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With each high-profile project and industry award, you sense that Bjarke Ingels is edging ever nearer to that line which many world-renowned architects have already tumbled across: The very same formula that brought them incredible success becomes that which taints their ability to respond adeptly to varied briefs in different contexts. They become predictable caricatures of themselves, labeled with that increasingly derogatory term in media circles: "starchitect."
However, if the key to avoiding such a tag is the ability to surprise, then Ingels can feel fairly satisfied that his firm still has a healthy number of experimental concepts up its proverbial sleeve. For BIG’s next trick, it has managed to rethink the way in which two polarized programs can be combined, creating a manmade mountain in Copenhagen that may just herald a completely new architectural typology: the public industrial hybrid.
Located near the city center of Denmark’s capital, the new Waste-to-Energy plant is designed as an exemplary model in the field of waste management and energy production. The project will be the single largest environmental initiative in the country, with a budget of 3.5 billion DKK, and will replace the adjacent 40-year-old Amagerforbraending plant, integrating the latest technologies in waste treatment and environmental performance.
Surely that kind of brief would be enough for any architecture firm to wrangle. Well, not BIG—the firm proposed another layer of functionality for the site: a 1.5 km ski slope incorporating multiple skill levels, as well as further public spaces allowing unobstructed views of the processes going on inside the facility.
This integration of the public realm with industrial premises gives people a way to learn about the plant's sustainable technologies, while transforming a previously isolated, inaccessible building typology—that of the factory, or processing plant—into a place where energy related issues can be examined and discussed openly and honestly.
This principle of honesty extends to the exterior: the smokestack is modified to puff smoke rings of 30 m in diameter whenever 1 ton of fossil CO2 is released. This animated component will act as a gentle reminder of the impact of consumption, offering a measuring stick that will allow the public to grasp CO2 emissions in a straightforward way. Thus, the chimney stack—a symbol typically associated with industrial history—becomes an indicator for a future of energy awareness.
Bjarke himself states: “The new plant is an example of what we at BIG call Hedonistic Sustainability—the idea that sustainability is not a burden, but that a sustainable city in fact can improve our quality of life. The Waste-to-Energy plant with a ski slope is the best example of a city and a building which is both ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable.”
This smacks of utopian idealism, but it's pretty hard to argue with a project that essentially up-ends our collective understanding of an entire sector of architectural design: Time will tell whether this complex is as successful in all areas as Ingels suggests. Either way, the quirky innovation emanating from his practice remains compelling: BIG doesn't look like it will be slaloming downhill any time soon…
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The Angry Architect