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A young Danish architect not afraid of the cartoon
Bjarke Ingels

An exhibition of Bjarke Ingels, Danish architect (founder of BIG) and recent winner of the World Architecture Festival award for the best housing in the world shows that not only does he not fear the cartoon, he takes on any challenge of the building world as well.

by Christian Bundegaard

Born and raised in the country of the Cartoon Crisis, in which offensive cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad were published sparking outrage throughout the Islamic community, one might expect a young, Danish architect like Bjarke Ingels, founder of BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), to succumb to a slight fear of the cartoon. Not so. In his first retrospective this talented, controversial creator of several hair raising high rise projects exhibits the works of his practice in a 130 meter cartoon strip titled “Yes is More”.

With a play on Mies van der Rohe’s famous programme of modern architecture, “Less is More,” Ingels thus urges his contemporaries to adhere to positive (BIG) thinking even in a time of crisis.

One of the grandest of his schemes is the master plan for the development of the island of Zira in the bay of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, called “The Seven Peaks of Azerbaijan”. Here, BIG transforms a former naval base and oil industry waste land into a zero-emission new town of 10,000 inhabitants. By creating an artificial topography of seven mountains comprised of residential and commercial units stacked on top of each other,


this deserted island is provided with an entire ecosystem of peaks and valleys, creeks and ponds, shade and shelter.

As the name Baku in old Persian means “the city where the wind blows” the plan suitably includes an offshore wind farm, with its wind mills raised on the existing oil platforms, as well as recycling plants processing waste water for irrigation, and solar heat panels integrated in the architecture. A disciple of Rem Koolhaas and former employee of the Dutch star architect’s OMA practice, and often challenging the conventional wisdom of his profession, Ingels stirs a lot of controversy. However, as a great story-teller radiating lots of boyish energy, he combines his sense for the right plot, with the courage that any architect insisting on form and originality will need to fight in building a business.

This exhibition testifies to the fact that even if BIG’s projects may seem hard to carry through in today’s investment climate, several of his structures are indeed being build. That is, for example, the case of the underground spectacular of the new Danish Naval Museum; a building submerged into in an old ship yard dry dock next the Unesco World Heritage Site of Hamlet’s Kronborg Castle.

Also the “Found in Translation” high-rise in Shanghai is under construction. The split structure of two buildings that merges into one, reminiscent of a cartoon-like character walking, was originally intended for the small town of Umeå in northern Sweden. The local Swedes found it completely out of their context, and BIG lost the architectural competition by far. Then, a Chinese business man came upon the design by accident, and recognized it as the Chinese character for the word “people”. BIG scaled up the design three times, hired a Feng Shui master, and is now heading for China, where they will also represent Denmark as the design team of the Danish pavilion at the 2010 World Fair.

Another idea typical of BIG, is the “Royal Treatment” hotel project for Stockholm’s Airport. The client did not approve of his architect’s vision of gigantic hammerhead shark-shaped building, and demanded some clean-cut


efficiency and a traditional box of 600 rooms, leaving only façade decoration for Ingels to execute. Sulking, he decided to cut the white marble and façade, so close up it looks like a rather normal modern style abstract pattern, but at a distance one recognized the portrait of the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria. According to BIG, when presented to the Swedish King, His Majesty rather liked the idea, although he questioned the choice of motive. “Where am I?” he said.

Bjarke Ingels, who claims to have trained as an architect as just a “detour” of becoming a cartoonist, thus deliberately takes a playful or even childish approach to his metier, often presenting his projects to clients as scale models build in Lego. In the long, curving story board of slide-screens he tells the story of his young practice and its courageous battle to shake the foundations of traditional architecture and a conservative building industry. With his well-developed sense for the good story, with a distinctly Scandinavian green and human touch, and a lot of charming attitude, there is no doubt that Ingels, like a fearless young Viking of architecture, will conquer plenty of new land in his field.

Yes is More. Exhibition 21 Feb – 31 May. BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) at the Danish Architecture Centre, 27B, Strandgade, DK-1401 Copenhagen, Denmark. www.dac.dk See also www.big.dk

WAN spoke with Bjarke Ingels at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. To hear this podcast click here. (Christian Bundegaard is a freelance writer based in Copenhagen.)



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