Last week, Bjarke Ingels toured visitors around Hot to Cold, a survey of the architect's work, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
How to account for the unstoppable rise of Bjarke Ingels? The Danish architect touched down at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., last week to launch Hot to Cold, a new exhibition of his firm’s work. Tousle-haired but dressed for Washington in a sober suit, Ingels led journalists on a fast-paced tour of the show, stopping briefly to point to a torqued tower or looping ramp as cameras snapped away. Videographers and photographers flitted around him, including one making a documentary about the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). But it would be a mistake to chalk this up to him being a starchitect alone.
Ingels is without doubt the best communicator in architecture today. Whereas many architects write themselves into a theoretical corner, he uses the language of comics and movies to appeal to an ever-wider audience. This spirit of populism, unusual in architecture’s upper ranks, pervades his work. In his comic-book manifesto Yes Is More (2009), Ingels claimed that his superpower was consensus-building, the ability to get everyone to say yes. Right now, the yeses he wants are from the boards reviewing his master plan proposal for the Smithsonian Institution, clearly one reason he has chosen to showcase his work at a museum in D.C.
Hot to Cold takes us on an odyssey of BIG’s work, from the deserts of Qatar to the ski slopes of Finland. Models float in the Building Museum’s vast Great Hall, suspended along the second-floor balconies. Rather than use the cramped side galleries for the show, Ingels and his team decided to co-opt one of the building’s best features—the arcaded balconies—as the setting. It was an inspired choice.
Visitors can stroll the balconies and study the models arch by arch while taking in the view over the hall. Looking up from below, they see the color-coded undersides of the model bases, circling the hall in a gradient from red to blue. Some architecture shows never really spring into three dimensions; Hot to Cold does. Even so, the models get a bit lost in the cavernous space and could be missed by someone walking in from the street. More signage directing museumgoers upstairs would help. I also suspect the models would look far better lit up at night.
Climate is the organizing principle of the exhibition, and of the 700-page catalog, designed as a flippable, hot-to-cold rainbow by Sagmeister & Walsh. Wherever in the world BIG goes, Ingels explains, the firm strives to create buildings that are sustainable by virtue of their design and not through mechanical add-ons. This is a sound approach, although the proof will be in the BIG pudding.
Ingels—who wrote all the text—calls this approach “Engineering Without Engines” in a nod to Bernard Rudofsky. Wresting 60 very different projects into an overarching theme isn’t easy, but “Engineering Without Engines” works most of the time. When it doesn’t, you’ve got to give Ingels credit for trying. (An ultra-luxurious condo in the Bahamas, where each unit has its own pool, is “a local vernacular of hedonistic modernism?” Well, okay).
So what does Hot to Cold tell us about the BIG oeuvre? First, that not much of it has been built. (I reached page 82 of the book before seeing a project either finished or under construction.) Second, that the firm has a few regular moves in its repertoire: spirals, twists, peeled-up corners, and mountain massing. BIG has made the last of these distinctively its own, but you can catch glimpses elsewhere of OMA (where Ingels used to work), Steven Holl, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Studio Gang.
What really stands out, though, is the simplicity and clarity of Ingels’ concepts. This is why he’s so good at a-ha moments. He gets us to say yes. If we can’t get there ourselves, he gives us a nudge with project headlines: Pleated Dress is a Shenzhen tower with a rippling facade, Watch Flower is an Aalto-esque watch tower in Aarhus, and so on. Ingels knows what every building is about, and he makes sure we do, too.
After the tour, Ingels—who originally wanted to be a cartoonist—told me that he instructs his staff to send him graphic narratives about their ongoing work, PDFs with images and text bubbles placed just so. It is process and outcome at the same time. “Since architecture is such a collaborative effort, it’s not like we do the work, and afterwards we communicate it,” he said. Hot to Cold spills over into one of the museum’s galleries, where visitors can watch skillfully made short films about life inside Copenhagen’s 8 House and the Danish Maritime Museum. Soon, more of BIG’s projects will be realized, and you can bet Ingels will hire more film crews to document them and that they will make great stories.
Disclosure: This article originally stated that most of the videographers and filmographers documenting the event had been hired by BIG, but only one had been. We regret the error.