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Bjarke Ingels: between unbounded optimism and identifiable anxiety

Bjarke ingels maritime youth house julien de smedt.jpg

Ingels alone has found a way to combine all the ecological and civic aspirations of the anti-starchitects with the high romance of the solo designer-demiurge

In a recent Time magazine interview, Rem Koolhaas described his sometime employee and not-quite protégé Bjarke Ingels as ‘the first major architect who has disconnected the profession completely from angst’. The founding principal of New York- and Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Ingels first blipped onto the global design radar with his previous firm, PLOT, whose Maritime Youth House won the AR Emerging Architecture Awards in 2004; since then, the designer – almost universally called by his first name – has indeed demonstrated a proclivity towards an architecture of almost unbounded optimism. But on consideration, the imputation of angstlessness is a little off the mark. Ingels’ practice is possessed of an identifiable anxiety.

Consider the question morphologically. In its recent residential skyscraper on Manhattan’s West 57th Street, BIG furthered its fascination with triangles and ziggurats, evident as early as its breakthrough 8 House project in Copenhagen. Shearing away one side of the building, the office created a sense of scale that Bjarke has referred to as running from ‘handrail to high rise’, the long slope of its western front descending almost to the street. The objective, presumably, is to allow the pedestrian to participate in the formal thrill of the massive ensemble, reaching them at their level; it’s neat, and it more or less works – but what are these theatrics about? Ultimately, like the design moves in many of his buildings, they seem to boil down to an effort to present some kind of enhanced user experience. Koolhaas has always been content with the hyperfunctional excitement of stacked programme boxes; if that meant the buildings were aesthetically standoffish, so much the better. In comparison, BIG’s architecture seems almost solicitous. As if he wanted us to like him …

Bjarke Ingels’ 57W in New York

Bjarke Ingels’ 57W in New York

Bjarke Ingels’ 57W in New York

Or take BIG’s separate use of the diagram. However improbable the adjacencies and juxtapositions Koolhaas produced with his diagrams, there is no question he took them seriously. The dizzying distribution of functions in a building such as Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library may have departed from the competition brief as dramatically as the building’s final form subverted our expectations of what a library should look like, but his diagrammatic strategy remained grounded in rigorous programmatic analysis. For Ingels, on the other hand, the diagram is intended neither as a pedagogical instrument nor, really, a design tool: it is a vehicle for narrative – or, to put it more bluntly – for a sales pitch. In his typology studies for the West 57th Street project, we follow as Ingels throws together a courtyard building with a skyscraper to produce – presto! – a new hybrid, the ‘courtscraper’.

‘The diagram is intended neither as a pedagogical instrument nor, really, a design tool’

This knack for advertorial image-making and language is on full display in 2009’s Yes Is More. The heady mix of graphic novel and monograph is its own kind of typological mash-up (a monovel!), and is Ingels’ entry into the manifesto sweepstakes. But, unlike most manifestos, this one gives us a likeable protagonist – Ingels, who favours a smart but casual uniform of black suit over dark T-shirt and affords various insights into BIG’s portfolio as well as broader systemic issues afflicting the 21st-century world. It is as shameless a bit of self-promotion as the architecture world has seen since Michael Graves endorsed a coffee company. It is also impossible not to like. The same could be said for Ingels in general, and maybe even for his buildings. Of all Koolhaas’s professional progeny (Winka Dubbeldam, Ole Scheeren, Joshua Prince-Ramus … the list goes on), none has proven so adroit at handling the contemporary architectural public as he. As the figure of the global ‘starchitect’ passes from the scene, giving way to collective practices more avowedly social in focus, Ingels alone has found a way to combine all the ecological and civic aspirations of the anti-starchitects with the high romance of the solo designer-demiurge. In a blind taste test, it would be very difficult indeed to distinguish his elegantly looping ground-structure for Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet or his underground gymnasium for Gammel Hellerup High School, from the landscape-centric work of less personality-driven offices such as SANAA and Snøhetta.

PLOT’s Maritime Youth House

PLOT’s Maritime Youth House

PLOT’s Maritime Youth House

These projects and others, such as Ingels’ upcoming ski-able power station in Copenhagen, make real the loopy positivism of Yes Is More. But Koolhaas is wrong to see in this achievement the evidence of a newly emerging Episteme of Prozac. Coolness has not quite yet been articulated as an object of serious discourse. Some are born cool, some achieve coolness, and others build an entire body of work as a designer with the express aim of being cool. Last year, during a presentation of his work in Helsinki, Ingels stole the show with a zippy account of his current work that brought together his easy-to-read diagrams, feel-good form-making and, of course, himself – smart and winsome, and apparently imperturbable. The crowd was young and it had come out to see him; he was in his element. And yet, could there be a nervy tension behind the impassive Nordic eyes? The event was hosted by the Guggenheim Museum, which was then trying to build a satellite location in Finland. None of the Finns thought this idea was very cool, and they have lately succeeded in killing the project. As any cool kid will tell you, uncoolness is always just one step away.

Fleeing from uncoolness is a full-time occupation and it leads to some hysterical contradictions. Only Ingels could have produced a manifesto that does not seriously reckon with history in any way: the past, one infers, is for dorks. The irony is that Ingels is a supremely talented populariser of someone else’s techne, namely Koolhaas’s, which he has repurposed to more pragmatic ends. And yet it’s a strange form of social agency, one predicated on an uneasy combination of throwback utopianism and contemporary corporate-speak, one similar to the blend of ‘interactivity’, ‘activation’ and ‘monetisation’ that has driven the Web 2.0 economy for years now. This is why no other designer seems so perfect a choice to design the new headquarters for Google – the company that first brought you hipper-than-thou office culture – and the design sees Ingels yet again riffing on someone else’s approach, in this case Frei Otto’s, making it more palatable to our mediated, image-driven age. In taking on the commission, the architect appears to be doubling down on the idea of coolness – and, for now, the gamble appears to be paying off, with Ingels having recently grabbed what had been Norman Foster’s chunk of the World Trade Center site. Ingels is the design world’s Great Dane, an honest-to-goodness design star one needn’t feel too bad about liking. But he’d better watch out: architecture has a nasty way of losing its cool.

BIG’s Yes Is More

BIG’s Yes Is More

BIG’s Yes Is More

Bjarke Ingels’ AR Emerging Architecture awards

Maritime Youth House, Amager, Denmark, Winner 2004
Mountain Dwellings, Copenhagen, Denmark, Highly Commended 2008