Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is having a moment. His 11-year-old firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is winning work worldwide, and acclaim for projects as practical as they can be utopian. They’re reimagining Google’s California campus with Thomas Heatherwick and building 2 World Trade Center, the stair-stepped sibling of Libeskind’s staid tower at Ground Zero. BIG is also known for its imaginative design hybrids – take the “court-scraper” (a sail-shaped residential courtyard-skyscraper mashup on the West Side Highway in Manhattan) or the smoke-ring blowing, trash-to-energy power plant in Copehangen that’s also a public ski mountain that flips a need into clean fun.
Closer to home, BIG designed a soon-to-be-finished office building at the Navy Yard facing Central Green, being built by Liberty Property Trust. Which is how Ingels came to be in Philadelphia Monday to accept the 2016 Louis I. Khan Memorial Prize, presented by the Center for Architecture and Design with AIA Philadelphia. It was a treat to hear from Ingels about his firm’s process, his playful pragmatism, and the power of design.
On designing at the Navy Yard:
“It was clear that [the Navy Yard is] taking form right now, and which was going to be very much driven by speculative offices. We thought that since we have such a powerful point of departure, shouldn’t we inherit as much from the [Central Green] park as much as possible? We were given this parallelogram site right next to the park. There was already a master plan that laid out how one could build these very rational volumes. And we thought maybe if the very strong gesture of the circular park sort of created a sonar ping that would sort of emanate from the park, it could actually influence our building. The main façade facing the park would sort of move back instead of a straight road… and then curve and then actually expand the park.”
Designing in Denmark vs elsewhere:
“In Denmark you have a meeting with a city, they would be like, How many benches are you going to put out? Here it’s more like, Ooooh. A bench. Is that really necessary?”
On power and architecture:
“It’s quite hard for an architect to set the agenda. We don’t have political power… and we don’t have any financial power. The only power we have is the power of our ideas.”
Advice for budding designers of Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture + Design, for which the evening is a benefit:
“If you somehow try to focus on the things you really enjoy doing, you’re probably going to get better at it because you enjoy it more, you’ll do it more.”
On design dreams:
“Even though it seems a little silly to obsess about getting a power plant to blow smoke rings, I think it’s quite wonderful. I think one of the most beautiful things about architecture is that at its core it is like the art and science of turning fiction into fact. Because we’re sitting in our architecture studios and we’re trying to come up with these wild ideas, and they’re like pure figments of our imagination. And then we spend the next five years, ten years solving all the technical problems like applying for all the permits, raising all the funds, making it happen. And then it just becomes concrete reality. It really has these world changing aspects that it goes from something you came up with to being just how it is. I love this idea that somebody visits Europe in two years. They come home and they say Europe is an interesting place. In Venice in Italy they sail in gondolas through streets paved with water. In Denmark they ski on their power plants and turn their waste into electricity and heating and where the chimneys puff gigantic smoke rings. That’s just how it is in Denmark. …. I think that whenever we are invited to intervene in a situation it also means that not only do we have the possibility we actually have the responsibility to make the city and the world we live in a little more like our dreams.”
WHYY was a media partner for this event.