What vitamins does he take? That might be your first question if you encounter Bjarke Ingels, founder of the four-year-old Copenhagen-based firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). To say that Ingels, who just turned 35, is irrepressibly energetic and optimistic seems like a pathetic understatement. But it might partially explain why BIG is completing its third housing complex executed over the past five years in the town of Ørestad, a newly developing section of Copenhagen. In 2005, Ingels and Julien De Smedt, then partners in PLOT, a firm they started in 2001, completed the VM Houses, a complex of 221 flats in two structures shaped like a V and an M when seen from the air. The two architects parted ways, and Ingels’s new firm, BIG, finished a project called The Mountain in 2008, where 80 terraced apartments spill down the top of a parking garage next to the VM Houses. Down the road, 8 House, a mixed-use complex in the shape of an angular double-loop, is nearing completion.
This all sounds a bit ahead of the game; most architects, Danish included, don’t get large-scale projects until around age 50. But as BIG’s work shows, the bold, unbridled inventiveness in mixing programmatic typologies and forms already sets this architecture office apart from its competitors.
Of course, luck helps invention, no matter how old you are. A few years ago, Ingels met the developer Per Høpfner, who had joined up with the Danish Oil Company to create housing on land purchased from the city-and-state corporation planning Ørestad. Høpfner decided PLOT should design VM Houses, even though Ingels and De Smedt hadn’t built anything on that scale before. Per’s son Peter Høpfner, who also works in the business, explains that Ingels has a very important trait (besides creativity): “He isn’t stubborn. When we would tell him that something was too expensive, he would say, ‘Give me two days,’ and then come up with something even better.” Høpfner adds, “VM may look crazy, but it came in at budget.” For his part, Ingels notes that the developer cuts costs by acting as a general contractor and frequently discussing costs with the architect. The project succeeded, and Høpfner and Danish Oil are now clients for The Mountain and 8 House.
Born in Copenhagen, Ingels studied at the School of Architecture at the city’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where he got his degree in 1999. He also spent a year at the Escola Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura in Barcelona and worked with Rem Koolhaas and OMA in Amsterdam, first as a student, and then right after graduating from the academy. Today, BIG’s staff includes 60 designers and architects, including associate partners Finn Nørkjaer, Andreas Klok Pedersen, and David Zahle.
The recent book by Ingels, Yes is More, an Archicomic on Architectural Evolution, captures the outsize spirit of BIG’s approach in any number of projects. Like Robert Venturi’s call for a more inclusive architecture in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Ingels embraces an architecture “that allows you to say yes to all aspects of human life, no matter how contradicting!” The architects experiment with program, site, and context in their design process, following, as Ingels says, “a Darwinian path to get to the most workable solution.” You could substitute “wild” for “workable” for some of the schemes the firm has on its boards in far-flung locations, including Shenzhen and Shanghai in China; Astana, Kazakhstan; and Zira Island, Azerbaijan, which is designed to be carbon neutral resort city. Like so many Danish firms, BIG incorporates green thinking into its work. But Ingels, who is currently teaching a studio, “Engineering Without Engines,” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, is researching ways of responding to differing climates that don’t depend on machines. He says his sustainability veers away from the green “neo-Protestant” ethos that “has to hurt.” His “hedonistic” and exuberant approach may be the answer.