Purple Magazine
— The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

bjarke ingels


interview by EMILIEN CRESPO
photography by MARCELO KRASILCIC

the prolific new york-based danish architect
whose mantra is “hedonistic sustainability”
has a “master planet” plan in the works

EMILIEN CRESPO — You’re from a new generation of architects. What do you attribute your success to?
BJARKE INGELS — First of all, I think youth is something that time has cured [laughs], so there is that. The avant-garde has a tendency to be angry young rebels who are disenfranchised from the world. And revolutionary movements are always about opposition, a rebellion against something, but I was always more interested in trying to look at the possibilities. Rather than clearly choosing sides — “this is right, and this is wrong” — a lot of things are often actually quite good and could be even better. Architecture and urbanism are very much about accommodating everybody, saying yes to everybody. Enrich reality by accommodating and embracing all of its contradictions. I think a lot of youth is focused on all the disappointments — that the world is not perfect or that you only get resistance when you come up with ideas. But actually, when you use that imperfection and that resistance, you can create more complex and more interesting proposals.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Saying yes to everybody is the art of compromise?
BJARKE INGELS — Maybe it’s the art of aikido, the martial art. There’s this principle of turning the force of your enemy into your own strength. I think the problem in architecture, and in many professions, is that no matter what you have to do, it has to somehow be better than the standard solution. The standard solution became the standard by being very good at delivering a certain result efficiently and precisely. So, the only way to beat the standard solution is if the problem is bigger than the standard problem. And in that sense, by saying yes not only to the request from the client, or from the city to follow the building regulations, or to requests from the neighbors to not cast shadows on parks or backyards. The more you insist on solving not just the standard problem but solving all the problems, suddenly the standard solution is not enough, and you force the architecture into more complex, back-bending configurations. So, in that sense, by making the problem more difficult, you disable your biggest competitor — which is the default standard solution — because suddenly it no longer works, and you become the solution to this problem. So, anyway, by making the problem more difficult, you make it easier.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You’re adding more constraints for yourself.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What did OMA [Office for Metropolitan Architecture] and Rem Koolhaas teach you? It was such a fundamental education for you.
BJARKE INGELS — First of all, I had been going through this kind of serial monogamy of falling in love with different architects. For many practitioners in general, it’s true that there’s a certain set of axioms that are unquestioned assumptions. Once you question those assumptions, everything falls apart. It’s always easy to refer to architects that only work with white. White is not the only color. There are other colors that in certain situations can deliver more exciting results… Most architects have a style of some sort. And that style is often defined as a series of things that they do. In that sense, your style becomes the sum of all your constraints. What I found with Rem and OMA was that the projects were always rooted in a certain societal situation, responding to a location, an economy, a culture, a technology. Suddenly architecture was not an autonomous art form disassociated from society and referencing its own axioms or style. Architects became engaged in a dialogue with society — helping to express certain problems or potentials of society. And I found that incredibly exciting. The writings of Rem Koolhaas and the projects of OMA seemed always so crystal clear. But when I went to work there, I was surprised to find that the people disagreed about almost everything. They came from all parts of the world; some had worked for Daniel Libeskind before, for Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry… I was young, I was 23, and it was almost impossible for me to understand that people could be so unaligned and that it could still function. I was thinking, “If you like Libeskind or Eisenman, why the hell are you here?” It was interesting to see that while the end often became very coherent and clear, the process itself was chaos.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What did you learn from that?
BJARKE INGELS — It made me understand just how Darwinian the architectural process can be — that there was so much wasted effort. So much wasted energy. So much work flushed down the toilet. And yet, this incredibly wasteful process generated so many potential outcomes. From this soup of random variations, it was possible to select great ideas.

EMILIEN CRESPO — And how do you recognize a good idea?
BJARKE INGELS — It’s interesting. I will tell you what it’s not. It’s not a sequential series of choices — like the way you solve a math problem, one step at a time. It’s much more like when you watch The Wire or any crime show — it’s about bringing together all of the aspects of a project, making them visually available at the same time. Just like when Detective McNulty and his friends pin up all of the suspects, crime scenes, murder weapons, and drugs onto a giant board. And they try to connect things so that you can see the big picture. We do that. We make a lot of models, observations, analyses, and we pin it up so you can somehow see the big picture and have a chance to see a pattern or a possibility. You make partial conclusions, partial observations. And then you combine them, and eventually there’s this one proposal that ticks all the boxes — not by doing 50 things, but by doing one or two things that somehow magically solve everything. It’s like the definition of complexity in computer coding: the capacity to transmit the maximum amount of information with the minimum amount of data. It’s almost like aphorisms or poetry: the maximum amount of meaning with a minimum amount of words. The same goes for architecture.

EMILIEN CRESPO — Some people have described you as fearless, unafraid of complexity or controversy. Are we too fearful?
BJARKE INGELS — I think there’s a lot of self-censorship. I had a friend in architecture school — he was the smartest guy in the room. He knew architectural history better than anyone. But he knew so much about what was good and bad that he was unable to lift his pen. He could not draw a single line, because before he had even started, he knew that it wasn’t good enough. And there were 100 reasons why it would be uncool. Life evolved four billion years ago. And for the first two-to-three billion years, it was single cells, so you have to start somewhere, right? [Laughs] We have to have the confidence to just get started. At every moment, you have to be able to say as much as you can, which might not be a lot. The 100th generation starts with the first generation, and the first generation is really gonna suck. But if it’s the only idea you have, then at least look at it and then analyze it, and then try to make something better.

EMILIEN CRESPO — There’s a lot of humor in your work. Can architecture be a funny mind game?
BJARKE INGELS — The anatomy of a joke is sometimes related to the anatomy of a breakthrough idea. There’s a buildup that describes a recognizable situation and sets up the audience’s expectation, and then the punch line is completely unexpected, but it still makes perfect sense. That’s why it’s funny, and, in a way, it also shows you that there was an alternate possibility from what you had expected. So, that’s why sometimes, almost as a license to suggest shit, if you start cracking jokes, one of the jokes might not be just funny but actually more than that, once you stop laughing at it. It’s a way of giving yourself a license to do the unexpected.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What is terrible architecture for you?
BJARKE INGELS — When it’s indifferent. I don’t care whose dream we are realizing, as long as it’s true. Architecture takes five or 10 years to do — it demands a lot of resources, it takes up space, it creates boundaries and barriers. So, if you’re doing all this and not realizing at least someone’s dream, you would really be wasting your time, right?

EMILIEN CRESPO — Talking about dreams, what’s the project you’re the most proud of and why?
BJARKE INGELS — You should never ask a mother to choose between her children! Wherever you’ve been capable of really controlling every detail with this precision and accuracy. But in some ways — and I may not be the most architecturally happy about it — I do like Amager Bakke, the power plant we just opened in Denmark, which sums up so many things. It somehow shows the power of architecture. It changes the understanding of what a power plant is, what a public utility is, what environmental technology can do. It has not only changed the skyline of Copenhagen, but also Copenhagen’s understanding of what it is, and what the possibilities are. If you can make a man-made mountain in the middle of a flat city with alpine skiing on a grass slope, then what can’t you do?

EMILIEN CRESPO — On the subject of Denmark, what did your native country teach you?
BJARKE INGELS — It’s very hard to say. I never felt particularly Danish. When we started, we were seen as being sort of antithetical to what Danish architecture was. And I think now we are part of the definition.
I think the one thing that I noticed when I moved to America is that as a Dane, you don’t question the importance of social egalitarianism, and you don’t question the importance of environmental responsibility — just as we don’t question the importance of free education, free health care, and a social security net. This is true in many parts of Europe, but these are unquestioned assumptions. We have to have space for everybody. Exclusivity is not a good thing; inclusivity is. Maybe our internal theory is “Yes is more,” which is extremely egalitarian, to make sure that the rich and the poor have a place in this master plan. That’s maybe the ultimate consequence of coming from the most egalitarian country in the world.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You now live mainly in New York and are behind some of the most important construction projects happening there. What does that mean to you?
BJARKE INGELS — If Denmark and Copenhagen represent the power of society and equality, then New York is the power of individual initiative and extreme effort. Normally, trying to do things differently can be difficult if everything is distilled through one system and through a committee. They call it design by committee because everybody needs to voice their opinion, and everybody needs to cover their ass. Then you’re not going to take big risks, and you’re not going to try to do things differently. Often I find that we get the most interesting work done from clients that are founder-led or family-owned companies. For instance, we’re working with Lego, and I was working for the grandchild of the founder. We’re also working with the real estate investment company Tishman Speyer, and Rob Speyer is the son of the founder. We’re working with Audemars Piguet; Olivier Audemars is the great-grandson of the founders. We’re working with Toyota; Akio Toyoda is also the great-grandson. In all these cases, there’s something at stake that is more than the next shareholder report. I have to look as far ahead as I look back. Lego has to make decisions that are about the next 50 years. In my case, I started in November 2000 with my first company and a handful of people that I still work with now; some are now my partners. So, if I can look 19 years back, I can also try to look 19 years ahead.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What’s your vision regarding sustainability and sustainable architecture?
BJARKE INGELS — Our angle has always been to showcase through built examples that sustainable cities and buildings are not just better for the environment but are also better for the people living there. It’s not just an obligation; it’s actually a desire. Secondly, it’s also always been important for me to understand that the word “ecology” is close to the word “economy.” People think of them as opposites even though they sound so similar. They’re both derived from the Greek word “oikos” for “house.” Ecology is the study of where you live, and economy is the management of the household, so they both have to do with habitat. They both have to do with living. I think it’s important because of course you can do things that are sustainable. But you know it could be ecologically sustainable and financially unsustainable — too expensive. The only way to solve this situation is to come up with ideas and models and technologies and practices that are both economically and ecologically profitable.

EMILIEN CRESPO — You named your son Darwin. What kind of planet do you want to leave him?
BJARKE INGELS — Some geologists believe we live in the Anthropocene era, which is this idea that the ecological changes are primarily driven by humans. The bad news is that we are having a destabilizing impact on our planet’s climate and geology. The good news is that we have the power to have an impact. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Spider-Man said. So, it’s not a question of whether we can, because we already know we can. But we need a plan. We’re trying to do this project we called “Master Planet,” which is a plan for the planet. Already there are so many disparate, unconnected, uncoordinated, partial statements of intentions and goals. For example, in 2025, Copen­hagen wants to be carbon-neutral. Nobody really understands how it adds up. Also, environmental activism has been the realm of protestors. Protests can be good to call attention to stuff, but they can’t do anything.

EMILIEN CRESPO — When is your master plan out?
BJARKE INGELS — We’re working on it right now. Ideally we’ll have a first draft in February 2020. We want to see if we can rope in some institutions and, ideally, private companies to participate, because time has shown that humanity is perfectly capable of taking on very resource-intensive, multigenerational projects and completing them. It took like 180 years to build Notre-Dame, and the Sagrada Familia is still not finished. So, if we have a clear plan, a blueprint, a vision, a design, we can make incredible things happen. I think the problem has been politicians and academics. None of them are really entrepreneurs. None of them are project-makers. We need simply to look at the planet as a design object. So, if we’re going to have an impact on our planet and our climate, why not make it intentional rather than accidental?

EMILIEN CRESPO — You’re co-designing Google’s new headquarters. It’s one of the most innovative and powerful companies on the planet. How did this company impact you, and how will you impact them?
BJARKE INGELS — The interesting thing about Google is that it’s a company that has been created with a purpose, to organize the world’s information. It’s basically trying to make knowledge and information available for humanity in general, which also means that they like to make well-informed decisions. We’ve been working with them to understand how they’re organized as a company. And then we’ve tried to imagine an environment for them that allows them the greatest freedom to connect — to expand and contract. One of the ideas that has been governing the project is making the environment hackable. Instead of making these perfect final solutions for a work environment, we’ve made an open-ended, flexible solution where there’s a license to modify and to act. The gift we’ve gotten from them is that because they have a very healthy main business, their mind-set is quite different. As an architect, in some sense I wait for someone to have a demand. Then I offer my services, and they pay me to do it. So, we’re learning from their entrepreneurial mind-set of saying: “If we see a problem or a potential, we just throw resources at it, and then we see if we can find a way to solve it.” I can’t say that we’ve become like that, but we definitely aspire to be more like that.

EMILIEN CRESPO — What do you think about AI and how it will impact architecture?
BJARKE INGELS — My son Darwin is 11 months old, so I know how much effort I’ve already put into him. To raise and educate a smart, capable, competent human being is a Herculean effort. So, this idea of having intelligence that is reproducible is, of course, incredible. And I have no doubt that, in the beginning, it’s going to be a number-crunching, labor-intensive, calculation-intensive task that will be done by AI. I think inevitably you’ll find some of the best designers on the planet will be AI. And so, I think that kind of confluence of human and machine intelligence, and human and machine creativity, is going to be inevitable — maybe delayed, but it cannot be avoided. And I think it’s a very powerful resource to have. The funny thing about artificial intelligence is that every time we reach it, it becomes: “Ah, but that’s not really AI!” In the beginning, we thought a computer was intelligent if it could beat a chess master. But then, once it happened: “Yes, but it’s just a chess program.” So, every time we reach the goal, we move the finish line. So, I think we’re going to see a series of incremental developments becoming more and more powerful. That means that, just as today it’s hard to imagine building without computer-aided design, as we go along we’ll have more, and more powerful, tools that we might not recognize as AI because we keep moving the bar.



All artworks copyright BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), 2019

[Table of contents]

The Brain Issue #33 S/S 2020

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