Bjarke Ingels is arguably architecture’s enfant terrible. The Danish architect is young but already world-famous for his innovative approach to architectural design. He had just turned 37 the day prior, but he looked even younger while cheerfully chatting up older Cornell architecture professors before his lecture on Monday night. He wore a t-shirt and a hooded sweater and smiled at the eager array of faces of mostly architecture students.
Ingels studied at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen and the Technica Superior in Barcelona. He then worked for Rem Koolhaas at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, where he met Julien de Smedt. The two founded PLOT and gained international acclaim for their original and interesting design. Despite this, PLOT soon disbanded and Ingels founded Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). BIG is known for placing importance on graphical clarity, conditions of urban and suburban living, social responsibility, humor and, above all, experimentation. Their most famous projects include the People’s Building in Shanghai, Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen and the Danish Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010.
The theme of the lecture was Hedonistic Sustainability, which Ingels defined as the attempt to improve quality of life by embracing the changes that come with applying sustainable principles. This is more productive than trying to balance between sustainability and the method of doing things the way you are used to, thus compromising both. Through experimentation and innovation, new and exciting ways of living can be discovered which are in tune with what is healthy for the planet.
Ingels told the auditorium that one of his first takes on hedonistic sustainability was while designing the Danish Pavilion for the World Expo in Shanghai. The design aimed to bring elements of the Danish culture to China. Both Copenhagen and Shanghai are harbor cities, but while Copenhagen has replaced its polluting harbor activities with parks and cultural institutions, Shanghai’s harbor is not as clean. To give Shanghai’s residents a taste and feel of clean port water, BIG placed a pool filled with sea water from Copenhagen’s harbor in the heart of the pavilion, in which visitors could swim. They also placed a sculpture of the little mermaid (arguably Denmark’s most famous fairytale), which they kidnapped from the Copenhagen harbor for the duration of the Expo. To move through the curved and sloping pavilion, visitors could either walk or ride one of the provided bikes, which are common in Denmark and an ecologically responsible form of transportation. Overall, the Danish pavilion was a huge hit at the Expo, and succeeded in displacing and displaying elements of Denmark at the same time as drawing attention to environmental issues.
In his design, Ingels plays with architectural forms like a child sculpts with Play-Doh. He does not worry about norms or precedents and he has no inhibitions about creating surprising shapes. His New National Gallery in Nuuk, Greenland seems to be draped over the sloping topography of the site and evokes Dali’s melting clocks. Despite Ingels’s obvious desire to experiment with building form partially for experimentation’s sake, the Greenland gallery is well-designed for other reasons. Because of the sloping form of the building, its interior courtyard is open not only to the sky but also looks out at the water of Davis Strait. Its asymmetric and sloping form is non-intrusive in the mountainous Greenland landscape.
Toward the end of the lecture, Ingels spoke about his “Yes is more” approach to architecture. “Yes is more” is a play off the infamous quote, “Less is more,” spoken by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe as a celebration of minimalist design. “Yes is more” implies Ingels’ openness to any idea and any project, and to the opportunity to create innovative work. He compared this design method to a game of Twister, where, by increasing the impossibility of the goal (to place your hand or foot onto a specific color), players discover new and creative ways to achieve that goal (by twisting their bodies into shapes they thought impossible).
Bjarke Ingels brought his energy into the auditorium in the same way he brought fun into the architectural profession. Although he is certainly not the only young architect who has fun with his projects, he is somewhat unique in his ability to balance that fun with the large-scale and the corporate. After the lecture, a small crowd of students gathered around him to ask questions. The young architect produced a unique kind of excitement in the student body, perhaps because his practice speaks to the rebelliousness still lingering in students from their teenage years. There is no denying the appeal of the enfant terrible.