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Visionary architect Bjarke Ingels on the ever-nearing shape of tomorrow.
I'M WAITING WITH a film crew inside of Bjarke Ingels’ penthouse for him to come home. It feels like the moments before a surprise party. People are huddled off in corners. The designated timekeeper exclaims, “They’re almost here!”
Two motifs stand out to me as I peruse his space. First: the cosmos. There’s a Chart of Cosmic Exploration and a framed image of Saturn in the living room. The second motif I notice is childhood. I see a chair filled with dozens of stuffed animals, a small wooden bike, and picture books. Even things that aren’t explicitly tied to outer space or children feel otherworldly and playful. There are tiny figurines placed on each of the stairs’ steps: a robot, a cat, a soldier. A golden decal running across the banister reads, “In pursuit of magic.” There’s the subtle spirit of a modern-day Willy Wonka factory — a look inside the mind of a grand inventor. In many ways, that’s exactly who Bjarke Ingels is.
At 47 years old, Ingels is miles ahead of the pack for an architect his age. He boasts numerous books and awards, projects across the globe, plans for outer space, and was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People at just 41 years old. His firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) has over 500 employees in Copenhagen, New York City, Barcelona, London, and Shenzhen. Marked by a conscious lack of any singular style, most of his structures are unified by their focus on creating a “pragmatic utopia.” According to the firm, this largely unexplored field “steers clear of the petrifying pragmatism of boring boxes and the naive utopian ideas of digital formalism.”
But back to the surprise party. “He’s here,” says the director. Moments later, the elevator clangs open, and in walks Ingels in a futuristic, astronaut-off-duty puffer jacket in metallic silver — perfectly on-theme. He’s been instructed to act natural and pretend we’re not there, so he silently rolls in his suitcase, passing us all without a glance. We spend the rest of the day trailing him around his home and throughout the cavernous BIG offices, periodically presenting him with a bright orange GoPro to stick inside his mouth for POV shots — a visual which does not decrease in its hilarity.
Ingels stands with a wide stance, walks fast, and talks faster. He cracks jokes throughout the day. “This must be a real career-defining moment for you,” he smirks self-deprecatingly to the makeup artist, who is blotting his face for the next shot, makeup bag untouched. The director, like a dentist instructing his patient to open wide, alerts him it’s time for the GoPro to go in his mouth again. He chuckles, “See what I do for the art?” before clamping down.
A few days later, I return to his home for the interview and a tiny person barrels past me: Ingels’ 3-year-old son Darwin. Around 3 feet tall, he has a perfectly proportioned blonde bowl cut and blinks up at me with giant eyes. I give him a wave, then settle into seats on the top floor with his father. The sun’s beginning to set, and Ingels turns my attention to the view. “The shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge is running all across the waterfront behind it,” he says with a far-off look. “Pretty nice.” There is indeed a dark strip cutting through the shimmering water. I tell him it reminds me of the Loch Ness monster — like the shadow isn’t cast from above, but beneath, ready to surface up. He laughs and agrees, but it’s clear his mind doesn’t dwell in the world of monsters or shadows like mine. Instead, Ingels is sunny, straightforward, and — to return to that word so synonymous with his name, company, and entire architectural philosophy — pragmatic.
“Bjarke is the first major architect who disconnected the profession completely from angst,” famously wrote his former boss, famed architect Rem Koolhaas, in TIME. “He threw out the ballast and soared. With that, he is completely in tune with the thinkers of Silicon Valley, who want to make the world a better place without the existential hand-wringing that previous generations felt was crucial to earn utopianist credibility.”
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New York is such an interesting city in that it has really turned its back to the water because the water was industry, logistics, and cargo.
We begin on Ingels’ forecast for our built world. He’s annoyed at how society’s economic and innovative engine has been so focused on the immaterial — making hardware smaller and smaller until it nearly disappears, then floats off into the Cloud. However, in the last couple of years, he’s felt there’s been a kind of return to physical space. The pandemic could have been the final death blow, he says, with us all working just fine in virtual reality. But then fatigue set in. “We were reminded how gratifying physical space and proximity actually is.”
He now foresees that the next few decades will be a reclaiming of all that energy formerly placed on the immaterial and virtual. One avenue of new relevance for architecture will be to imagine the design interfaces between the virtual and the actual: “Spaces where you can move effortlessly from one to the other, or where the virtual worlds can be manifested in the visible world.”
The second area his forecasts focus on is resilience. He says we responded to climate change too late, and the first place we’ll be seeing those repercussions is on the waterfronts. Ingels sees a push for flood-resilient design as an invitation also to improve access to these areas. “New York is such an interesting city in that it has really turned its back to the water because the water was industry, logistics, and cargo.”
He is actively working to change what he calls this front-of-house, back-of-house dynamic. “Front-of-house: the beautiful buildings with the beautiful lobby and all the spires poking out of the skyline,” he explains. “And then back-of-house: all the warehouses, parking lots, industry, power plants.” This design set up a system where industry would be out of sight, out of mind — as far away as possible to hide the dirt and the noise. Until the plastic from landfills started washing up on beaches and we realized there is no front nor back of house — the earth is round. “Suddenly, it means that rather than architects just caring about the little segment of presentable lobbies and presentable facades, the entire organization of all aspects of life becomes design challenges.” The best example of this perspective is undoubtedly BIG’s CopenHill — a technology power plant and waste-management facility clean enough to have a ski slope on top.
We talk about the future and how for many it’s abstract, distant. Ingels credits his newfound fatherhood with helping him humanize future generations. "Every single human being at some point is a child,” Ingels states, staring at the massive portrait of his son Darwin hanging on the wall beside us. “Like they're all fully formed citizens. They just can't vote yet. Or whatever — drink. But then you become a parent, and you realize these guys have just the same amount of rights to be here and to be accommodated and heard, even if they can’t speak for themselves. Someone else has to do it for them.”
He surfaces a thought experiment presented to him by a friend, Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason: "When do you think there will no longer be anyone alive on earth that you have loved in your life?” He plays the scenario out for me. “I'm 47. Let's give it 40 years. I don't think that’s too ambitious.” He playfully raises his bottle. “I'm drinking water. So 40 years into the future. Then Darwin has a daughter, and she's five, let's say. And I love her more than anything. Then she probably lives at least another 90 years. So that’s 40 plus 90, that's 130. So that's 2151. ‘Blade Runner,’ the last one, took place in 2049. And that was science fiction like, wow, deep into the future! But actually, in 2151, there will be an old lady that I have loved in my lifetime. The Paris Agreement is about 2050. It feels abstract. But once you understand that there will be people that you have loved, deep into the twenty-second century, then suddenly you understand that the future is much, much closer to your heart than you imagined.”
During my internet deep dives on Ingels’ work I’d heard him reference this thought experiment before. And yet, the power of it hit me anew. For a moment, envisioning Ingels’ granddaughter, this old lady — this representation of all our granddaughters in a world facing potential extinction — my throat felt tight. And while the thought experiment might trigger a sense of hopelessness for some, for Ingels, it’s a rallying cry. “It’s motivating that it's not some alien stuff. It's the people closest to your heart who are going to be around then. So you might as well care. Care as much as you care for them.”
We bring the conversation back into the present, to his personal values in space. Ingels highlights the term “biophilia” — the human instinct to connect with nature and other beings. At Copenhagen’s Noma, another of BIG’s designs and 2021’s “Best Restaurant in the World,” this concept comes to life. Noma’s chef and co-owner René Redzepi “was obsessed with this idea that everywhere in the restaurant, you should at all times be aware of the time of the day, the weather conditions, and the season.”
Ingels finds this relationship with the outdoors to be a vital design aim. He just finished planting a series of gardens to soften the concrete pavers on his balconies in his DUMBO, Brooklyn, home, after planting 30 trees on his houseboat in Copenhagen.
“Oh, by the way, have you seen this?” He turns my attention to a door on the other side of the room, leading out to another balcony. Long, thin vines have begun to grow across the ceilings from outside. “Isn’t it cool? It’s the Virginia creeper. That’s the power of nature; it can break through cracks in the asphalt. In this case, it just gently grew through the membrane — it's not like it broke through anything. I love it. It’s the architect's dream of inside-outside continuity.”
Our conversation moves to Japan after I ask Ingels what place he considers particularly futuristic. “WIRED magazine used to have this column called ‘Japanese Schoolgirl Watch.’ Each month they had something that Japanese schoolgirls were into, in this idea that they are probably the most futuristic group on earth.” He explains how he feels Japan’s cultural design allows for the simultaneous existence of parallel worlds: “You can have a 7-Eleven, and you can have a parking structure, and then you can have a two- or 400-year-old moss garden with a little teahouse. And it's not even at odds. Those three things can just sit there because there's something about the Japanese mindset where there's a complete acceptance of parallel worlds.”
The things that become productized become better and better at a lower and lower cost. And we want to apply that to the places where we live.
This dynamic can be seen elsewhere in the country: wild partying and cosplay by night juxtaposed with the reverence of office culture by day. This mindset can also be found in the bonsai garden, a perfect world that allows for total immersion when inside, or the idea of rice paper architecture with its seemingly delicate divisions and no noise separation, yet people completely adhere to those delineated areas. This philosophy, according to Ingels, gives one complete freedom to be fully present wherever they are in that moment. “This parallel reality allows for avenues where you can fully explore a future unencumbered by any of the baggage you take from the present.”
While BIG famously has a dizzying multitude of projects in development at once, there’s one upcoming project Ingels is particularly excited about: Nabr, a response to the increasing challenge of homeownership. Ingels explains that it takes a person with an average income 27 years to save up the 20% down payment required for a median-income-priced home. But in New York and the Bay Area, it can be more than 40 years. So even for objectively successful people, the possibility of homeownership is increasingly unattainable. And with the pandemic driving up housing prices, the issue is only escalating.
That’s where Nabr comes in. With Nabr, people can sign up to rent homes they design themselves from a series of modular features. You get a purchase option at current value so that as you live in it, you save up equity through the renting process. The goal is to scale. Much like cell phones, cars, televisions, washing machines, and toys, “the things that become productized become better and better at a lower and lower cost. And we want to apply that to the places where we live,” says Ingels. “We are not interested in milking every transaction for maximum value. We are actually interested in the idea of partnering with our tenants so they can become owners. … Basically trying to apply design thinking and the whole idea of designing things carefully and holistically, not just to the building itself, but also to the business model, the product delivery model, and the ownership model.”
The sun has set. As the rich black night stretches across our view, our conversation turns fittingly to outer space. With his project Mars Dune Alpha in mind (a way to prepare humans for life on Mars), I ask Ingels if he’d ever choose to become a pioneer himself and move to Mars. “Yes,” he says, with the caveat that the project does have a return ticket every two years (for the hardware to return home for upkeep). “I think the moon might be a good first test, though. It's a 48-hour commute instead of a three-month commute. And the habitat we're doing for Olympus (a project for NASA to build on the moon) is from one-month stays. So I think it's probably a good idea to start there — because there’s definitely not a lot of biophilia on the moon or Mars.”
“We actually have a few design projects where we’re working on different kinds of indoor agriculture,” Ingels laughs, continuing, “And I know a lot of great chefs. Maybe some of them could start focusing a little bit on that. Extraterrestrial gastronomy is a young field.” He predicts that the first organized stints to these two celestial worlds will come at the end of this decade.
We talk about a project close to my heart and literal home, The Dryline. This coastal flood protection system around Lower Manhattan will protect the parks against rising sea levels while simultaneously providing social infrastructure — safer and nicer for the people who live there. Heavily rooted in community engagement (BIG held over 500 public workshops), it began as a methodology rather than a design. Taking into account all the engineering and the stakeholder input, it resulted in a “10-mile-long chameleon that would change appearance depending on the urban geographical context — an experiment in architectural plasticity.”
BIG came with a smorgasbord of inserts and oversized models so people could visualize and give their feedback on each piece. The community was so used to being sold to that having their thoughts heard was unexpected and impactful. Through this community dialogue, BIG found something unexpected too: anxiety that the neighborhood would become too nice. “The fear of displacement through gentrification,” Ingels describes, “which is a valid, legitimate concern.”
Ingels is trying to address this systemic issue with Telosa, a new city plan. It’s “this idea of a city based on the ideology and mechanism of Equitism.” All the land would be owned by an endowment committed to investing in social amenities (i.e., education, healthcare, social security, public transportation). So the better it goes, the more land value goes up, and the endowment gains wealth. That surplus is then invested back into its citizens' quality of life. It’s a counter-model to a place like New York, where as the city prospers, it becomes less affordable to stay. With Telosa, “growth becomes inclusive rather than exclusive,” explains Ingels. “Of course, that’s also an experiment that needs to be proven, but I can see the mechanism working if we can get it off the ground and do it right.”
We walk down the stairs, and Darwin runs up to us, mini toy traffic cones on each finger. Ingels lifts him up and kisses his tiny, plump cheek. A few traffic cones clatter to the ground. I pick them up and present them back to the boy. Staring at me once again, with that infinite, indecipherable child’s gaze, I wonder what more this world will gain and lose, what future those eyes will see. I think back to a question I asked at the beginning of the interview.
“Bjarke, if you had the choice to time travel into the future to actually see what lies ahead, would you?”
“One hundred percent,” he laughed, bright-eyed. “That would be incredible.”
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Andrew Zuckerman is cofounder of "The Slowdown" and cohost of the "Time Sensitive" and "At a Distance" podcasts. A photographer, filmmaker, and creative director, his books include "Creature" (2007), "Music" (2010), and "Designed by Apple in California" (2016). Much of his work is concerned with the intersection of nature and technology.
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