Turning fiction into fact

Bjarke Ingels perspective

“Architecture is fiction of the real world; of turning dreams into concrete reality using bricks and water”. Meet Bjarke Ingels, Danish architect wonder kid and founder of Bjarke Ingels Group (often simply referred to as BIG), who among many other feats has equipped a power plant with a ski slope and a chimney puffing giant rings of steam. This may sound like science fiction. But to Bjarke, this is the quintessential world-altering potential of architecture. According to him, companies could learn a great deal by looking at how cities are able to turn their decay, redevelopment and cultural characteristics into winning variables.

Turning fiction into fact

Bjarke Ingels perspective

“Architecture is fiction of the real world; of turning dreams into concrete reality using bricks and water”. Meet Bjarke Ingels, Danish architect wonder kid and founder of Bjarke Ingels Group (often simply referred to as BIG), who among many other feats has equipped a power plant with a ski slope and a chimney puffing giant rings of steam. This may sound like science fiction. But to Bjarke, this is the quintessential world-altering potential of architecture. According to him, companies could learn a great deal by looking at how cities are able to turn their decay, redevelopment and cultural characteristics into winning variables.

A work in progress

Back in 2007, we passed the 50% mark of global urbanisation, meaning that more than half of the world’s citizens live in cities. Statistics show that countries with more than 50% urbanisation on average have a five-time higher income level than countries where the majority live in rural areas. This explains, at least in part, the rapidly increasing urbanisation and the sizes of our cities. There are now 31 cities in the world with more than 10 million inhabitants – so-called megacities.

The concept of megacities and the trend towards urbanisation prove one of Bjarke’s key points. He describes cities as entities that all have a starting point, but no finish line. “A city is work in progress. It’s always waiting for new scenes to be added and new characters to appear. Our cities are the way they are because that’s how the generation before us shaped them, before they passed on and left the continuation to us. Cities will never reach some final stage, since they always have the potential to become more adapted to the current reality, culture and technological possibilities”, Bjarke explains on the phone from his office in NYC. He elaborates: “And that’s because life constantly evolves – Darwin taught us that. This has only been accelerated by the fact that technology consistently gives us new opportunities and changes our behavioural patterns. Our values and moral standards gradually develop, and this causes our life patterns to change as well, influencing how we live and where we live”.

Bjarke Ingels
Founder and creative partner of BIG

Bjarke founded Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in 2005, which has since become a small empire within the world of architecture, with projects across the globe and more than 400 employees from 25 countries. Their work is known for defying traditional architectural conventions and incorporating sustainable development ideas shaped to their surroundings. The name Bjarke means “little bear”, while the surname Ingels supposedly comes from Bjarke’s great-grandfather – it alludes to the word “English” as he worked on the Esbjerg-Harwich ferry.

The opportunities of decay

The alerted reader may have noticed a parallel or two between Bjarke and Professor Geoffrey West, who you might have encountered in one of our other perspectives. In fact, the two pioneers know each other from a former project, where BIG drew on West’s perspective on cities. West compares cities and companies, and points out that cities are highly resilient, hardly never die and seem to grow automatically, whereas companies have an increasingly shorter life span.

According to Bjarke, one explanation to this fundamental difference between cities and companies is found in the process of redevelopment (or rather the lack of it): “Redevelopment is often used as a negative phrase, but really, it can be a rather positive mechanism. When an urban area falls into decay, the property value decreases, which suddenly makes that area accessible to new groups of people. We often see that when a particular industry slumps – perhaps production is moved to China or the like – it leaves behind empty spaces. Then, a group of people with more ideas than money will move in. These people then create galleries of companies that fill the empty space, and they don’t quite mind being in a ‘rough’ neighbourhood because they get to shape it according to their values and wishes. The entrepreneurial spirit and opportunism seen in urban development is like taking an object that is basically just standing around collecting dust and turning it into something completely different, creating new unforeseen opportunities. The big question is how to genetically engineer this mechanism into the context of corporations”, Bjarke says.

“You don’t have to be faithful to a single idea”.

Introducing: Bigamy

BIG’s work is defined by informed design solutions, using the newest technologies and local characteristics to create unique architectural experiences designed for people. “We always try to dig out as much information as possible about a situation before we intervene. What could be the greatest potential or the biggest challenge? I believe it’s all about asking the right questions. When I studied architecture, I was often asked why buildings all look the same. People have the idea that buildings previously came with ornaments and decorations, while today, they have been reduced to container space. Boxy and boring. This happens when we just duplicate what is already there instead of thinking what could happen next”.

Inspired by the movie Inception, Bjarke has been determined to change this duplication through his unique work. The movie revolves around a thief with the rare ability to enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious. The characters design their wildest dreams, without the limitations of the real world. “The architect hero in the movie describes how he and his wife would love to live in a house with a garden at the top of a high rise. In real life, you would have to choose, but in a dream, we can get it as we want”. With Bjarke’s approach to architecture, however, the leap between dream and reality is not an impossible one. “We made a building in Copenhagen called ‘The Mountain’, combining a parking structure and an apartment building. By turning the parking structure into a manmade mountain of cars, we turned what would have been a stack of apartments into a cascade of homes with gardens. Penthouse views and big lawns – our movie character’s dream home”, Bjarke explains.

In BIG, the term Bigamy is used to describe the ability to take multiple desirable elements that might seem mutually exclusive, and merge them together into a new genre. “You don’t have to be faithful to a single idea”, Bjarke emphasises, “you can literally marry multiple ideas into promiscuous hybrids. The beauty is that architecture doesn’t just allow you to dream stuff up, it also allows you to alter the facts”.

“We have to cultivate our own specific qualities instead of being part of a faceless choir of screamers”.

A faceless choir of screamers

Though Bjarke is in the business of turning dreams into reality, he still argues that the desired reality should respect and reflect the distinctive environment of each location. “Even though we accept and adapt to new things and new possibilities, we must remember to cultivate and develop the existing local characteristics. Every city has its own history and its own geography, its own climate and its own demography, which – even though you have universal possibilities – makes the potential and the implementation venue-specific. Even though we all have to react to a global presence and development, we have to cultivate our own specific qualities instead of being part of a faceless choir of screamers”, Bjarke reflects. This approach of utilising and adapting to the unique possibilities at hand rather than reflecting an international trend is repeated time and again in BIG’s architectural constructions. “Again, this presents an interesting opportunity for reflection in regard to how companies and organisations are structured. There are countless companies out there with generic organisational structures and cultures, composing limited distinct differentiation”, Bjarke explains, implicitly accentuating the obvious risk of international companies searching for efficiencies and cultural anonymity becoming not only poor in taste, but even worse: tasteless.

The olympic hangover

Being an architect, Bjarke points out Barcelona as an excellent example of a city that manages to promote its distinct features and empower itself at any given opportunity. “Barcelona is very successful as a city. Compared to many other cities, Barcelona has been very systematic in their city planning politics. They’ve invested in public spaces: if a house was condemned, it became demolished and the place was made into a new square, giving surrounding houses a view to an open area. This has led to a privately financed upgrade of the property market. A model that has inspired more or less every other modern capital”.

In 1992, Barcelona hosted the Olympics. Most other Olympic host cities have experienced what Bjarke refers to as an Olympic hangover; after partying for billions, they find themselves left with empty facilities and useless infrastructure. Barcelona, however, used the Olympics to build a ring road around the city. In extension to this, they also invested in public areas. One of the major projects that were realised was to clear the waterfront of industrial buildings and establish a modern marina. In fact, the reason that Barcelona can offer its inhabitants and visitors beautiful beaches today is due to the Olympics paying a visit in the early 90s. “Every time Barcelona faced a necessity, they combined it with pleasure. As kind of a social infrastructure hedonistic sustainability project. They’ve been extremely progressive in the way that there’s always been a grand idea behind the investments they’ve made. As such, the more Barcelona develops, the more Barcelona becomes Barcelona”, Bjarke explains. “I actually think that they have been extra keen on making Barcelona even more genuine as part of a patriotic project fed by the city’s history. I love local patriotism in this sense, although it’s a difficult word to use without bringing to mind negative associations to extreme political standpoints. But if you think of national patriotism as love for what’s near, this will perhaps help us remember to use our starting points, the local circumstances, in our answers to our challenges at hand – being it as a city or a company”.