented at a ninety-degree difference, by twisting around a vertical core. Ingels held up the model. Seen from different angles, its profile changed: a rectangle, a bottle, an hourglass. “It looks surreal, but it is essentially a creation of common sense,” he said. He put his Escher Tower on the table next to a monolith of the same height and surface area, and blew gently on both. The monolith fell over.
No architect is better than Ingels at this kind of concise, relaxed storytelling. Others explain and justify their own buildings, but often with high-flown language, or a retreat into metaphor. Although BIG has a ridiculously unusable Web site—here, the firm follows architectural conventions—most of Ingels’s public communications, of which there are many, are charming. For a 2010 promotional film, he rode down the bike path running through the heart of his beautiful, double-looped Danish Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo, to a soundtrack of “I Gotta Feeling,” by the Black Eyed Peas. Ingels is wary of compliments about this kind of thing, fearing that they carry, on their flip side, the charge of glib salesmanship. “Our capacity to communicate the ideas is because of the clarity of the ideas,” he said. But it may also be true, as Christian Madsbjerg told me, admiringly, that Ingels “could sell anything.”
Alejandro Zaero-Polo, the incoming dean of Princeton’s architectural faculty—and a former OMA employee who co-founded an acclaimed London firm—recently noted that BIG’s level of public engagement was rare in architecture. He recalled the hoopla surrounding Ingels’s request to uproot the Little Mermaid, one of Denmark’s leading tourist attractions, from its place on a rock in Copenhagen’s harbor, and install it, for six months, inside his Shanghai pavilion, in a round pool of imported Copenhagen harbor water where visitors could swim. The hope was to exhibit a part of Denmark itself, rather than the usual Expo fare of “state propaganda in papier-mâché,” as Ingels put it at the time. (Ingels succeeded, though the far-right Danish People’s Party raised objections in parliament.) “He was playing that game very intelligently,” Zaero-Polo, an admirer of BIG’s work, said, adding, “When a discipline moves from being a purely technical discipline into being part of public debate, I think that’s always good.” But he also sees the danger of a building’s becoming, in effect, its own public-relations pitch: he mentioned Daniel Libeskind’s announcement, in 2002, that his design for a tower at the World Trade Center site would be 1,776 feet high.
One morning, in BIG’s Copenhagen office—across the road from the cemetery where Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen are buried—Ingels gave me a tour that had the air of a TED Talk, and included an invitation for me to get beneath a model for a museum, and then stand up with my head inside the structure. Later, I witnessed a discussion of a competition entry to design a municipal office building in Huddinge, Sweden (or, as Ingels later remembered the location, Bumfuck). The site was two hundred and seventy-five feet by two hundred and thirty feet, and the clients were looking for a structure that used most of this space, up to a height of fifteen floors. So the implicit form was a cube—although any structure as deep as that would need to be somehow opened up to light, or divided into separate buildings. A couple of Ingels’s colleagues had made preliminary sketches, in the form of a dozen small foam models: an array of BIG prototypes, including a twisting shape and an echo of W57. (BIG makes extensive use of automated foam cutters.) “They want it to be a landmark?” Ingels asked. “In all competitions they say that, but the question is: to what extent do they mean it?” He placed the foam buildings, one by one, onto a model of the site.
Ingels has made seven colleagues his partners; they now own about a quarter of the company. Each BIG project is led by a partner or another senior architect, and when Ingels and his colleagues are separated they communicate using PDFs of designs, with comments overlaid with cartoon-speech bubbles. “I can’t afford to lose myself in a single project,” Ingels later said, and he has almost enough charisma to pull off the suggestion that his co-workers are, to some extent, glorified pencils: “When I started in architecture, I was drawing with crayon on special paper. Then we moved to computers. And then you graduate to work with people.” When I asked Ingels and others to describe who did what on any BIG project, the replies were evasive and smiling, but the answer seems to be that, although Ingels has often had the driving idea for a building, his role resembles Zaero-Polo’s description of Koolhaas: “He was almost our editor. He gathers a number of people, lets them run, and then he picks up whatever he finds interesting. As opposed to the architect who’s the originator, like Frank Lloyd Wright—who’s super-talented and does a sketch and the team turns the sketch into a piece of architecture.” (Ingels seems to lead with good humor, if not with abundant salaries; by all accounts, he has avoided replicating the tense atmosphere he found at OMA.)
Handling the models, Ingels suggested refinements while asking his colleagues about neighborhood density and demographics. In one of the designs, a quartet of squat towers was arranged in a tight cluster: four foam blocks had been glued to the same base. With two hands, Ingels squeezed the tops of the towers together; this would create some expansive office space, link the towers, and allow more light to reach the surrounding streets. Peering at the ground-floor intersection where the paths between the four blocks crossed, he wondered if the paths could be arranged like the spokes on a pinwheel, creating a courtyard at the hub.
This is when the work looks like the videos: when a building’s design, and a building’s later life as a design story, seem aligned. But the process can appear less delicate. I sat with Ingels and Andreas Klok, one of BIG’s partners, as they considered a commissioned proposal for Europa City, a five-billion-dollar development on Paris’s northern outskirts. BIG had envisaged a disk of shops and offices more than half a mile across, with an undulating, grass-covered roof divided into five areas by paths that cut through the disk. The conversation was supposed to generate preliminary answers to the question: What to do on the roof?
Ingels was playing with a retractable pen: click-click. “It could be nice to have five destinations—what could they be? Mini-golf?”
“You could almost have real golf,” Klok said.
Ingels, thinking of injuries, laughed: “Real golf combined with tons of pedestrians . . . ”
There was a pause, perhaps containing discomfort. BIG’s least seductive ideas seem to result from unconstrained circumstances—from the awkward gift of a blank canvas. In a recent, failed competition entry, BIG designed a pier for a city in Florida; it ended in a hundred-and-thirty-foot-high loop that had a garish, theme-park connection to the idea of a breaking wave. Ingels is adept at solving architectural problems, but the only problem in Europa City was emptiness. An intern who had at this moment said “safari park” might have affected the future lives of many people and animals.
Ingels suggested installing swimming pools that could draw heat from the building below. This embodied an idea that has become a BIG catchphrase: “hedonistic sustainability,” or eco-awareness divorced from thoughts of privation. And then: “Should there even be a go-cart track?” He imitated the buzzing whine of a track heard from afar.
“You could have some vineyards,” Klok said.
“What urban farming would make sense?”
“What about a spice garden?” Ingels, hearing himself, laughed.
One afternoon, Ingels drove me out to Ørestad. It was cold, and the sun was beginning to set. After central Copenhagen, the view—stray buildings dotting a windy, flat landscape—was dispiriting. “From here to the horizon, it was supposed to be dense city,” Ingels explained. After the 2008 financial crisis, he said, “most of the people who bought sites went bust.”
Few well-known architects since Le Corbusier have made their names with inexpensive housing. Cultural or corporate monuments more easily allow for extravagances in materials and form. But Ingels seized the challenge posed by Per Høpfner: “Make it interesting, make it attractive, and make it dirt cheap.” Ingels and De Smedt designed two parallel, glass-curtained apartment blocks: to open up views, one block formed a shallow V, and the other an M, as seen from above; the V had spiky triangular balconies that, perhaps, tried too hard to be characterful. Finished in 2004, the VM Houses were the first apartments available in Ørestad. Conceived as homes for nurses and police officers, they sold as designer apartments, triggering a local boom.
The Mountain, next door—a more engaging building, where much of “Denmark’s Next Top Model” was shot in 2010—was part of the boom; some of the apartments originally sold for a million dollars, although last winter they cost not much more than half that. Høpfner, this time with a more generous budget, asked PLOT to combine a neighborhood parking garage and an apartment complex. Ingels’s solution—a variation on his thesis project—was a terraced outer layer of light-filled apartments, each with a deep wooden deck. The illusion, in every unit, was that you were perched on the building’s highest floor. Hidden beneath the apartments was a mountain full of cars. To reach the housing, you passed through the interior garage in a glass-walled elevator that rose at a funicular thirty-degree angle. This allowed you to admire an airy space decorated with murals of an elk and a wolf. Ingels is pleased to have expanded the notion of what a parking garage can look like, although when I later returned to the building there were unruly boys shrieking and setting off firecrackers, out of respect for an earlier parking-garage paradigm.
At the end of 2005, two years before the Mountain was finished, Ingels and De Smedt dissolved PLOT. By then, their portfolio had grown to include other Danish projects, among them a boathouse that had solved the problem of toxic land by sealing it beneath a warped wooden deck. But the partners “just didn’t hit it off anymore,” Christian Madsbjerg, the BIG board member, said. (Ingels and De Smedt both rejected this description and said that they are still friends.) When, in 2006, Ingels formed a new company, he considered naming it Play. But he chose BIG, feeling that it captured his desire to “work on big ideas—on big-picture thinking.” Madsbjerg said, “Bjarke was criticized at that point for wanting to make things so large, and we thought, Why not BIG? Why not say so? It’s quirky because it’s so self-obsessed.”
Ingels drove us to the southern end of the Ørestad strip. Here, the 8 House, the third of Ingels’s projects for Per Høpfner, looks out over a nature preserve of tall grass. Being very large and—for the moment—rather alone, the 8 House feels more like a colony, a housing contraption, than like an apartment building. As Ingels acknowledges, “It’s simply too vast, too spread out, to be a charming object.” But it’s still a pleasure to see. From above, the building is an elongated, spiky figure eight, which creates two inner courtyards, north and south. At ground level is commercial space; on top of that is a layer of two-story “town houses,” as Ingels described them, and then a higher layer of apartments, and then another layer of town houses. Within each layer, the units are staggered on a gentle rise. A wide outdoor path follows that rise, and spirals up and around the building, sometimes on the building’s exterior, overlooking the landscape, and sometimes—after tunnelling through the building’s perimeter—on the inside, overlooking the courtyards. The town houses have little front yards opening onto this path, which eventually takes you, on foot or by bike, to the tenth-floor summit.
The building, which was named the best housing complex at the 2011 World Architecture Festival, feels exuberant, and takes the risk of looking improvised, even impermanent. Like the Mountain, it is not an exotic shape into which apartments have been jammed; it’s quite legibly a stack of salable housing units. Jens Thomas Arfred, one of Ingels’s former professors, wrote a delighted account of the 8 House as it neared completion, calling it a daring orchestral work “free of any harmonics,” and a “great urban organism” that “becomes one with the surreal, magnificent views over the meadows.” [cartoon id="a16901"]
Some contemporary architects are like tailors working on the perfect modern version of a bespoke suit; Ingels hopes to invent fabrics that launder themselves. Kent Martinussen, the director of the Danish Architecture Center, who knows Ingels well and admires his work, told me that he agreed, to a point, with those who criticize certain BIG designs for being “uncontrolled, untamed, imprecise.” The 8 House, he said, came close to having “too little composition.” He said that works by Zaha Hadid and by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron gave a better sense of “things fitting together—everything is done in the same spirit.” With Ingels’s work, he said, “you see that it’s really teamwork. Someone did the pavings, and got an idea.” But the 8 House was filled with fresh concepts, and was done cheaply. For Ingels, Martinussen said, “the details are not that important. What’s much more important is: what kind of social impact does it have? Are people playing—having a laugh, rather than being self-contained, serious, aesthetic people? So it is more childish in that respect, but in a good way.”
“There is something very human about the strange structure,” Palle Jensen, a sixty-eight-year-old engineer who lives in the 8 House, recently told me, in an e-mail. “There are so many strange angles in the building—the same as can be said about any human being.” Before moving in, he had been skeptical about modern architecture. But, he said, he and his neighbors “cannot help loving this place, despite its problems (doors not closing, too many visitors, very windy, etc.).” Residents, he said, enthusiastically used the building’s intranet, and its sunny communal rooms, for various clubs, including a photo group, a running group, and a “meat group.” He said, “I plan to live here until I die.”
When I walked with Ingels up the path, which is tiled in black and white, we glanced into windows to see young people preparing dinner. It was a little like walking up the street of a hilltop village. “You get this total medieval strangeness that you don’t normally find in a modern housing neighborhood,” he said. In the darker, northern courtyard, we dropped down to the commercial level and visited Per Høpfner, who has his office there. He greeted Ingels warmly, offered brandy, and said to me, in imperfect English, “Most of the older architects don’t care a shit with the owner. It’s: ‘We know best.’ ” Ingels was always willing to listen, he said, adding, “It’s the first time we’re working with such a young architect company, no experience at all. But sometimes—” He then used a Danish phrase, which Ingels translated: “Where nothing is, everything is possible.”
After leaving the office, Ingels and I became a little lost in a stairwell. (He is not an architect of obsessively realized—or recalled—interior spaces.) Retracing our steps, we found our way outside and walked a few paces north of the building, then climbed onto a square concrete plinth, thirty-three feet by fifty-two feet. BIG’s original plan called for a skinny, fifteen-floor tower on this spot, which would have twisted to offer views to the south. The tower was abandoned after the 2008 crash. But, Ingels explained, “I liked the idea of putting in a space-holder. The city’s full of the ghosts of stuff that didn’t happen. It’s the ruin of an unbuilt building.”
Late one evening, Ingels walked out of a fashionable Copenhagen bar called the Log Lady, where the model Helena Christensen was among those drinking. On the sidewalk, he spoke passionately, and only a little drunkenly, about a beloved scene in “Adaptation,” the Spike Jonze film written by Charlie Kaufman. Ingels’s relationship with the architectural avant-garde is suggested by his taste in movies: his heroes are Kaufman, David Lynch, and Christopher Nolan, whose formal experiments secure Oscar nominations and large audiences. Ingels’s rhapsody was loosely connected to a conversation he’d just had with a former girlfriend. (There are a number of these, and someone I met joked that Ingels had moved to New York because he’d exhausted his romantic opportunities in Copenhagen.) In “Adaptation,” Ingels noted, there’s a key exchange between the characters named Donald and Charlie Kaufman, both played by Nicolas Cage. Donald reveals that, in high school, he always knew that the girl he admired mocked him behind his back. “But she thought you were pathetic,” Charlie says. Donald replies, “That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you.”
“It can’t be said any better!” Ingels exclaimed. “It’s a question of what you want and not what everybody else wants. Love is about giving, not about taking! He didn’t give a shit, because he loved the girl! You shouldn’t aspire for appreciation—you should aspire to do what you want to put out in the world.”
Ingels, who perhaps cares more for appreciation than he was here suggesting, said of the Charlie character, “Any intellectual that ever creates is Charlie Kaufman. The masturbation, the procrastination, the self-loathing—that’s me. Then there’s his twin, who’s stupid and lame and blatant and straightforward, and you think he’s an idiot all through the movie. But, in the end, he reveals that he actually has an insight that is much more powerful than his brother has.”
A car drove by, and a drunk young man leaned out of the window to shout, in Danish, “Merry Christmas, cocksuckers!”
We were in the city center, where there are no structures built by Ingels, except for a sleek wooden swimming deck by the harbor, which PLOT completed in 2003. He is famous in Denmark—to the extent that a senior politician told me that Ingels was “very sexy”—and some grumble that he is overexposed in the media. But he is also a little underused. Kent Martinussen recalled Ingels asking him, not long ago, “How do I get Danish commissions?” Martinussen has detected a national tendency to “distribute the luck”—along with almonds—so that once Ingels found early success in Ørestad he was thought to have all that he was owed. Martinussen observed that Jørn Utzon, the Dane who designed the Sydney Opera House, barely had a career at home after winning that competition.
Martinussen may be right: in 2006, BIG won significant public support, but not final political approval, for what would have been a (possibly monstrous) two-mile loop of middle-income housing around the edges of a Copenhagen park. But the great brake on Ingels’s local career was the 2008 crash. In the capital, BIG lost commissions for a city-center tower with a flared base and for a development nicknamed the Lego Towers—hills and valleys built out of modular blocks. (A giant model of this, made of Legos, stands in the Copenhagen office.) In all, BIG lost five major commissions. To give a sense of the financial cost: an architect typically asks for between five and twenty per cent of a building’s budget, and the Lego Towers budget was four hundred million dollars.
Ingels looked for new opportunities. BIG had been taking assignments from developers more than it had been entering competitions, a process that can be expensive and time-consuming. But now he had spare capacity, because, even though he laid off many people, Danish law required him to keep them on paid notice for several months. “So we ended up shooting at some competitions we might have not done,” Ingels recalled. “We did one for the city hall in Tallinn, and we ended up winning. And we won the national library in Kazakhstan. We would never have done that.” He paused. “But that’s a tragic story.”
BIG’s entry for the library was a fat, tilted Möbius loop, like a car tire that’s spinning on its rim and about to come to rest. The firm won the competition in early 2009—its first major victory against leading, Pritzker-winning international architects, including Zaha Hadid and Foster + Partners. Ingels began travelling to Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital, and that summer he gave a presentation to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who did a double take when told that Ingels was the architect in charge. “He’s looking at me as if I’m a child,” Ingels recalled, describing it as the final “endearing moment of the whole process.”
The building was largely paid for by Kazakhmys, a copper-mining company closely connected to the Kazakh government. Ingels referred to the company as his client, although a Kazakhmys representative in London demurred, telling me, “It was a one-off philanthropic donation.” According to Ingels, who has not spoken publicly about this episode before, the people with whom he
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