Big, BIG Ambitions

When the acronym spells BIG, you’d have no doubt the work is most certainly spectacular. But there is much more beyond the spectacle, as LOBBY has a tête-a-tête with Bjarke Ingels about his incredibly young origins, meteoric rise to fame and how architecture is a lot like playing Lego and Twister. We open the LOBBY Archive to bring you our maiden issue's main feature.


The clock strikes three in London town and I excitedly give him a call. Like a bucket of cold water splashed all over me, I’m briefly overcome with a sudden rush of disappointment and my exhilarated state veers towards panicked nervousness; there’s no reply. “Hello Bjarke,”I texted,“this is Regner Ramos from LOBBY calling for our 10 AM interview. Let me know if I can call you again.” It’s 10 AM in New York City where Bjarke Ingels—head of the world-renowned architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)—currently lives, and I was wondering if he had forgotten about our pre-arranged chat. But within 10 seconds of my tiny and rather unnecessary emotional crisis—mea culpa—the iMessages box on my iPhone displays the grey bubble with three dots indicating that Bjarke Ingels is typing a message.“Call again,” he replies.

Danish-born Ingels has stories to tell. After studying architecture and landing a job at OMA under the tutelage of Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke was 25 years old when he and former partner Julien De Smedt founded PLOT, the architectural practice that would lay the foundations for his enormously successful career with BIG. His work has been widely celebrated, and despite any personal feelings of awards as a measure of an architect’s value and genius, his collection of 68 of them—yes, I had to count; more than once, I might add—over the last 13 years must surely mean that whether you agree or disagree with his vision, he’s done something right in his career. A whopping 24 projects are already completed, and with eight under construction, 26 in progress and countless other proposed designs, it’s hard to believe that BIG is only eight years old. And when you think about the fact that Bjarke himself is 39, turning the big 4-0 in October 2014, it’s evident that that the only thing small about BIG is its relation to age.

After a short exchange of pleasantries takes place between us, I thank him for letting me to talk him, to which he warm-heartedly responds with, “Of course, I heard this was the inaugural issue, so congratulations! It’s a historical moment in your lives!”If there’s one person that could see the value of starting up a project and ambitiously launching an idea, no matter how young it is, it’s Ingels. With his clever design solutions, creative proposals, inspiring career and his fresh, youthful outlook on the architectural discipline, there really is no other notable architect out there who would be more suitable to feature in this maiden issue. From his recent projects to his passion for fiction, LOBBY picks the mind of Bjarke Ingels to discuss his playful philosophies, his views on perfection, his advice to students, his larger-than-life ambitions and of course, on how these then become ‘spectacular’.

Image: Yes Is More by BIG

Let’s start by talking about PLOT. What did you feel was unique about it?

One thing that was objectively unique was that PLOT quite quickly attracted quite a bit of attention and was given some significant commissions at a relatively early stage in our lives. We were almost convinced that it was impossible to get anywhere in architecture before the age of 50, because that seemed to be the norm. So I think maybe PLOT played a role in showing that a younger practice can actually quite fruitfully create a platform for autonomous work.

How much of PLOT’s method/philosophy/execution do you feel is present in BIG?

In some ways I would say it’s pretty much the same idea. From my perspective, I feel like I’ve had my own office for 12 years, just with different partners. For me and Julien, after leaving PLOT, I think our goals are pretty much the same, but we’ve evolved. Each time you make a building you discover things, and you also find out which things you know. You start to build an organisation that can actually handle complexities. So I’d say one of the designs that you are always working on, refining, perfecting, tweaking and modifying is the design of your own organisation.

Usually architects—and the discipline in general—are regarded as very serious, and there’s little to no room for humour. But when I first became acquainted with BIG, it was actually through YES IS MORE, so it’s refreshing to see that you find a happy medium between architecture and comics. How do the two inform each other?

I think it’s very simple. I’ve noticed a few times that when you actually walk with an architect through their office you get all the behind-the-scenes stories, and the work comes to life. But in exhibitions the work often seems dead, stale and sterile. That’s essentially the challenge we tried to set: what if we could make an exhibition and publication that really feels like walking through the construction site, the office or the finished building with the architect?

We tried different ways. We tried printing out the Powerpoints from my lectures and putting post-its on them with what I would say about each image; it became a bit impromptu, and it dawned on us that’s exactly what graphic novels are. A graphic novel is a form of publication that is created to combine words and images into an almost cinematic narrative experience. Essentially what we did was, we captured the form of a graphic novel and used it as a way to tell stories about architecture.

Image: 8 House, Copenhagen

BIG is very distinctive name, and although at first glance naming a firm “BIG” runs the risk of sounding pretentious, you downplay it through your playful diagrams and even through your funky typeface, thus introducing a jovial element into your brand. Apart from it being a clever acronym, what’s big about BIG?

Well, firstly, PLOT was linked to this idea of having a double entendre, mostly around the plot of the narrative. So when Julien and I decided to split up, we decided to leave PLOT as as the name of our collaboration and pursue architecture under new names. It was kind of hard to come up with something that would have any credibility, because suddenly we were no longer PLOT. Now we’re... {lets out an exasperated scream} We didn’t know! We needed to be able to call the group something that that you could refer to in the first person. Even though an acronym sends a simpler message, I still wanted it to have a name that people within the office as well as outside could refer to as an entity on its own. And that’s BIG, Bjarke Ingels Group! I also like that it’s somewhere between a band and a large corporation, so it sounds both corporate and almost like a band. You know how sometimes they’re like called ‘The-Name-of-the- Person Band’!

Like Dave Matthews Band.

Yeah! Also, there was something funny about being in Denmark, one of the smallest countries in Europe and in the World—where everything is understated—and then to call your office BIG {starts tittering}. It was one of the most least likely things that could ever work!

And in terms of your architecture, where does the bigness come into play?

Similar to what we did with PLOT, what we tried to do was bring the‘big ambition’back into architecture. If you look at the big picture, architecture is the art and science of making the world you live in a little bit more like you would want it to be. I’m fascinated when I look at the world of computer games, like Minecraft and Warcraft, because they’re these parallel universes that people are drawn to, where they can live in another kind of world. In Minecraft you can even create a world that you dream about or that you long for, and inhabit it. There’s an incredibly fundamental urge for people to mould their own environments, which is why Lego is the biggest toy company in the world, and Minecraft is becoming one of the most successful computer games in the world. There’s some kind of fundamental urge in this, and that’s exactly what architecture is... except it’s not pretend.

Architecture actually gives human beings the capacity to design and modify planet earth so that it fits with the way they want to live. It’s probably one of the greatest potentials humankind has. Darwinian evolution shows us that life has evolved by adapting to the surroundings; once human beings invented tools and technology, we acquired the capacity to adapt our surroundings to life, so in a way architecture’s almost a reversal of evolution. Rather than life adapting to the world around it, the world adapts to life.

Image: 8 House

Let’s pick up on that topic of technology. Even though drawings and images have always been an inherent part of the discipline, now we have sophisticated computer visualisation softwares that magnify—and in some cases, misconstrue—thearchitectural project. Do you think that with the advent of sophisticated computer capacities, the architectural discipline is reinforcing a visual fetishism for buildings?

I’m not sure. Architects have always worked with whatever tools they had, and I think that nowadays there’s a greater demand to predict the design’s outcome.That is both stifling and enabling, but the capacity to pre-visualise things allows you to create a more informed discussion. What I think is interesting in computer technology is the fact we have the capacity to turn design parameters into something that can literally inform the design. The reason why we spend quite a bit of time in analysing the project’s condition, diagramming the parameters, trying to establish what the greatest potentials are and what the greatest problem is, is that once you’ve identified the key criteria, you can turn them into the driving force of the design process. You can use that information to inform your design decisions so you don’t make them just for fun.

For some, a ‘spectacular’ architectural project equates to a finely crafted, carefullydetailed,formallystunning work. But I wonder if the spectacular aspect of architecture transcends this simplistic perspective. Is the ‘un/ spectacular’, in architecture, merely a visual expression, or is it something more? Where do you position your work regarding‘the spectacular’, if at all?

One thing that’s important to understand about our office is that a lot of the work that has given us the platform we have today is essentially affordable housing in the outskirts of Copenhagen: VM House, the first project by PLOT, hosts affordable apartments in a developing neighbourhood; The Mountain, the first BIG project for the same client, combined a parking structure and homes, and it provided the homes with some form of suburban lifestyle, with gardens and views in the middle of the city; the 8 House, takes the idea of a local community and puts it into three-dimensional urban form. So unlike a lot of the architects that we compete with, who really come from the spectacular mentality—like doing art museums or opera houses or whatever—we actually come from taking the every- day and modifying it in a way that creates more possibilities for the people living there.

Multi-family housing hasn’t really had a tremendous amount of innovation, because it’s incredibly difficult to do anything with those constrained budgets for very tight space programmes. You also have the building regulations assigned to ordinary buildings, so you don’t have the regulatory leeway that cultural landmark buildings could have. The biggest project we’re doing in Copenhagen today is a power plant that turns waste into electricity and domestic heating, and we are simultaneously producing it as a manmade topography to create the first alpine ski slope in Denmark. In many ways, part of our agenda is to uncover the potential of amazement, enjoyment and expression of life within the constraints of the everyday.

Image: West 57, New York City

Often ‘spectacular’ designs become unspectacular if repeated. Although your work varies formally, you don’t seem to often stray far from the loop and the bends. Where do you draw the line between having a signature style and being repetitive?

We all have certain things that interest us, and I have certain things that interest me and that I do return to. In architecture you have a limited amount of geometries that you can play with, and I think a major part of it is to try to put that vocabulary to work in different ways and to make some cross-breeding of typologies that can enable a whole new lineage or family of typologies.

Is that how you see your West 57 project in New York City?

West 57 is a sibling to the 8 House in Copenhagen. It’s the offspring of a European courtyard and a Manhattan skyscraper. What we try to do is identify successful species of urban typologies and try to see if you can sometimes combine the attributes of what seem to be mutually exclusive ideas and merge them into new hybrids.

Image: Danish Maritime Museum, Helsingør

How do you personally define ‘spectacular’?

To be honest, it’s not a word I use much, it almost reminds me of the spectacle of Guy Debord and the Situationists theories. I can try to describe it in relation to the architecture BIG does... On the one hand you have the classic functional architecture, where you have the consultant that makes essentially boring boxes that work. They may satisfy a function and its logistics but maybe nothing more beyond that. Then you have the Avante Garde that makes spectacular, expensive and sometimes, unpractical designs that are good for attention but maybe not so good at solving problems. BIG tries to explore the middle where it’s through rigorous analysis of the requirements and hard working performance of the project that we end up with something that goes out of the ordinary.

For BIG, what makes us design a building that looks different is because it does something differently. The building should express that something in its nature, that at the core of its being, it is different. We try to take on a whole other set of requirements that are crucial ingredients to creating a successful community or neighbourhood or city. Essentially it’s the same when you play Twister, the family game.

...It is?

In the beginning the task is you have to stand on a particular place and keep a pose—nothing tricky about that. As the game progresses, you load on more and more requirements, and you find yourself having to put your hand and your feet on rather distinct places, while becoming entangled with your family members. It becomes back-bending and enjoyable.

That’s what we try to do in architecture; we strive towards the spectacular by caring about the everyday and the habitual. We actually take on more and more practical demands—social, cultural, environmental demands — so that eventually the‘standard solution’ doesn’t do the job anymore. We force the architecture into something that looks sometimes strikingly different but not despite its function; it looks strikingly different because of the way it performs.

Image: Danish Maritime Museum, Helsingør

Tell me, what’s the most spectacular space you’ve been in?

Having studied Architecture in Barcelona, a good old-fashioned under- standing of ‘spectacular’is the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi was a spectacular architect. Also, the Sydney Opera House’s urban podium has this incredibly generous gesture inviting people to invade the roof scape of this sort of high brow institution. It’s an amazing space! I’ve been in a lot of cool spaces, so it’s hard to say!

And in terms of your own projects?

The most spectacular space we’ve done, I would have to say is the Danish Maritime Museum.

I can see that. It must have had quite a few challenges with it being a UNESCO heritage site.

Yes. And when you walk around in it, it is completely mind-blowing and incredibly abstract, expressive, simple; a clash of the old and the new; the lightness of the glass and the heavy submerged vessel in the concrete dock. It is a really, really profound experience and way more expressive, way more spectacular than anything we’ve ever done before.

Image: BIG Maze, National Building Museum, Washington D.C.

Recently you designed a maze, which seems like a very fun project to do; but then again, you’ve also won the com- mission for Lego House, which sounds like an architect’s/child’s dream! Which of BIG’s projects has been the most fun to work on?

You cant really ask a mother to choose between her children, because she loves them all! But no doubt that the Lego project really felt like a calling. You know, I honestly couldn’t see another architect who would be as prepared to take on the design of the Lego House.

Image: Lego House, Billund

Did you ever play with Legos as a kid?

Yeah, but I think I share that with a substantial part of the population of planet earth {he laughs}. My first Lego set was the yellow castle from 1978/1979, which was one of the corner stones of Lego culture.

And why do you say you can’t imagine another firm other than BIG to be more equipped to work with Lego?

This idea of ‘serious play’, which is the philosophy of Lego, is in many ways how we approach architecture at BIG. We take it incredibly serious, but a major part of any kind of development or breakthrough is that you experiment through playful experimentation. One of the geniuses of Lego is that it is actually through incredible perfection that it becomes possible to make Lego. If you take a Lego brick from the 60’s, it’s going to fit together with a Lego brick that’s just came out of the factory today.

It’s only because of this incredible perfection that it actually works and that it remains an unlimited resource of possibilities. Our work is done so with so much attention to detail! People tend to not understand that the only way affordable multi-family housing turns into architecture is by paying an incredible amount of attention to detail and execution and by really understanding how things are put together—what drives costs. You have to find ways to hack the Lego House system to deliver buildings that seem almost like they’re from science fiction: a power plant where you can ski on the roof, a housing block where you can cycle to the penthouse; these things I feel are almost too good to be true, but they are built within the exact same parameters that all of the other sad boxes or apartment blocks are built with. It’s actually perfection that makes the playful possible, to be serious in order to be able to play.

Image: Lego House, Billund

I want to go back to something that you said earlier, when you were talking about PLOT. You’ve been heralded as one of the youngest rising architects out there; you’ve accomplished so much, and you’re not even 40! That’s really refreshing to see, because younger generations are made to feel like they’re placed inside a long, long tunnel where they’ll emerge successful after a 30-year drive. Through your success you’ve either shown us that either everyone’s tunnel is a different length or that you’re driving at a really, really fast speed. So for Bjarke Ingels, which one is it?

That’s interesting. I mean I really don’t know exactly what went right, right? At first, I didn’t want to become an architect, I wanted to become a cartoonist, then I got fascinated by Architecture. So at one point, I got an internship and later a job at OMA, which was the only place I wanted to work, it was my dream. And in a way when that dream had been lived, there was nothing else for me. I was in a real way out of options. There was nothing else to do except to try start on my own.

I think one of the beauties of doing it early in your life is that I had no expenses, I had no children to provide for, and me and Julien could share a 40 square meter apartment. That was where we both lived and worked. We could live off my measly salary from teaching at the Art Academy in Copenhagen. So I think that’s definitely one business plan: {lets out a chuckle}
to be able to start up at a point in your life where you can live off a rock.

All images courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group.

Citation: Ramos, Regner. "Big, BIG Ambitions." LOBBY No.1 'Un/Spectacle', September 26, 2014, 38-44.