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How Bjarke Ingels Became Architecture’s Most Subversive Superstar

How Bjarke Ingels Became Architecture’s Most Subversive Superstar

By Mark Elwood

September 24, 2019

He turned a roof into a ski slope and made a museum out of Legos. If the architect has a signature move, it’s subverting expectations.

When I meet Bjarke Ingels in his firm’s surprisingly nondescript red brick office building in Copenhagen, the architect radiates a Tigger-like energy, even though he’s just stepped off a plane from Mexico. There isn’t a hint of jet lag while he sits to talk—or at least tries to. Constantly shifting in his chair, Ingels seems to be straining against the urge to get up and pace the room, or maybe do some calisthenics. Yet that restlessness will be essential if he’s to complete the extraordinary slate of projects underway—so many, in fact, that his 14-year-old firm will double its overall output in the next 18 months.

The high-profile commissions for Bjarke Ingels Group (or BIG) include a new Champs-Elysées flagship for Galeries Lafayette, Audemars Piguet’s new watch museum in Switzerland, two campuses for Google in California (one with Thomas Heatherwick) and several skyline-defining apartment towers in Manhattan. But Bjarke (pronounced BYARK-uh) seems neither intimidated nor overscheduled by this onslaught; rather, he appears to relish it. Ruffling his artfully tousled, Calvin and Hobbes–like hair, he speaks in blurted phrases, leaving uneven pauses between them that suggest he’s updating or revising what he thinks as he speaks. “Each project we do has to identify how the world is changing, or has changed.” Pause. “And then address the consequences, the conflicts, the problems and the potentials.”

Indeed, with each new project, Ingels pushes himself to reinvent. Whether the sloping roofs of Google’s Sunnyvale campus, which will double as ramps for walking or rolling, or the Hualien Residences in Taiwan, which echo the nearby mountains (down to the steep façades covered in vegetation), Ingels’s designs fearlessly break the rules, playing with geometry and materials to create a built world worthy of 21st-century innovation. If Ingels has a signature move, it’s subverting expectations.

Both his boundless vim and his derring-do are the defining qualities of this 45-year-old Dane, at least according to those who know him best. “From the get-go, that’s what struck me: his amazing energy,” recalls Hans Ulrich Obrist, an early champion who is the artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries. “Even in my first meeting with him, long before he started his firm, the idea to think big was always there.”

“Energy” is one keyword for Bjarke; “big” is another. It isn’t just the name of his firm, though the pun-prone Ingels is schoolboyishly fond of rehashing how happy he is that due to its Danish origin, its website address is “At the end of the day, I don’t mind telling the same story,” he says with a shrug. Bigger, bolder and larger than life—it’s his approach to everything. It’s also a jarring jolt of swagger in a country known for egalitarianism and restraint, a quiet conformity codified in a system known as janteloven. Asked to explain this idea, he turns to a favorite, if flawed, metaphor: the thermostat. It’s no coincidence that it was devised here, Ingels confidently but incorrectly notes with a laugh (it was originally invented in Scotland), considering its ability to regulate and maintain temperature, keeping everything at the same level. “Janteloven is a social thermostat that keeps everyone on an even keel.” He pauses. “I think I would have cabin fever if I were to stay in Copenhagen.”

Nothing about his early life suggested that Ingels, the middle child of a dentist mother and an engineer father, would leave Denmark, let alone become a worldwide architectural wunderkind. Growing up in a modest, single-story home just outside the capital, he played with Legos like any young Dane (though, unlike his peers, Ingels went on to design the new Lego House interactive museum, which opened at the company headquarters on Denmark’s west coast two years ago). His early goal didn’t involve architecture: He was a comic-book nerd. “It was never superheroes but Europeans, especially the Italians with their highly erotic graphic novels,” he says, adding with a smile, “I drew them myself.” Certainly, he’s maintained a fanboyish nerdiness into adulthood, whether it’s persuading his friend Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who starred as Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, to arrange a role for him as an extra in the series or passionately advocating for the entire Matrix trilogy. “I defend the second two, very often,” he says, semi-seriously. “It’s such a predictable attitude to piss on the sequels, but they actually do deliver. Your mind can’t be blown the same way two or three times.” Though he never pursued comics professionally, Ingels did fulfill his childhood dream in 2009, publishing his Mies van der Rohe–tweaking manifesto, Yes Is More, as a graphic novel.

It was while studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen that Ingels discovered architecture, via an internship at Rem Koolhaas’s OMA. The gig led to a full-time job after graduation under Koolhaas’s tutelage; that’s where Obrist first encountered Ingels, when the curator and longtime Koolhaas collaborator was working on a book with the OMA founder.“ That office was a Warholian situation for architecture, with so many incredible young collaborators who would go on to become major architects,” Obrist recalls of the firm. It has produced so many noteworthy new talents, from Fernando Romero to Joshua Prince-Ramus, that they’ve been dubbed the Kool Gang or Baby Rems. Even among such an abundance of gifted minds, Obrist says, “Bjarke stood out from the first conversation I had with him.” In part, it’s the force and size of his personality, which bucks the composed, overtly cerebral affect commonplace among architects. It’s also Ingels’s chutzpah: He didn’t linger at OMA but struck out on his own at the tender age of 27 before founding BIG four years later, in 2005. A bold move in any industry but extraordinary in architecture, where many standouts break through in their 50s or later

From the outset, though, BIG showed promise, thanks in no small part to Ingels’s instinct for hype. When his fledgling firm was shilling for work, he dumped every design onto its website—whether a concept, a failed competition entry or a client proposal—to help drive interest and suggest, albeit obliquely, that BIG was a larger operation than it was. He no longer needs to dissemble: Ingels now has 500 or so staffers, spread among this office in Denmark and others in London, Barcelona and Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. The firm still uploads designs to the website with apparent transparency, though guests to the Copenhagen office are not afforded the same creative leeway; stern signs warn visitors not to snap and post images from inside the building.

The ban on posting is particularly ironic because Ingels is an avid Instagrammer, sharing with his 675,000 followers images of his inner circle, which, in addition to Coster-Waldau, includes Noma chef René Redzepi, and about his work and personal life, such as annual trips to Burning Man, where he met his partner, Spanish architect Ruth Otero (“She’s much more Latin, more colorful than me; it’s something I would like to have more of”). The couple are parents to a young son, Darwin. While some observers sneer at his shameless self-promotion, others, including his friend and Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli, wave away such snark. “He’s an amazing communicator, and he has a great sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and adventure, which you can see from his Instagram,” she says.“ He’s good at it, because he can see how public and private spaces have changed.”

The combination of talent and energy earned Ingels several high-profile commissions early on, though almost all were domestic, in Denmark. It was 2010 that proved a turning point for BIG—and Ingels himself. That’s when he moved full-time to New York, shucking off the shackles of janteloven to chase business in a far larger market; at the same time, during the Shanghai Expo, Denmark debuted a witty pavilion under his guidance. Ever charming and connected, Ingels wrangled the right to borrow the original Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen’s waterfront and install it in China for a few months. He filled a pool with water from the harbor back home, then created a series of spiraling bike lanes around the pool, where visitors could either walk or borrow one of the pavilion’s loaner bikes to circle, velodrome-style—another nod to cycling-mad Copenhagen. “It was like moving the Statue of Liberty for six months,” he recalls. “So we installed a surveillance camera in the pavilion, which transmitted a live image to a giant screen mounted where she normally sits.” Widely praised, that project earned him accolades, commissions and invitations—including to the Venice Biennale architecture exhibition that same year. It was at a dinner there that Ingels’s sunny optimism was tested. His effervescence about the potential for humankind was reportedly shot down by his fellow guests, whose view of the future was more negative. It was a rare moment when Ingels’s genial affect snapped: He is said to have stormed out of supper, slamming the door behind him—after barking that the others shouldn’t leave until they had each read a few pieces from Wired magazine (and so, in theory, come around to his future-friendly worldview). Did that incident really happen? He dodges the question like a pro, grabbing his phone instead to show some video. “Watch this,” he says. Pressed again, Ingels laughs. “I’m not sure. I can’t say that I remember, but that’s hilarious.”

Other invitations proved more welcome, including one from his old champion Obrist, who hired Bjarke in 2016 to create the Serpentine Galleries’ summer pavilion. Each year, Obrist tasks an architect with realizing a fantasy building on-site, and Ingels was honored to follow the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and his old boss, Koolhaas. His design, which the curator describes as “one of the most dramatic, spectacular pavilions in the series,” was made from fiberglass bricks, artfully stacked into a shape-shifting structure that resembled an artistic climbing wall. Viewed from various angles, it looked opaque or translucent, two- or three-dimensional. “He has an amazing force de conviction, as they say in French, and is able to negotiate, because he’s such a great conversationalist—and a very good listener,” Obrist says.

Since then, Ingels’s ascent has accelerated even faster—and nowhere is his firm in greater demand than New York. The surge in development there in the wake of the Bloomberg administration has been a boon for many architects—and Ingels, ever vigilant for opportunity, hurled himself at prospective clients with characteristic gusto.

The birth of his son late last year has kept Ingels more anchored to Copenhagen, but New York remains the focus of his work, and a place he still regularly visits. BIG has already finished one building in Manhattan, the pyramid-like, 44-story Via 57 West apartment complex, and has several more towers under way. “If New York was a country, it would be the country in the world where we have the most work. And when you think of New York, you think of a city that is already complete, with a skyline of man-made mountains, but there are lots of empty pockets,” he says, relishing the particular challenges of working within them.

“There’s a lot of energy, but it’s very regulated, almost in the extreme. Combine that with the extreme real estate value, and it makes certain things suddenly feasible that would be infeasible elsewhere.”

Take the XI, for example, a pair of towers under construction in Chelsea that resemble a dancing couple, flirtatiously twisting toward each other as they soar skyward; the design maximizes square footage without compromising views. HFZ’s Ziel Feldman, the project’s developer, recalls meeting Ingels for lunch to discuss it; by the end of the meal, the architect had sketched an initial concept on a napkin. “He’s not egotistical, and he has almost superhuman energy,” Feldman explains. “And he will design from the inside out, not the outside in. He doesn’t make buildings that are beautiful architecturally that you can’t live in.”

Ingels relished the challenge of designing on this plot in particular. “In the case of the XI, it became very much a dialogue between these two buildings and their surroundings, because it has been zoned with all kinds of requirements vis-à-vis the High Line: minimum distance, maximum façade lengths, those kinds of things,” he says. “It was really more like a radical reinvention [of the site] than an actual proposition.”

Another of the dozen or so BIG buildings under construction is the Audemars Piguet museum in Switzerland. Michael Friedman is the brand’s historian and has closely collaborated with Ingels on the project, a partially sunken pavilion that sits, half-hidden, in the landscape around Vallée de Joux. Friedman enjoys the architect’s intensity and enthusiasm in meetings, where he’ll often turn his chair around, Arthur Fonzarelli–style, and absorb others’ input. “He is unapologetically himself, which I learned from him,” Friedman observes. “He doesn’t want you to walk into any of his spaces once and be amazed. He wants you to be amazed the 500th time you do.” As for Ingels, he sees parallels between Audemars Piguet’s business and his own. “Today, the whole world is all about hardware and software, but hardware is just a container—look at any handheld [device], and they’re all the same now, right? The content, the good stuff, is the software,” he says. “But not in architecture or in watchmaking, where the form is the content. And form-giving is the Danish word for design.”

So Ingels’s repertoire now includes countless offices, public buildings, condo towers and cultural complexes, but there are few private homes in the BIG archive. Why? “When I started out, I didn’t have any wealthy friends in Denmark that we could design a house for, so we ended up doing all kinds of other things,” he says matter-of-factly. With his rising reputation, of course, came requests, most of which he declined, since the would-be owner was unwilling to commit as fully to the project as Ingels required. “Making a house for someone is architecture as portraiture, capturing the essence of the subject—not just the appearance, but their personality, so they have to spend some time with us.” He’ll consider future commissions, but only from clients willing to engage and explore together. “The design has to be someone’s dream—not mine, necessarily, but someone’s. Because if it isn’t, why are we even bothering to do it?” Ingels does indulge his creativity around private homes with renderings, though, including one never-before-seen idea for a Caribbean complex: Airy and open, it can close up like a clamshell whenever hurricanes threaten, becoming an impregnable, weatherproof fortress.

There is one private home he’s already completed, but it doesn’t house humans: Ingels was behind the brand-new Panda House at Copenhagen Zoo, where a pair of giant pandas will live while on loan from China, a deal struck in the wake of his success during the Shanghai Expo. It isn’t his only new project in Copenhagen, where he clearly still relishes the chance to work. The quirky power plant on the city’s outskirts, which turns waste into energy and features a ski park on its undulating roof, is also now in operation. In fact, he’s rushing to meet the city’s mayor today, and suggests continuing the interview in the taxi ride to city hall, multi-tasking and busy as ever. Before he dashes inside, though, he pauses. “I always come across as more cocky and impolite than I am,” he says, before turning away. It’s an atypical flash of insecurity, and far from fair. Oozing enthusiasm and talent in equal measure, Ingels is a mash-up of Koolhaas, P. T. Barnum and an overgrown, social-media-savvy teenager. Compared to most architects of his stature, of course, he really is just a kid. “Never forget, he’s still only in his 40s,” says Obrist. “He’s only just begun.”