Happy 40th Birthday, Bjarke Ingels

“We came to New York four years ago, and I’ve been pretty amazed at how welcoming both the city and the profession have been.”

Steven Thomson

WITH OFFICES IN COPENHAGEN AND NEW YORK CITY, INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURAL FIRM BJARKE INGELS GROUP HAS DRAWN EXTENSIVE ATTENTION AND ACCLAIM FOR THEIR PRAGMATIC UTOPIAN ARCHITECTURE SINCE BEING FOUNDED IN 2005. THE FIRM IS CURRENTLY INVOLVED IN A LARGE NUMBER OF PROJECTS, INCLUDING SEVERAL LARGE-SCALE COMMISSIONS THROUGHOUT EUROPE, NORTH AMERICA, ASIA, AND THE MIDDLE EAST. BETTER YET, THE STUDIO has been RECOGNIZED WITH THE 2014 A+ FIRM OF THE YEAR AWARD. TO understand HOW FOUNDER BJARKE INGELS HAS CLIMBED TO THE TOP OF THE ARCHITECTURE WORLD, WE SPOKE WITH THE WINNER HIMSELF.

What does winning Firm of the Year mean to you?

Bjarke Ingels: Of course, it’s great — all expressions of appreciation are welcome. We came to New York four years ago, and I’ve been pretty amazed at how welcoming both the city and the profession have been. I came with one colleague, and now we have 90 people. Architizer has also been welcoming in terms of showing interest in what we are doing, allowing us to meet professional clients, and embracing the idea that our presence in the city and the country could be a positive contribution to the profession as a whole. This spirit of community hospitality has now manifested itself in us being recognized as the Firm of the Year.

NYC office of BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group. Photo by Alberto Newton

How would you describe the culture of your firm’s studio?

It’s very cheerful, yet everyone’s super ambitious about what they do. You have people cracking jokes, and there’s a culture of where it’s cool to be helpful. People are not really competing. Every two or three years we all go on a big trip — a year and a half ago, we went to Japan, and we’re planning on going in a year to Switzerland.

We also try to keep in mind the big picture. We invite people to come in to talk, sometimes an artist, engineer, writer, programmers — we try to use our network to actually bring some knowledge into the office. In the afternoon, we get some snacks and beers and then somebody tells something to share certain expertise, like model photography. In that sense, there’s a growth of skills that happens in a decentralized way.

Also, a lot of the firm’s tone is created between the people in the office. It’s not really a top-down situation, but a facilitated exchange of ideas and skills. One of the most important things of leadership is to lead by example: treat each other with equality. In that sense, we’re quite different from the stereotype of the despotic firm leader.

West 57th by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

What one piece of advice would you give to the new graduating class of architects?

I actually had a visiting professor from Barcelona, a student of Miralles. He said, “don’t talk, work; don’t sketch, draw.” The point being: don’t talk about it, do it! You can sit around for ages discussing things back and forth and up and down, but action, even if it’s not a big move, will reveal perspectives and knowledge that you couldn’t preconceive. If you just start something, you’ll stumble upon problems and potentials that can inform the design process. Architecture is the art and science of turning fiction into fact and materializing ideas — so don’t just walk around with an idea inside your head. As soon as you put an idea on paper or even in a phone, it somehow opens up your work for collective creativity.

If you could have a drink with one architect across history, who would it be?

I would love to have a powwow with the architect of the Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon. When I was old enough to even dare to contemplate introducing myself to him, he was already on his death bed. Still, I think he was a pretty remarkable individual. He’s a great figure in Danish architecture, even though he hardly built anything in Denmark. And his work draws so much on re-appropriating the vernacular of other cultures and putting it to use in unexpected ways. For example, the Sydney Opera House is inspired by Chinese pagodas and Gothic vaults. It’s taking on all of these historic styles, and that has made it the most widely recognized building in the world.

Your firm’s book, Yes Is More, captured imaginations for its innovative action comic format. What book are you reading next?

Right now, the book I desire more than anything is Winds of Winter. It’s the forthcoming book by George R.R. Martin in the “Game of Thrones” series. He’s notoriously slow in writing, and the last time he published was two years ago, so statistics say it’ll be another three years before this one’s released. It’s almost making me depressed to not have access to it.

What is distinctive about operating in New York City?

It’s an interesting time right now, as we’re moving our studio from Chelsea to the Financial District because we outgrew our original space here. Our West 57th project has now reached its 6th floor — it’s no longer just models and computer generated imagery — and that feels amazing. It’s a humongous site — the biggest site that developer Durst has ever done.

The Honeycomb by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group, Bahamas, Nassau

And the project we’re doing in Miami is already constructed up to the third floor. So that’s something that’s amazing about this country. We won the competition to design the National Museum of Greenland; we won the competition to design an incubator building in Paris; we won a competition to design a museum in Norway — and none of them have even moved at all yet, whereas our projects at West 57th and Coconut Grove have gone straight into construction. Less than a year ago we got a commission in the Bahamas, and it’s already underway. There’s something about getting shit done on this side of the Atlantic that’s quite amazing.

LEGO House by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

Which of your upcoming projects are you most eager to see built?

On the 19th of August we’re breaking ground on the LEGO House, an event building dealing with all the aspects of the culture of LEGO in its hometown of Billund, Denmark. It’s been sort of a childhood dream for me. The building is like a cloud of interlocking blocks that will create a big public space, and the roofs are integrated into terraces. The complex is going to be incredibly generous to the city around it.

Amagerforbrændingen Waste to Energy Plant by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

Also currently under construction right now in Copenhagen is a power plant where you can ski on the roof or scale a 300-foot-tall climbing wall, which is going to be the tallest climbing wall in the world. It’s a pretty game-changing project, showing how a public utility that would normally appear as a gray spot on Google Maps can enhance the public realm.

And from that idea, over the last nine months, we conceived The Big U for Rebuild by Design. The project would loop a new “U” subway around the tip of Manhattan from the east and west edges of midtown, with new neighborhood parks and other amenities built on top, showing how infrastructure can be integrated with environmental qualities. As BIG moves down to the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, it would be amazing to remain involved in protecting the city and embracing its waters.

Explore more projects by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group in theArchitizer database.

Portrait of Bjarke Ingels by Stephen Voss