This interview was conducted at the Campus Inn Hotel in Ann Arbor, USA, on February 4th 2010 by Ville Riikonen
Earlier this year, I had the chance to sit down with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who runs BIG in Copenhagen. The company is in my opinion one of the most promising young architectural practices out there, so it was great to get to meet and talk with Ingels in person. I’m posting the interview here for all interested readers!
Bjarke Ingels: I used to draw a lot, and coming to the age of 13 I had already won some drawing competitions, most of them in cartoon style. At that age I also had my second baptism, and after the event my grandfather gave a speech saying that he was convinced I would become a great architect. But my plan was to become a cartoonist, someone like Frank Miller. Later when it was time to choose a career – and in the absence of a comic-book academy – I enrolled in the architecture school of the Royal Danish Art Academy, thinking at the time that I would only take the first few years of art classes and then focus on my own ambitions. But in the process, I got caught up with architecture.
BIG’s book “Yes Is More” seems to be inspired by comic books. Is there a connection between your early ambitions and the style of the book?
In retrospect the book could seem like the revenge of a failed comic book artist, and although it feels right to finally do one, the truth is that we really wanted to find an intelligent way of telling stories in architecture. We wanted to counteract with the tendency that people usually don’t read the essays but instead go directly to the visual content. At that time our discourse was summed up in my lectures – so the idea was to take these lectures and convert them to a book. We tried all kinds of ways, starting by printing out lecture slides and putting post-its to them saying what I usually would say during each slide. For a long time we called it a “bookture”. The challenge was to somehow control the speed of reading, in a similar fashion to how during a lecture you can flip through many slides quickly or stay in one for a longer time. Finally we realized that what we were looking for was the format of the comic book, where the layout and scaling of content are used to control the flow of reading.
How did you like to study architecture?
I passed my first years of architecture studies as a series of really fast and intense “love affairs” with various architects. It was really all of them, from different eras and styles of architecture. I would discover a new architect, dive into their world just to realize that most discourses were based on a series of unquestioned fundamentals. And once you question them, the whole house of cards falls down. This process continued – when I started there actually were a lot of Finns in there, like Heikkinen and Komonen who were the hard stuff at that time. I also had a moment with Alvar Aalto, who I discovered though Alvaro Siza. Aalto actually marked the end of my architectural promiscuity: I was studying in Spain at the time, where I went from Aalto into this study of tectonic culture, Utzon and Miralles – I had Miralles as a teacher and while I had imagined a much more straightforward sensibility towards tectonics, all he was talking about was French philosophy, reading poetry and so on. And after two months of studio with him, nobody in the class had a clue about what was going on. At the time I once again fled into the library and started reading, this time the books of Rem Koolhaas, starting with conversations with students from Rice. For the first time I wasn’t faced with an architecture that is dealt as an autonomous form of art but rather that it is in direct dialog with all other aspects of society, economy, social and cultural issues, globalization and so on. It was about making architecture an instrument of the real world. I think that architects constantly refurbish the surface of the planet to better accommodate it to the way we live; we transform the immaterial structures of the world like culture, economics and politics into physical frameworks.
Let’s talk about your practice, BIG. Many of your projects originate from winning competitions – how do you see the architecture competition as a feature of our profession?
There is this Danish sailor who writes books and has some of his lady friends visit him, while living his lovely sailor life. He said once in an interview that “the man has the children that the women he meets want to give him”. It’s a bit like that in architecture: we get to build the buildings the people we meet want us to build. And often they are not the ones you think you’d get to build. It’s very unpredictable as there are so many deciding factors. You know, we just lost four competitions in a row during the last two months – and then even if you win a competition it’s not given that you get to actually build the building, like in the recent case of the national bank of Iceland. But anyways, the competition is an important way to get work. The dream is to find a courageous, collaborative and demanding client and then together develop the idea.
What about international practice in BIG?
We have been competing more and more internationally and have gotten good clients all over the world, like this highly visionary developer from Taipei who used to be a film producer. He was very impressed with the little films we make at the office, and said that we should make a few buildings first and then do a movie. But we haven’t really had that much of a focused strategy – we’ve been loving back the people who have loved us. Until 2-3 years ago we were mostly doing work in Copenhagen, and for a small group of clients – mainly this one client who we have worked with in the VM, the Mountain and the 8 house. In these projects we were injecting new qualities to the urban fabric of Denmark. The same applies to international contexts, it’s like you are given new material to work and play with. For instance, the three projects I just mentioned were reinterpretations of the Copenhagen perimeter block, the typology of the wall. The work we have done in Athens deals with the Greek architecture and Athens morphology, the Kazak national library deals with the notion of creating a landmark in the process of moving the national capital.
How you see yourself as a leader in BIG?
We have a curated collaboration at BIG. The work is idea-driven, and because of this the main part of the work is to find the key issues, define the problems, formulate the big questions – once you have defined a clear agenda or mission it’s then quite easy to carry out the architecture. A major part of what we do is to make things tangible so that everyone can contribute to the process. Over the 10 years of BIG’s existence we’ve gradually grown the structure of the office, we just recently we appointed a CEO, a businesswoman with a MBA background. We have a director of business development who is taking care of prequalifications and international relations, and then a group of partners that are more like project managers, they have teams around them to work with the projects. I’m more like a creative director, I have relationships with the teams, and it is my responsibility to guide the process of the teams. I think I’m doing exactly what I need to do but also what I want to do: finding ways to collaborate. It’s an art to get people to do what you want and to do yourself what others want, to build a symbiotic relationship with your colleagues. I don’t believe that an office should be a bunch of executive morons who wait for a creative genius to come in and give the right answer, but to have a lot of creative people who overflow the design meetings with ideas, leading to a process of selection.
Let’s talk about humor in architecture. What agency do you think humor and playfulness have with the creative process of architecture?
I think that there is definitely a relationship between humor and intelligence. And I believe that there is a connection between humor and innovation. For instance, what makes you laugh in a joke is the punchline, which is often somehow surprising but at the same time it also makes a lot of sense. It was not what you were expecting hear but it does make sense, and the contradiction makes you laugh. Often a brilliant idea is a bit funny at the same time to begin with, but when you think about it more carefully you realize that it makes perfect sense. For us, cracking jokes is an essential part of any brainstorming session.
How do you see CAD as a tool in your practice?
Every new tool will create possibilities that you can use in a smart or less smart way. Tools create possibilities that deserve to get explored. In the last couple of years we have been a lot into grasshopper, which is a very intuitive vehicle for parametric design. I see it not as to get the computer to spew out very complicated stuff, but to find exactly the parameters that respond to the effects you are looking for. In the Danish expo pavilion we eliminated the need for air conditioning through having the whole façade be perforated and thus naturally ventilated. Since the façade is also essentially a structural steel beam, it has places where there is so much tension in the steel that we could not perforate it at all, while elsewhere we could make either smaller or larger holes. We also didn’t want any direct light to come in through the openings. Using grasshopper, these parameters would then turn into the image of the façade. Such tools are great in turning complex issues into something very rational. It brings me back to the definition of complexity – a lot of parametric design is used to create complicated stuff, but the complexity that interests us is defined in computer science as the capacity to transmit the maximum amount information with minimum amount of data. So if you have a 10000-character and a 100-character piece of code producing the same results, it’s the short one that is the more complex one. So it’s a higher form of simplicity that we are looking for, the minimum effort to create maximum effect.
How would you compare the US and the European architectural education?
So I studied at the Art Academy at Copenhagen and at the Polytechnical University of Catalonia – I much prefer the Barcelona school. It was a technical university, which didn’t make it less creative but much more structured and demanding. I was disappointed with the Art Academy because we essentially just had a key to the facilities, a copy card and a library card. There was hardly any education, there was no real input nor demand. This is why I felt stimulated by Barcelona, and then when I came back to Copenhagen I was able to truly enjoy the complete freedom now that I knew what I wanted. I have afterwards taught at the Art Academy, Rice, Columbia and Harvard. I’m going back to Harvard to teach a joint studio with the graduate school of design and the business school. What I have sensed in these American schools is a much higher working morale and much higher commitment, and also a much more multi-ethnic faculty, which also sets the bar higher.
How do you see the students as members of the BIG community?
Out of the 80 people we have around 20 are students. The students play a significant role, especially in the early stages of design – I’d say the students often make the most fun work, which is really about testing new ideas and proposals. They are the main designing hand in the model making, it’s the younger generation who usually knows how to make digital models, use grasshopper and so on, and quite often the rapid prototyping comes from the younger team members. The excess of design proposals for the discussion of the team is significant, and the students are by definition the core of this process. Therefore we couldn’t do what we do without the students.
This interview is also posted in Ville's online journalhttp://matkamuistio.wordpress.com/