Architect Bjarke Ingels Has Big Ideas for Tomorrow’s Utopias

Naming your design practice “BIG” sets certain expectations about the scope of your ideas. Sure, yes, technically the name stands for Bjarke Ingels Group. Nevertheless, the man at the helm of that operation has spent the early years of his architecture career unveiling one big, wildly ambitious scheme after another. After first gaining attention with a Copenhagen apartment building stepped to resemble a mountain landscape and wrapped in glass printed with a photo of Mount Everest, Ingels has gone on to ascend to the very pinnacle of the design world. His recent client list includes everyone from WeWork to much-acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Noma, while here in Canada he’s at work on condo projects for real estate developer Westbank in Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver, plus a proposal for “the world’s coolest sports bar” in the latter. We sat down with the grand visionary to hear his plans for Canada’s skylines.

You entered into architecture because of a passion for drawing. What sorts of things did you start off sketching?

Yes, I graduated from high school wanting to be a graphic novelist. Like all great stories, mine revolved around conflict, so there were lot of people, animals, and vehicles colliding and crashing. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ school of architecture felt like the right place to learn how to draw backgrounds. Because that’s what architecture and landscapes are, really — the settings in which the stories of our lives take place. But then, of course, I fell in love with architecture and abandoned my original plans.

A lot of your concepts are quite playful. How do you find a balance between the fun and serious sides of design?

I think it’s a major responsibility of our lives to enjoy ourselves. In that sense, it is actually taking things very seriously to be able to laugh about them. And for me, understanding jokes sets you up for better creative breakthroughs. With a joke, there’s build-up, where you describe a world that you can recognize, defined by all of its familiar elements, and then the punchline is something unexpected that turns everything upside down, but still makes sense. In a way, that’s also what characterizes a eureka moment — there’s analysis of the situation, and then an unexpected but logical solution.

What lessons did you have to learn to find success in this field so quickly?

I started without any pretext, only really knowing Jørn Utzon — the architect of the Sydney Opera House — because he’s a national hero. Then in architecture school, I found there was this habit of looking at architecture from within a bubble — as though it were this art form unrelated to the rest of society. But at some point, I realized that architecture is not separate from the things we do in our lives — it’s deeply related. Our society is structured by social and cultural forces, and my job is to accommodate all of those with physical structures.

One of the structures you’ve imagined is a garbage-burning power plant with a ski hill on top of it. That’s a real thing?

In Denmark, yes. It was a wild idea when we suggested it eight years ago, but it’s actually come true — it’s operating now, and hopefully before Christmas someone will take the first alpine ski down the sloped roof.

“When architecture really works, we build a world that’s a little bit more exciting, interactive, engaging, and inclusive than the world we live in today.”

What made you start thinking about a ski hill while designing a power plant?

Because the plant is so clean, there are no toxins coming out of the chimney, so we proposed making the entire roof into a park to really demonstrate that. In winter, it’s for skiing. It shows how the pragmatic and the utopian can coexist in a beautiful way. Ninety-nine per cent of a city is the ordinary places we live and work. One per cent is its landmarks. But those are the things that really create anlively, engaging environment.

Your first project in Toronto is a stepped pyramid of cube-shaped condos inspired by Habitat ’67. Why that project?

Fifty years ago, when Moshe Safdie presented Habitat at the World’s Fair in Montreal, it was a radical departure — this kind of eroded landscape of houses with gardens. One would have expected it to have a massive impact on Canadian architecture, but it didn’t. In Toronto since then, there has instead been a tendency toward a big podium with towers on top of it as being the only answer for development. So we thought, what if we could revisit some of Safdie’s organic principles but bring them into a more urban context — adding greater density, and integrating them more into the existing city block. I think the result is a quite exciting hybrid of urbanism and  inhabitable mountain range.

Many of your projects mimic mountain ranges. Are those your ideal getaway?

When I go on holiday, I do tend to go into nature — but typically, into the Arctic. Because the biosphere in the Arctic is so reduced — in some places it’s almost a dead landscape, with only lichen and mosses — the region has a much deeper, older style of landscape. Often, you mistake the word “landscape” for meaning just vegetation, but there’s another kind of landscape defined by geology that has an even more profound beauty.

What makes you feel at home?

Home is where I have all of my shit, right? I’ve never been much of a materialist, but by the time you turn 43, you have strangely accumulated a lot. And because I’m not a big materialist, most of the shit is something that I’ve gotten from people I’ve known. In that sense, it becomes a little bit of an archive or a library of your life experiences and relationships. I do have an Andrew Zuckerman photograph of an elephant that I really like, though. It’s just the head, but life-sized.

What’s one way that you see cities evolving that has you excited?

The dichotomy between the city and the countryside is blurring. The greenery we’re adding to our Westbank condo project on King Street is really a side effect of that. It used to be that in order to survive being in a city, you’d need to have a summer house somewhere. Increasingly, nature and agriculture are moving back into town. New York right now is in the middle of its biggest building boom ever, but the most exciting developments are not high-rises. They’re Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park — all of these ways of bringing life and nature back into town. When architecture really works, we build a world that’s a little bit more exciting, interactive, engaging, and inclusive than the world we live in today.

Your recent clients include Lego and Google. As you become more of a household name yourself, is there a risk of thinking you’re too BIG to fail?

I’d love to become too big to fail! But it never gets comfortable. At the end of the day, my job is to be the midwife assisting someone else to give birth to something. And the fight to get our King Street Westbank project born was exactly the same fight it would have been 10 years ago. You never elevate above those issues.