DN: Both you and your practice have enjoyed remarkable success for an architect so young. How was this achieved?
BI: As an architect, its really hard to set out an agenda or a mission statement and then work towards some well-defined goals. What you end up doing is almost like a completely incidental series of opportunities that present themselves, and you must make the most out of each opportunity, then gradually make your ideas and your work evolve from that random series of events. What I am going to talk about tonight is the idea of evolution, rather than revolution. Traditionally, I think architects, but also the media, like to declare revolution a big breakthrough that has come out of nowhere. In reality, things quite often evolve gradually and unexpectedly. One idea emerges in one context, which is then being pushed over by another opportunity. An office or practice is populated by these ideas and once in a while they actually find a means to become realised.
DN: Both you and Julien De Smedt (co-founder of PLOT, the precursor to BIG) worked at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. Is that where you met?
BI: We met at the OMA on two separate occasions, first as students and then as architects we overlapped both times. It was in the dot com days and we were frustrated by the fact that as an architect its hard to really get good work until youre over the age of 50. We were constantly reading about how some dot com teenagers went public and became billionaires overnight with some new web browser, so we got this idea together of how to make a film a bit like the way you make architecture projects – this idea that you could take a lot of raw material, and then not through the way you produce the movie, but the way you edit material, make it come together as a feature film – much like its the way you tie the component pieces together that you craft architecture. Our application for a movie grant was actually rejected, but at the same time we had also decided to start doing some architectural competitions together, and won three of them in a row; we did five and won three.
DN: A pretty good ratio, thats pretty overwhelming.
BI: And that’s how we got in business. It was this series of meetings, these chains of events. The first commission came from a chance meeting between one of our interns who was playing tennis with the son of the client’s friend. They started talking and eventually we got him to visit our office; we had just done a competition for cheaper housing, where we got the second prize. It was a concept of a house built extremely cheap, and the client was interested in knowing more about that process. That ended up not working for that particular project but in that way we actually got the first commission. So it was a series of different events, on many different levels that actually made things evolve.
DN: I get the sense from the way that you present your projects, particularly on your website, that they’re the result of an almost instantaneous conception. They’re presented as an immediate and clever response to a problem, which gets built with great speed, seemingly almost off the cuff. But I’m presuming there’s a lot more strategising and preparation behind the work.
BI: I think it has to do with communication. There is a quote by Søren Kierkegaard, “Life is lived forward, but its understood backward.” Once you move ahead with a project, you have all this productivity and it is really like a Darwinian evolution.
Concepts evolve through success and selection: we give birth to way too many ideas, way too many models for them all to be able to survive. Only the ones that deal with the parameters best will survive. Maybe one model is very attractive and another model is very efficient, and they’ll have different mutant offspring, but only the most successful ones will end up as the result. But then once youre there, with all the failed attempts and all the aborted models – even though there were maybe 100 sketch models – you can backtrack. So to explain why it looks like it does, is just as easy as saying one, two, three, four, five. It’s going to look very simple, and it is very simple, but getting there was not very simple.
DN: It sounds like the way that you build on those ideas is by creating models of them. Is this the process?
BI: I think that it is a collective effort, we’re a team: we have clients, we have consultants, we have specialists, we have guest critics and we invite other team leaders from the office to criticise the team’s work. It’s impossible to get criticism for something you have inside your head. It’s nearly impossible to get others to contribute to anything that is inside your head. You have to get it out there. Anything that is tangible, manageable and manipulable is going to make a project available to a larger group and thats the only way that multiple intelligences can contribute to a project.
So this idea about sitting around for two weeks thinking until you finally reach something is like the artist Bjork, when she described how it was going solo after The Sugar Cubes. She said that after a while it was a little bit like sitting in a corner masturbating.
DN: So when you talk about your team, what sort of team do you have? How many people work in your office, and are they predominantly Danish or are they from everywhere? When I went to the Royal Academy in Copenhagen, I saw they had quite an international bunch of students. Does that translate into your practice?
BI: I think we have a bit more than 20 different nationalities. We have a fair amount of Koreans and Japanese. After teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, we had a fair intake of Americans and then all over Europe and South America. We get a good share of applications from internationals. We find much more fitting portfolios and talented students actually applying from abroad than locally, because Copenhagen is such a small school.
You can say that until now, all of our realised work is in Denmark, but recently we are building a big hotel in Stockholm; a big one in Oslo. Were doing a large mixture of projects in Prague, Athens, Baku in Azerbaijan, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. So I think with that, our permanent staff will be more and more international. This multi-national aspect is clearly an important element in our work.
DN: There’s a lot of discussion about the export of architectural ideas; Dubai, for example, has been pinned as a supposed vacuum. How do you feel about the process of international commissions? Because obviously the international commissions offer you incredible opportunities and they allow you to extend your practice.
BI: Its like the exhibition we have on in London right now called The Copenhagen Experiment, where we take the virtues of Copenhagen, lets say Scandinavian metropolitan values, and try to see how could they lead to a much more varied expression than the classic idea of Danish architecture [in a foreign city]. There are seven quite radically different projects, but they all deal with something that is specific to Copenhagen or strategies that are specific to Copenhagen. We try to diversify the interpretation of compliance for the parameters, whereas last year most of our work had been international. We’re interested in this idea of the new vernacular.
I saw this project studio at Harvard, where the main idea was that the international style was fuelled by the rigorous analysis of the engineer. Where you dissect what a building needs to do, into a set of qualities that it needs to provide. For example, say you need to be able to see [when you're inside a building], so you therefore design a machine that allows you to see, which is electric lights. So then you don’t really need windows that much. But then you need to have fresh air, so you design a machine for mechanical ventilation that blows air through ducts in the ceiling. So then we don’t really need to open the windows anymore.
So essentially, it was seen as a series of freedoms that liberated architecture from history, and in the end it also emptied architecture of any quality. But what you were left with were these boring boxes, essentially tube-fed by a lot of different machines. As a consequence, architecture got a lot more boring because it didn’t do anything, and energy bills got higher and higher and eventually it became unstable. So our main idea was to reinvent the idea of vernacular architecture.
In Architecture Without Architects, Rudofsky showed how in different regions all over the world, the local population can organise their buildings and cities in natural ways, which are as nice to live in as possible. They built little towers that blow down the wind for natural ventilation; narrow streets in warm regions that won’t allow the sun to hit the ground; roof slopes that allow the snow to stay to insulate the attic, or so steep that the snow actually falls off. All these [concepts] were developed over time.
So what we’re trying to say is that maybe in the globalised world, vernacular doesn’t mean local materials so much. It’s more about the organising of your buildings and cities in such a way that they provide all the qualities, like natural ventilation and temperature, as a product of the architecture rather than machines.
[I encourage] the students to work with either Iceland or Dubai: two extremely different climates, which would reach extremely different architectural responses.
We’re just starting a project in Baku in Azerbaijan. As part of out contract for the first month we just did research on Baku the climate and the vernacular architecture of Baku – as the client is really into this idea of trying to liberate Baku from this inherited generic American skyscraper as a typology. We’re trying to demonstrate that there are a lot smarter ways that could be specific to Baku and not just Atlanta in Azerbaijan.
DN: I wanted to ask about the idea of exploring the Danish sensibility. In Melbourne, the Council have just implemented these Copenhagen Lanes for cyclists, where there is space for the traffic, parking, median divider and then a bike lane – clearly attributed to Copenhagen.
BI: I think there’s a much smarter way of planning and doing architecture, based simply on this idea of perspective. I think it’s a really good idea to go travelling. Rather than trying to figure something out in the office, go travelling and then place a benchmark. Analyse what it is that works well [in other cities], and then promote that as a typology. It’s not throwing away your own culture because it’s going to be done in a Melbourne way, in Melbourne.
The planet is an urban laboratory, with six or seven billion people, every day conducting an experiment. It’s this idea of the Melbourne planners going to Copenhagen, checking out the bicycle paths, [then coming back to Melbourne and saying], ”This is what we’ve seen so far that works best, let’s copy it and maybe even make it a little better.”
DN: This sounds like a tolerance towards other people’s differences, and the exchange of differences, rather than control by the dominant culture.
BI: I also think there is no loss of identity. You can say there’s basically two things that we’ve been doing at BIG: one is focusing particularly on Copenhagen and the other one has been trying to, in a way, re-interpret the specifics of foreign cultures. For example, our work in Dubai is trying to liberate [the skyline] from the tyranny of the American skyscraper. We’re trying to help Dubai invent typologies that are much more Dubai than current Dubai. So I think you can actually do both.
I think Denmark is the country in the world with the least social difference in terms of economy; the difference between the richest and the poorest is the shortest. So this kind of equality could also be translated into a [liberated] cultural [tolerance].
DN: You seem to be quite comfortable being an ambassador for Denmark. I remember seeing your pavilion at the 2004 Venice Biennale – what really impressed me was how clearly you communicated the ideas. There was an instantaneous recognition of the project; you proposed what the problem was and what the solution was.
BI: We always look at the big Copenhagen experiments, we’re talking about the work that we do in Copenhagen, and therefore it talks about our reinvention of what Copenhagen is all about. But its not like I ever saw myself as a Danish architect.
If anything, I have a pretty tortured relationship with Arne Jacobsen, and my architectural hero is Utzon and he’s super un-Danish! He built two buildings in Denmark, most of his work is in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or obviously Australia. The Sydney Opera House is a Scandinavian interpretation of a Chinese typology in a former British colony – so imagine how un-Danish that is.
I must say when I went to Sydney a few years ago, when we landed, we checked into the hotel and then we basically ran through the park to go to see the Opera House. I was really thrilled at how amazingly cool it is, and I think you don’t realise this if you haven’t been there. The gothic arches are so iconic and you completely miss the urban trick of that building, which is creating this massive public podium. When you’re there you realise how brilliant an urban gesture it is – we landed actually right after the tsunami had hit, so there was the tsunami concert on the steps which really showed it perfectly.