The Closing: Bjarke Ingels

The Danish starchitect talks on innovation, disappointment, his ideal client and passion as a superpower

Nov.November 01, 2022 07:00 AM

Bjarke Ingels (Photos by Guerin Blask)

Bjarke Ingels shakes hands and comments on his clammy palms. Perhaps they will be dry after a few encounters with others, he jokes. He brings his hands together and makes a sound that imitates flatulence and grins, though it is not clear whether the two expressions are related. Within half an hour, he will quote Kierkegaard. 

This playful but intense energy is reflected in his architecture firm’s office in Dumbo: The meeting rooms are encased in pristine glass, but stationed by the front desk is a small fleet of Razor scooters for zipping across the floor. 

Ingels and his eponymous firm, the Bjarke Ingels Group (or BIG), have left an outsized mark on the New York skyline. Douglas Durst brought the young Danish architect to New York a decade ago and tasked his firm with a name-making residential project: A massive tetrahedron, dubbed Via 57, way out on West 57th Street overlooking the Hudson River. The firm just wrapped up work for Tishman Speyer on the Spiral, a 65-story office tower in Hudson Yards with descending outdoor terraces that seem like they were carved out of the facade in one continuous motion. 

By its own count, the firm has designed more than 15 million square feet of residential and commercial space and completed 70 projects, with another 35 under construction. BIG came to  New York in 2010 with a small group of people in an office that now has 150 employees. It also has offices in London, Copenhagen, Shenzhen and Barcelona, with plans for one in Los Angeles.

It partnered with London-based Heatherwick Studio on a futuristic expansion of Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and designed the twisting XI condo towers — now dubbed “One High Line” — on Manhattan’s West Side. Some of BIG’s best-known projects are in Ingels’ native Denmark, including Amager Bakke, a waste-to-energy plant with an artificial ski slope on its roof; and Lego House, designed to resemble 21 gigantic interlocking toy bricks.

On the way, Ingels has become an architectural celebrity. But it’s not been all smooth sailing. In 2018 he was tapped by Adam Neumann to be chief architect of WeWork before the firm nearly collapsed the following year in a disastrous attempt to go public. 

Construction on the XI stalled for more than two years as its original developer, HFZ Capital Group, imploded, and now an office tower HFZ had tapped BIG to design at 3 West 29th Street is moving forward with a new developer and architect. Ingels’ firm was also jettisoned from 2 World Trade Center after Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and News Corporation backed out from a deal to anchor the tower. 

When faced with setbacks, Ingels thinks back to the financial crisis of 2008. The developers of a Copenhagen residential complex known as 8 House were considering scrapping the project, which included winding outdoor space that allowed residents to bike from the ground floor to the top of the building. They moved forward with it, but lost money.

“One of the investors says, ‘Well, at least we made an incredible project. Imagine if we lost all this money and it was for a pile of junk. That would be depressing,’” Ingels recalled. “At least spend your time on something that’s worth spending your time on. Then almost no matter if it gets realized or not, at least you spend your time on something fun and interesting and exciting and beautiful.”

The Real Deal caught up with Ingels to discuss his innovations and inspirations, working with the world’s biggest developers, fatherhood and how design can be a superpower.

Born: October 2, 1974
Hometown: Copenhagen, Denmark
Lives: Brooklyn and Copenhagen
Family: In a relationship, one child

What were you like as a kid?

I was drawing all the time. My parents would drive for three days down through Europe to get to Yugoslavia. You would get this incredible cross section through all of Europe. I would sit and draw whatever. We would stop at a castle in Germany or some tiny village in Italy. I enjoyed drawing, and I got so much positive feedback that I thought I was going to become a cartoonist or graphic novelist. It felt like that was my superpower.

You have a son, Darwin. How would you describe yourself as a dad?

It’s the most amazing adventure because you get to see the formation or the evolution of this human being. When you become a parent it totally changes your understanding of what love is. If I would’ve known that my parents loved me as much as I love Darwin, I would’ve been: “Holy shit! You guys!” But of course they did. 

What’s your biggest hope for your kid?

I want him to be happy, and I want him to be able to evolve and grow. I don’t have anything that I necessarily want to impose on him or make sure that he does, but I definitely want to be keenly aware and listen to what he says and what he shows interest for, because I think there is no greater superpower than passion. If you love something, you can get very good at it. I don’t know if I necessarily believe in talent, but I do believe that the power of being passionate about something will just give you infinite fuel compared to doing something you don’t really care about.

Lately he’s been very into music, and it’s just so random. The other day we were in a cafe in Greece, and they were playing the Prodigy, and he got obsessed with “Smack My Bitch Up.”

Anything from your love of cartooning that translates well to your day job?

It is the ability to turn something from fantasy into reality. Ultimately, that’s what architecture is. It is the ability to imagine something that doesn’t exist and then go through all the painstaking, bureaucratic, technical, political processes. It is the art and science of creating the world we live in. The true power we have as architects is we can give form to the future. In that sense it is similar to drawing. When you make stories or graphic novels, you invite people into a world of your making, and architecture, at its best, is inviting people into a world that you created.

You mentioned bureaucracy. Of all the cities you work in, where do you feel the most freedom to innovate, and where do you feel the most constricted?

There are very few places on the planet where it’s easy to get anything done. People tend to think that the environment they work in is the most restricted. It’s a lot easier to get a high-rise approved in New York than it is in Copenhagen, because in Copenhagen they cap it at five or six floors. Each city, each culture, each climate has its own set of difficulties. The U.S. has this litigious culture where things almost automatically turn into lawsuits, which means that the entire process is so much more governed by liability issues and covering-your-ass issues in ways that you wouldn’t even have those conversations in certain parts of Europe.

There’s a perception that starchitects get disproportionate credit for designs that come out of their firm.

I think it’s a label that’s used often, also as a derogative. Mostly it exists because it’s a pun. But I think architecture is a profession that requires a ton of collaboration. Also, it’s a very laborious process, and it takes forever. This spring we won two projects that were big milestones. One is the new airport in Zurich, which would be the biggest [mass timber terminal] in the world. The other one is the Vltava Philharmonic Hall [in Prague]. Both projects will be finished in 10 years. There will be hundreds of people involved in both projects. Do I play an important role in it? For sure, but am I the one doing the brunt of the work? Of course not. In that sense, I think being an architect is being a director of a film. You can somehow see a consistency. But of course there is also an assistant director, there’s a director of photography, there’s the production designer, there’s costume designers, there’s all of the actors that are in their own right movie stars.

You’ve worked with some of the most established developers in New York. Did they have to be persuaded to build such unconventional towers?

Douglas [Durst] decided to live on the top of it together with his wife. I was pretty happy about that. It’s always a good sign if the domestic happiness of your client is dependent on the completion of a project.

My experience is a bit like how you have to be with your child. You have to somehow be able to listen to what they’re saying, even if they’re not always super good at putting the words together. An architect is a midwife: You are, in a way, assisting your client in giving birth to something because ultimately it’s theirs, it’s not yours. Of course you can help, and in that process you can realize your own dreams. 

You can say developers and real estate people are conservative, because they’re definitely risk-averse. Of course you don’t want to fuck it up. Can you blame anyone for being risk-averse when they’re dealing with something that’s going to take 10 years and cost millions, if not billions?

What about HFZ on the XI? That project has had a lot of issues: contractors who were indicted, HFZ’s financial meltdown.

I would say very simply, the 11th, now One High Line, was just catastrophically timed vis-a-vis the pandemic. I think that’s one of the things about being a developer. It requires a lot of skills, but maybe the most important one is luck.

But there were a lot of other problems there.

An internal blow-up. I would have a lot of good things to say about Ziel. Of course, I’m sorry that it went the way it did. I’m happy that the building gets finished, and I think it’s going to be a great addition to the West Side. In retrospect, it’s very easy to have a lot of smart things to say about which mistakes were made and what could have been done different, but Kierkegaard says life is lived forward and understood backwards, and that’s the truth of it.

Describe your ideal client.

It’s incredibly inspiring to work for someone who is really passionate about what you’re about to do. If it’s just a line item in the spreadsheet, it’s never going to be a great building. It is great to work for founders or family-owned companies where the sense of ownership transcends a shareholder report. There’s something greater at stake, which is the long-term name and reputation of this particular organization, company, family, whatever. 

It’s been almost seven years since Rupert Murdoch backed out of the agreement to anchor 2 World Trade Center, which would have been your biggest assignment here. How do you handle disappointment or rejection?

You build up an elephant-thick skin, right? I’ve had some major disappointments, but I think the biggest one was our first project. [At] my first company, PLOT, our first building win was this circular swimming hall in the north of Denmark, a tiny project. But back when we won it, it was our ticket to becoming real architects who would actually build something. This was our chance, and we didn’t have any funding. It was the foundation of my office. My entire world revolved around this project, and because of an election, the new political conversation of the city decided to not do the project. 

With 2 WTC, we spent two years on it, but it was somehow less of a blow because you almost know that it’s never certain until you cut the ribbon. We’ve broken ground on projects, we’ve reached the basement level on projects, and then for various political, financial, whatever reasons, something of significance happens. In this case it was the infighting and the Murdoch empire. Entire TV shows have been inspired about those events. I think we got to do some great work. I’m still friends with James Murdoch.

We are finishing the Spiral. It’s now a living, breathing building. I think we might not have been capable of delivering a supertall in New York if it hadn’t been for all the experience and work we went through in the World Trade Center.

You just realize that you can never celebrate too soon. Because you don’t know when it’s going to turn into a funeral. 

What are you like as a boss?

I don’t think I have a work personality versus a private personality. I think it’s the same person. I speak with my colleagues the same way I would speak with my friends. I’m so open to embracing someone else’s moment or initiative. I like to say that my job is actually not to come up with a brilliant idea, although I love it when it happens because it’s a great feeling. My job is just to make sure that wherever the great idea comes from, that’s the idea we choose and pursue.

Do you still get comments about the URL of your website, big.dk?

No, it’s been a while. The whole English-speaking part of the world is certain that we did it on purpose, and you can go to Denmark, every single URL ends with dk. No matter how much I say it, no one will ever believe me.

So it was not on purpose.

It was not on purpose. But whenever I have to give my email at a check-in counter or whatever, I always say, “B-I-G.dk, as in Denmark,” to just stop the conversation right there.


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