Q&A with Bjarke Ingels: On architectural alchemy

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The TED Blog caught up with Bjarke Ingels several weeks after he gave his TEDTalk at TEDGlobal 2009.

How have the reactions been to your talk?

Well, in the comments on the website, there’s been a lot of meticulous debate about whether or not you can actually see the Great Wall of China from the moon. (Laughs) It’s a saying. The saying doesn’t have the full power if you don’t use the actual language that it normally comes with. It might be an urban myth. But everybody knows what I’m talking about. Sometimes I think communication is more important than the nitpicky details. Since childhood, everybody’s been told that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object that can be seen from the moon.

You’ve said elsewhere that some architects’ work is driven by mysticism, while others’ work remains stubbornly practical. You’re trying to find a way right down the middle.

I think the avant-garde often hides itself in the highly incomprehensible because they are frustrated that the real world is so boring. Somehow they can’t face the conditions and limitations of the real world, so they come up with an imaginary world, without gravity, where everything is either insanely expensive, or highly irrational, or really unpractical. Our general thesis is that the real world, human life on the planet, is actually super-exciting. If the aspects of normal architecture are not as exciting, it’s because it doesn’t really fit to how life unfolds.

We try to pay attention to how human life is constantly evolving. We use that analysis as the ingredient, the driving force that actually shapes exciting structures — rather than contribute to the traditional accumulation of boring boxes. You don’t have to find it in something incomprehensible. Just because you can understand it, just because you can relate to it doesn’t mean they’re not interesting or sophisticated. We try to turn like all these rational, functional, pragmatic issues into the driving forces of exciting architecture, rather than being its enemy.

Is architecture possible without a sort of single ideology behind its creation?

For me, architecture is the means, not the end. It’s a means of making different life forms possible. Since the planet is populated by billions of people that all live differently — we prioritize things differently; we believe in different gods; we have different standpoints — architecture, and the city, has to be able to accommodate this incredible variety. Therefore, I think architecture is rarely the product of a single ideology. It’s more like it can be shaped by a really big idea. It can accommodate a lot of life forms. Just to put all your eggs in one basket doesn’t work in real life. It’s more a question of being open to new input — allowing your architecture to be tainted, and shaped, by the turmoil of the world.

In your talk, you used the term “alchemy”: you’re not restricting yourself to any single notion of what one structure can contain.

What I like about the term alchemy is that you take traditional ingredients that would separately be just “normal this” and “normal that,” and when you combine them, because of symbiotic relationships, you get much more out of the mix than if you were to leave them separate.

We just had the topping ceremony of a big project in Copenhagen: the Eight House or the Infinity Loop. It’s a hybrid of offices and shops, 150 townhouses — two-story row houses with gardens — and classic apartments, blended together to form a figure-eight-shaped perimeter block, where we explored the fact that offices and shops are deep, while housing is shallow. The difference in depth actually creates space for gardens, and even a small street. As a result, we have this community of row houses along a mountain path that climbs the figure eight, all the way from the ground floor to the penthouse — allowing people to essentially bicycle all the way to the 11th floor.

Public life is usually restricted to the ground floor. Here, it invades the higher levels of the city. You can have a spontaneous encounter. You can sit in your garden on the 10th floor and wave at the mailman who comes by on his way down, and when you have to go to work, you can jump on your mountain bike and ride 500 meters to the city level. It’s essentially allowing all these aspects — the spontaneous social encounter, the neighborhood feeling — to populate the highlands of the city. If we had done it the traditional way, keeping them separate, we wouldn’t have the same intensity. But when we put it all together, we get unique qualities.

Do you draw inspiration from existing buildings, or does this all come from your head?

I believe that architecture, as anything else in life, is evolutionary. Ideas evolve; they don’t come from outer space and crash into the drawing board.

In this case, we were faced with a classic challenge. It’s a 600,000-sq.-ft. development — a really big building. We were asking ourselves, “If you’re doing 500 apartments in one go, how do you avoid it becoming an anonymous slab, like a housing project?” What you normally try to do, these days, is disguise that it’s a big project by putting different façades on. You add a cosmetic layer of diversity. We thought this superficial camouflage was less interesting than trying to see if we could nurture different qualities. We thought, “Maybe it’s not so interesting if you live 30 meters to the left or right, but if you live 30 meters up or down, it’s a world of difference.” So we tried stacking these different functions above each other, and gradually …

We looked at one of the most popular neighborhoods in Copenhagen. It’s called the Potato Rows, and it’s a townhouse neighborhood: very dense, very small gardens, very small streets, and the social life that happens between these buildings is really incredible. You have such a strong neighborhood feeling and a great quality of life. We tried to add that to the mix of apartments, terrace houses. We essentially sampled a lot of qualities that exist separately out there in the world, and pulled them all together. In pulling it together, we created a new hybrid entity that is basically a hybrid between a classic row house block and a sort of South Italian village on a mountain ridge, where you have narrow streets that climb the hill, turning into staircases. In some parts, you have dramatic changes of elevation in the block.

One commenter mentioned that you seem to take the difficulties of your work in stride; it almost seems there is no “failure” to you. What is failure to you?

(Laughs) Okay, like real failure? I think failure is part of the nature of all experiments. Any kind of hypothetical, deductive methodology involves a lot of failed experimentation. You find the successful experiment by having all the negative results. In my talk, I demonstrated the idea of evolution by showing this tower in downtown Copenhagen — the one that sort of melts together with the surrounding city, becoming the Scandinavian version of the Spanish Steps in Rome. I showed that we built a hundred models to get there. Any one of the first 61 was a miserable failure. They were the results of hypotheses that didn’t deliver. For every success, we have a freak show of bastards that didn’t make the cut.

Tell me about the team you work with. What is it like at BIG? What do you look for when you’re planning to add someone new to your team?

We’re 65 people of 20 different nationalities. Right now, we’re desperately looking for a Russian-speaking project leader, so if there’s anybody out there …

My friends outside architecture often ask how we hire people, and I normally explain that it’s pretty easy in architecture, because you can actually see the work people do. So, first of all, we look at the work. I think we have a mild tendency to favor non-Danish ethnic groups, because most of our work is outside the country right now. We’re expanding on the international side.

I saw a presentation by a young woman who’d written a book called Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall, where she defined how, for any country to become a hyperpower, beyond a superpower, it had to have the capacity to attract and host talent from across the planet. No matter how big a country is, the chances are slim that that single culture is enough to spawn all the geniuses within all the fields. This is even more dramatically the case when you’re Danish. (Laughs)

People that are attracted to work at BIG quite often bring a set of personal attributes that fit in really well. We haven’t really hired that many assholes. (Laughs) Many people who do beautiful work have beautiful personalities.

What, or who, inspires you?

I did work for Rem Koolhaas for almost two years, working a long time on the design of the Seattle Public Library. It was no coincidence that I went to work there. It was the only job I ever applied for and was really grateful to get. He has obviously meant a lot to my studies. When I started studying architecture, S,M,L,XL was published. I discovered Le Corbusier through Rem Koolhaas, reading Delirious New York — all this criticism of Le Corbusier.

We draw most of our inspiration from the basic understanding that life is always evolving, culture’s always evolving, technology’s always evolving. If we understand change, we will also know when our way of doing things now is not going to be able to accommodate the way we want to do it tomorrow.

There’s an idea in architecture that, if you were commissioned to do a school, you should find the best school you can find, and build it again. The reason that’s not enough is because since that school was made, things have changed: the way you teach, the curriculum, pedagogical theory, the place the school is located, the number of electives. So many conditions are different. And once you find the new question, all you have to do is answer it.

One of my biggest sources of inspiration is Wired. I love it when there’s a new issue out. It monitors the impact of new possibilities: What is the social consequence or the cultural consequence? How does human life appropriate and accommodate and incorporate these technological innovations? I think that they have taken it from being geek magazine to being a magazine that looks at innovation in the broadest sense possible.

One commenter expressed the hope that, in the future, buildings like yours will be the rule and not the exception.

We do have more work now than we did five years ago. It’s interesting that things tend to become what they are because they work. You know, nature is the way it is because it works. The city is the way it is because it works. When it doesn’t work well enough, it gets beaten by the alternative.

Ninety-five percent of the city is just generic stuff. Of course, if you throw a lot of the resources after some kind of landmark building for a major corporation or a public museum, you can get something cool out of it — but the true potential is to find ways of turning the 95 percent, the generic stuff, into architecture. If you can do that, there’s a true capacity to change the world. I think, in some cases, like the Eight House — those projects are really private development projects built really cheap and sold cheap — they take the generic substance, mix it up, and create a slightly different kind of city. I think the possibilities are there.

Is there any trend in architecture that you are against?

The avant-garde is so often negatively defined that I think, in general, our agenda has always been more affirming. The classic role of the architect is the whining guy in the corner who’s frustrated that nobody understands his or her ideas. The clients don’t want to pay for it. The city doesn’t want to allow it. The builders hate it. We just haven’t spent so much time whining about stuff.

But think of a time you were walking down a city street. Is there anything that has stuck out? Something where you told yourself, “I’m not going to do that?”

I have a brother who’s 11 years younger than me. When he was a teenager, he would sometimes be worried if he would be cool enough or not. And I used tell him, “If you’re cool, then what you do is cool.” I said, “No matter what you do, because you’re cool, it’s going to be cool.”

Often, we find new possibilities when we look at the stuff on the “don’t do it” list. We try to see if there might be some hidden potential or under-explored possibility that has been neglected because this particular material or this particular way of doing things has been on the “no go” list for so long that there might actually be some qualities that can be resurrected from the past.

So, I don’t spend too much time cultivating my phobias. On the contrary, we sometimes explore them to see some missed opportunities left behind.

Let’s talk about one “missed opportunity” you explored. You showed a video about it in your TEDTalk — the island that was a former naval base.

The city of Baku in Azerbaijan is organized around a crescent bay. And there’s this desert island that used to be a navy base — actually it used to be a military death camp for the Soviets during the World War II. I read that 30,000 to 40,000 Turkish soldiers lost their lives on that base. Since then it’s been left a piece of desert in the Caspian Sea.

We’re making this carbon-neutral urban development that is gradually going to terraform the island into a green, lush landscape. It’s a million square meters of urban development. Baku, in Persian, means “wind-pounded” — “wind-pounded city.” The wind is always blowing and the sun is almost always shining, so it’s a perfect place to harvest renewable resources. We’re using classic windmills. We’re using the thermal properties of water to heat and cool the buildings. We’re using windmills to drive the desalinization plants so we can increase the natural intake of fresh water. Gardens will gradually increase the access to water. This piece of desert is going to turn into a green landscape. Where urban development normally happens at the expense of nature, here it will be triggered by nature.

One-hundred years ago, the Nobel brothers, who then went off to start the Nobel Prize, actually moved to Baku and started Europe’s first real, large-scale oil industry. When you are in Baku and you look out over the Caspian Sea, it’s full of abandoned oil-drilling towers in the shallow waters. With the resources from this oil wealth, they built the first public kindergarten, a park on the water, the first public hospital. They triggered this oil-fueled, Scandinavian welfare wave. Our main idea was to cut down the abandoned oil drilling towers, and to plant windmills on their foundations, and trigger this second wave of Scandinavian welfare, transforming the Caspian Sea from being a purely utilitarian backdrop of oil-drilling and logistics into a natural landscape, where you can actually swim and enjoy the benefits of nature in a more direct way.

This sounds really cool to us TEDsters, but how much do your clients care about nature and sustainability? Do you have to sell your proposals differently to the actual clients?

They actually care massively. The places where we’ve seen the most concentrated and collected effort toward sustainability has been in these more decisive regimes. For example, we work more and more in China. We recently won a competition to design the headquarters of the energy company for Shenzhen — the state-owned energy company that provides all the power for this 15-million person city. And we went to the kick-off meeting for the competition. They said, “We don’t want a landmark; we want a sustainable building.” Even though they actually live from selling primarily oil and gas to the population, they were so focused on the next step.

These good intentions are much more widespread. But I think it shouldn’t be about philanthropy. It should be about investing in the future. Sustainability, if it’s some politically correct, tolerable expense, it’s never going to create massive change. When it becomes the smarter alternative, when it becomes both ecologically and economically profitable, it’s really going to have massive impact.

We won the competition by designing a skyscraper where, using solar contact, the façade actually dehumidified the air inside the building in a non-mechanical way. We could reduce the energy consumption of the building by 70 percent. It also looked attractive. It was an example where the sustainable part of the architecture was not some invisible accumulation of machinery in the basement; the envelope of the building was designed in a way that would actively reduce its carbon footprint. So, they got both a landmark and the sustainability. But the sustainability was not some report that you had to read about next to the building. You could really see this building looked different because it was behaving differently.

Is there any instance when you’ve had to walk away from a project because of differences between your vision and your clients’ demands?

We’re building a building in Sweden. We’re starting the construction documents. It’s a hotel in the airport of Stockholm. Due to the constraints of the client and other factors, it had to be pretty much a box with 600 rooms, and then some conference facilities at the bottom. Because of the incredible demands on the efficiency of the building — a large scale, mid-market conference hotel in the airport — it had to be this really rational box. We could almost only design the façade.

We decided to play with mutating the classic modern building with the horizontal windowpanes, giving each room a panoramic window. By simply expanding and contracting the height of the window, in some rooms the windows would be from floor to ceiling. In other rooms they would be more narrow, panoramic windows. But in most rooms, it would sort of move a little bit up and down. Because, from a distance, each façade would be 55 by 55 meters, it became this really big, two-and-a-half-thousand square meter canvas.

It was a wide, triangular, concrete building, so the glass windows, even though they’re transparent, look dark, and wall looks white. When the window is really big, that area of the façade looks darker, and when the window is smaller, that area’s going to look brighter. When you’re driving on the highway at 120 kilometers an hour, and you see it from a great distance, the expanding and contracting of the windows turns into a line raster that transforms the façade into a portrait of Princess Victoria, Princess Madeleine or Prince Carl Philip. Each side of the building has a portrait.

At night, when people turn the lights on in their hotel room, the color of the carpet and the wallpaper is going to glow out. We used these Andy Warhol variations to add another layer to these portraits. In the beginning, we did it almost cynically. We thought, “Okay, he’ll only allow us to design the façade, but now we’re going to give him the whole thing.” But, to our surprise, we started liking it, and in the end we really loved it, because also when you’re close, it looks like some kind of inexplicable, abstract, organic variation. From far away, it really looks like the beautiful princesses.

But, as a result, one of our clients from the Middle East contacted us, suggesting we make a similar version for Gaddafi’s 40-year anniversary. I thought it would be absurd to do this really big Gaddafi building. (Laughs) I think the idea really works beautifully with the cute Scandinavian royalty. But the Gaddafi building is one job we said no to.

Finally, tell me about an interesting future project.

We recently won the contract for the National Library of Kazakhstan. There have been some pretty severe contract negotiations, but they just paid the first rate. We can see there’s real money in the bank — so now we have an insanely steep production schedule. But three of my colleagues were just in Kazakhstan for our kick-off. Since we presented the design, we found they moved the placement of the building closer to the president’s palace. He liked it, and he wanted it a little bit closer. (Laughs) Well, they went out to show us the site, and not only did they show us the site — they had already started digging and doing pile foundations for the basement! (Laughs) Meanwhile, we have a project in Copenhagen that we’ve been in the planning stages for four and a half years.