Features

Interview: Bjarke Ingels

July 25, 2013

Michael Holt speaks to Bjarke Ingels, founder of Danish practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), about the exchange of skills and ideas that stem from international collaborations, and the potential for a hybrid of urban, landscape and architectural form at Barangaroo.

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Michael Holt: BIG has a broad spectrum of projects, at various stages of the design process, could you run through some of the key projects?
Bjarke Ingels: We’re building in Denmark, Mexico City, the Middle East, Shenzhen [China] and New York. We’ve just been shortlisted to do a museum for Lego, which came on the back of our Lego Towers project – one of the many projects that died with the financial collapse in 2008. Lego Towers is made out of a series of Boolean operations: different ways to combine separate entities by superposing or subtracting them. One fantasy would be to make it out of mega Lego: you can imagine cast aluminium Lego pieces with Styrofoam inside acting as structure, insulation and wind screening? Denmark is all about minimising the time spent on-site through extensive prefabrication; through the assembly of pre-manufactured modular bits we could literally become a country made entirely out of Lego! We’re also building a 588m tall financial centre in Tianjin, China for Rose Rock International Finance Center – a company chaired by Steven Rockefeller II.

MH: West 57th St [New York] takes the European courtyard typology and transposes it into an American context, or specifically a Manhattan setting. Is this then scaling up the modular from a single component to the level of typology?
BI: Essentially, Manhattan is one big courtyard, with Central Park at the city’s core, surrounded by extreme urban density. The proportions of our courtyard are the same as those of Central Park – it’s just 15,000 times smaller! We’re boiling the idea of Manhattan down to its smallest molecule. We combined a European courtyard with the density of a Manhattan skyscraper. The skyscraper typology was essentially the townhouse extruded vertically. In some of the old skyscrapers you can really see that it’s a typical urban building, where each horizontal strata was simply stretched. But the courtyard would die from such a latent vertical extrusion, so the asymmetry comes as a natural consequence of adding Manhattan density to the Copenhagen courtyard. This informs a new typology: the courtscraper.

MH: So this is a transferral of typologies, a form of evolution or genealogy, supplanting the familiar into different contexts?
BI: The Sydney Opera House represents something highly innovative in terms of public space. The white shells – a weird hybrid between Chinese pagodas, gothic vaults and Mayan temples – are remarkable, but the unnoticed brilliance is the steps. The plinth is the Mayan element, a part of this bizarre global vernacular. It’s a giant manmade landscape. Taking the public realm from being so restricted to occurring at street level, opening up the city – it’s incredible. [Jørn] Utzon was an intellectual, he was obsessive about how things came together and the potential of prefabrication and industrial manufacturing. He was constantly looking for evolutionary solutions. If you look at Darwinian evolution, one of its drivers is migration. By nature, most elements evolve in one context, but find their true success in another. I think there should always be a migration of ideas, a migration of typologies. It makes for a fertile form of creativity.

There is something uniquely Australian in the idea of hybridisation as a result of migration. The Australian fauna is uniquely amphibian or hybrid compared to African, European or American animal types – the platypus is an example. Barangaroo could’ve been an amazing laboratory to pick up where Utzon left off: to hybridise urban form, landscape and architecture, as well as public space and private development. There needs to be a high level intellectual discourse, which actually talks about architectural concepts, like typologies, but also building. There is disbelief within the profession towards building; architects tend to avoid talking about the challenges of constructing cities and buildings. As architects, our role is to make things, to intervene with designs and ideas. [BIG’s] obsession is to embrace building and typology and evolve both, simultaneously. Most of our projects are mid-market affordable apartment projects, so what we’ve tried to do is take a typology and only use prefabricated concrete elements: to invent the courtscraper as a typology and to use new techniques for building.

MH: By practising in Australia do you think BIG could develop ideas of hybridised typologies through collaborations with local architects?
BI: Yes. I think of Australia as Asian, even though it’s almost purely Anglo-Saxon. There is something unique about having this completely western culture nestled in Asia. It’s another form of hybrid. It’s comparable to Denmark’s relationship to Germany: the often overlooked, northern little brother to the aggressive, southern big brother. I suppose Australia would then be the United Kingdom’s younger brother. It’s this idea of somehow being part of a bigger thing but separate. Being a Danish architect, Sydney is like the Mecca of Danish architecture.

You travel 24 hours to see the best piece of modern Danish architecture. Utzon created this in-situ cast shell, insisting on prefabricated, geometrically modular components. The inside of the shell gives the building a sense of a ‘mega-ornament’. As an office, or in collaboration, we’re lucky enough to be getting projects where the construction technique can be a little bit more adventurous, such as the Danish Pavilion [2010 World Expo, Shanghai] or the Danish Maritime Museum [Copenhagen]. Whenever we collaborate our position is creative director and as things go towards completion our local partner takes over as project manager. There has to be a certain distribution of roles.

MH: Would you say that architectural culture in the Asia Pacific region is Darwinian in its cultural exchange?
BI: There’s always a sense of adaptation, with a foreign sensibility placed on a local commission. Whenever we work outside of Denmark, there is an experiential exchange insofar as we collaborate with a local partner. It’s like in early Renaissance Europe – a Europe of city-states – when you had to get your certification as a craftsman by acquiring your apprenticeship from another city. You weren’t allowed to practise in the city you were educated for the next five years. In going to another city you were able to acquire new skills, but also take your skills with you. It’s the same with architects; this idea that a cultural exchange of skillsets nestled into a culture can be adaptive and extremely useful. If we were to work here, we’d then go back a little more Australian than when we came.

www.big.dk

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