What if power-broker Robert Moses and urban activist Jane Jacobs had a love child? What if they could have come together to create an immense infrastructure project, which integrated the community’s input into its design?
That is the question 39-year-old Danish wunderkind architect Bjarke Ingels posed last month during an interview with The Real Deal.
His answer: the Big U, an eight-mile buttress that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development commissioned to protect Lower Manhattan from another superstorm like Hurricane Sandy.
Early last month, Ingels’ firm BIG, short for Bjarke Ingels Group, won $335 million in federal funds to design a barrier, which would wrap around Manhattan’s coastline from West 57th Street down to the Financial District and then back up to East 42nd Street.
In order to nail down a winning design, Ingels said BIG went neighborhood-to-neighborhood to solicit community input. “Architecture always happens through dialogue,” said Ingels during a phone interview from Mexico City, where he is designing a private home. “Obviously this project needs to be holistic and have a top-down approach, but it also needs to be rooted in the dreams, desires, concerns and demands of the local community.”
This exacting tightrope walk between big-ticket development and socially integrated design has come to characterize Ingels’ practice.
In New York, Ingels has already garnered headlines for the pyramid-shaped 709-unit residential, rental and retail building he designed for the Durst Organization, which is under construction on 57th Street and the West Side Highway and due to be complete in the fall of 2015.
And beyond that tower, he is making a big New York City push with at least three other projects already in the works across Manhattan and Brooklyn, including a new “viewing platform” at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Over the last few years, BIG — which is based in Copenhagen but has an office in the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea — has been beefing up staff to do just that.
“In September 2010, we had two people in our New York office, and now we are at about 100,” Ingels said.
With an extensive staff in the city, Ingels seems confident that there will be more New York projects to come — and that there will be architectural barriers to break.
“Once you get though all the bureaucracy, politics, liabilities and technical issues, you create precedent,” Ingels said of New York. “And that precedent is a way to eliminate the Catch-22 that nobody wants to do anything until someone else has already done it. It opens a floodgate of potential innovation.”
The ‘comic’ inspiration
The titanic tetrahedron for Durst — which rises 470 feet at its eastern peak and slopes down to a handrail height of just 42 inches at its southwest corner — is just one of the high-profile buildings across the globe that has launched Ingels to the forefront of the architecture world.
Others include City Hall in Tallinn, Estonia; Zira Island, an entire sustainable island off the coast of Baku, Azerbaijan; and Amager Bakke, a power plant with a ski slope in Copenhagen. For those projects, and others, he’s been honored with a slew of awards, including the European Prize for Architecture, the American Institute of Architects Honor Award and the Henning Larsen Prize.
But Ingels’ beginnings as a student in Copenhagen were inspired more by the hard-boiled comic books of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, two titans in their industry, than by the jumble of medieval and contemporary architecture that surrounded him in his childhood.
The way Ingels tells it, he enrolled in the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts out of a passion for drawing, and because “there wasn’t a comic book academy in Denmark.” But since his university days, Ingels has come to see myriad parallels in the seemingly distinct mediums.
“Comic books literally create the framework for the narrative, and architecture creates the framework for our lives,” he said. “Architecture, in many ways, is the process of changing fiction into fact.”
And, like narrative works that teeter between fact and fantasy, many of his designs test the boundaries of what is possible.
The Durst pyramid is a prime example. Developer Douglas Durst, whose wife is Danish, has known Ingels for years; the two have even taught a joint developer-and-architect studio class together at Yale University. But their relationship fittingly began in a contest of ideas.
“I first met Bjarke when I was giving a lecture on green buildings at the Copenhagen City Council in 2006,” Durst recalled. “Afterwards, we had a symposium with local architects, and there were no questions until Bjarke stood up and asked, ‘Why do all of your buildings look like buildings?’”
It was that deceptively elementary question that eventually brought Durst to Ingels’ studio in 2010.
“When I visited his studio in Copenhagen, I was blown away by what he was doing,” Durst said. “Back then, he wasn’t designing anything in New York. But he was doing a number of buildings in Asia and Europe, and to me they seemed like a real tour de force of architectural quality.”
At that time, Durst was in the planning stages of a yet-to-be-designed residential building on West 57th Street and was struggling to score city approval. City Planning insisted that the far-flung West Side development was a gateway site that would set a precedent for future development in the area, and therefore required a striking piece of architecture. Ingels was his obvious choice.
“They wanted an iconic building, and Bjarke delivered something completely unique. There is nothing else like it in New York,” Durst said.
In Ingels’ first design, the building had two peaks and an internal courtyard, but shadows were a problem. Ingels’ solution was the dramatic pyramid that’s being built today, which was designed to maximize sunlight while providing every unit with views of the Hudson.
The NYC push
The 57th Street design, perhaps more than any other piece of Ingels’ architecture, has led to other New York City jobs.
Late last year, Blumenfeld Development Group hired BIG to design a 200-plus-unit residential tower on an East 126th Street parking lot site that will cantilever over the contemporary Gotham Plaza across the street. The 200,000-square-foot project has yet to break ground, and Blumenfeld declined to comment on the project.
Last spring, BIG won the competition to design a giant viewing platform at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park under the oversight of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation. The proposal — a sloping triangular viewing structure, with terraced stairs rising just over 17 feet — is currently being built in collaboration with six other design firms.
With four notable New York City projects underway, Ingels — who recently appeared in a documentary made in Copenhagen called “My Playground: A Film about Movement in Urban Space” — has moved to Tribeca and is relocating his rapidly growing office to the Financial District.
But Ingels’ celebrity and bullish confidence has garnered criticism.
Kyle May, a New York architect and editor of the architecture magazine CLOG, devoted an entire issue to skeptical takes on Ingels’ work, and told the New Yorker that: “Ingels offers little beyond the primary gesture: the twist, the slope. … Look at what he’s building these things out of: window wall, the same thing that condos in Williamsburg are made of? I mean, he’s been mentioned for the Pritzker!”
And certainly the ever-sanguine Ingels seems to see a Pritzker Prize in his future, despite the fact that the prestigious architectural award has never been won by someone under 40. In the same New Yorker profile, BIG board member Christian Madsbjerg admitted that “Bjarke kind of thinks it’s time he got it.”
Asked if he has become comfortable with the “starchitect” label often attached to his name, Ingels hedged. “It’s not the title on my business card,” he said. “But if architects are capturing the imagination of the general public, I can only see that as a good thing.”
Pausing for a moment, Bjarke enthusiastically offered that, “if ‘starchitect’ was spelled with a ‘k’ and with a hyphen between the ‘k’ and the ‘h,’ in a Game of Thrones style, then I would really embrace it!”