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Hedonistic Sustainability: Bjarke Ingels Discusses Designing a New Vernacular in the Face of Climate Change

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“In general I think people have gotten used to listening to the word ‘climate’ in the context of climate change, so always as being part of a problem,” Bjarke Ingels tells urbanNext at the IV International Conference Architecture: Change of Climate in Pamploma, Spain.

“In fact the climate and the changing climate is the very condition of living on a planet with an atmosphere … You have different climate zones that get different exposure to sunlight, that have different temperatures, different levels of precipitation or aridness,” explains Ingels in the video below.

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The Danish architect leading the powerhouse firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) laments modernism’s approach to new technologies allowing buildings to regulate their own environments independent of the site’s naturally occurring climate. “The architecture that used to be a cleverly, empirically evolved response to the local climate suddenly became a universal style of modernism that looked the same everywhere, so it just became like a boring box with a gas-guzzling machine room that would pump quality light air into it to make it inhabitable,” says Ingels.

Le Corbusier’s pavilion ‘Tower of the Shadows’ in Chandigarh, India. His signature brise-soleil are employed on the facade to manage light flow and ventilation.

“I think one of the things we’re looking at is trying to see if we can return the architecture to be actually responding to the climate.” For Ingels, the modernist response to climate control was too formulaic in its overarching idealism barring any regionalist approach to sustainability. “I think Le Corbusier was a very smart teacher, but … he had a tendency to provide the answers rather than enabling people to ask the right questions. I think that’s why Le Corbusier had such a great impact but often a quite negative impact because what got reproduced was actually the solutions rather than the methodology … I’m always very careful about providing the answers.”

The Copenhagen Harbor Baths designed by BIG and JDS provide clean water suitable for swimming in the city’s port.

Ingels and the work of BIG are dedicated to recontextualizing how we understand sustainability in the the built environment to remove the sense of fear or obligation from its current meaning. “Sustainability was always spoken in the context of stopping growth or giving up some of the quality of life that we have now,” but for Ingels, sustainable design and clean technology can have stimulating social effects.

Projects such as the Copenhagen Harbor Bath, which provides a safe swimming area in Copenhagen’s port, and the Amager Bakke power plant, which will build a functional ski slope on top of the facility pumping out clean air, provide engaging public programs that are directly enabled by the climate-conscious design. “Suddenly sustainability actually becomes the more fun, the more enjoyable alternative to what we know,” an approach he calls “hedonistic sustainability.”

BIG’s Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant will emit clean steam into the atmosphere and provide a ski slope for Copenhagen’s citizens.

For Ingels, technology does not have to be the environment’s adversary; on the contrary, new technologies can be harnessed to create unprecedented programs that benefit both the environment and our access to nature in an urbanized world. “Fifty years ago a power plant and a waste management facility would be one thing that you would really want to stay away from.”

Words by Joanna Kloppenburg

Read more from urbanNext’s journal Expanding Design Practices on the urbanNext website.

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