Kai-Uwe Bergmann; photo by David Laurent
By Karen Wong
Karen Wong is the Deputy Director at the New Museum and an Architizer A+ Awards juror. In an on-going series, she profiles the latest and most interesting architects, designers, and thought leaders to join the A+ jury. See her previous post on Olafur Eliasson here.
When starting their own firm, architects tend to focus on finding a design partner. But these partnerships can lead to tension as both architects squabble over who will lead the design for a particular project. And as the studio grows and takes on more work, neither designer will have the expertise or energy to manage the contracts, relegate tasks, or plot for future jobs. What these fledgling architects should look for instead is a design-savvy, business-astute cheerleader: someone with administrative acumen, communication skills, and absolute devotion in the architect’s brand and leadership. Someone like BIG’s Kai-Uwe Bergmann.
8 House by BIG
The media (including Architizer) have focused incessantly on BIG founder Bjarke Ingels: the cultivated Ted-X personality, the headlining projects, the meteoric rise. Less has been written about Kai, managing partner, director of business development, and head of communications at BIG -- and the engine that drives so much of the operation. Kai is like St. Nicholas; he's warm, burly, and excitable, with a nose for opportunity. He received his MArch from UCLA and worked for a Seattle architecture firm in the early 2000s. In 2006, Kai organized a West Coast lecturing tour and a series of meets-and-greets over four days that left Bjarke breathless. When Kai asked for a job, Bjarke acquiesced, ecstatically.
Kai and his team
Once ensconced in Copenhagen, Kai became architect, negotiator, ambassador, and DJ. He’s built a team that reviews international opportunities based on market research and data, cultivating sustainable local relationships resulting in work across ten countries. He sees creativity in rewriting a contract or assembling a dream team of consultants. Kai's invented a department that Bjarke jokes would take over the entire office if it were not for the checks and balances put in place by CEO Sheela Maini Sogaard.
Kai and BIGsters in Japan.
As much as Kai looks outward, he spends equal time looking inward. How does he acknowledge and celebrate his 150 staffers? He plans and pays for a 10-day trip to the architectural mecca of Japan for the entire office. A Copenhagen “BIGster” bunks with a New York City BIGster, encouraging cross- pollination, and everyone gets a 120-page guidebook entitled BIG IN JAPAN. The cultural sojourn is coordinated with a BIG book launch, a gallery exhibition, and two lectures by Bjarke. And Kai writes it off as a continuing education program. He plans on organizing a mega trip like this every two years.
You can hear Kai chant, “Give me a B, give me an I, give me a G — whattaya got?” He’s less superhero and more mascot. And he’s invaluable.