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Bjarke Ingels: The Man Building the Future

Inside the futuristic projects, hyperactive life and controversial success of the world’s hottest architect.

Inside the futuristic projects, hyperactive life and controversial success of the world's hottest architect.

The convoy of buses departed from the Palazzo on a cloudless spring morning, rolling onto a muted Las Vegas Strip and toward the Nevada desert. The buses carried a group of tech journalists, venture capitalists, curious engineers and startup-culture hype merchants – along with, not incidentally, one of the world’s most celebrated architects, Bjarke Ingels – passing sere mountain ranges and spiky yucca trees and a shimmering field of solar panels before finally arriving, after nearly an hour, at their destination: a compound of trailers and shipping containers surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Someone made a nuclear-test-site joke.

We’d come to witness the first-ever public demonstration of a new super-sonic transportation venture called Hyperloop One. Tech billionaire Elon Musk had roughed out the concept in 2013 and given his blessing to the founders, though he wasn’t directly involved himself. Essentially, the plan was for Hyperloop to revolutionise freight and passenger travel by shooting pods through pressurised tubes at speeds of more than 700 mph – faster than a commercial airplane! – using a zero-emission electric-propulsion system. This could mean half-hour trips from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

The test run, an early trial of the propulsion system, occurred without a hitch. After a Cape Canaveral-style countdown, a railed sled blasted off from a resting state to 116 mph in just over one second, sending up a roostertail of sand on the back end. The crowd cheered, despite the somewhat anti-climactic brevity of the spectacle. Amid the excitement in the grandstand, very few people took notice of the handsome, stocky Dane in the sleek black windbreaker, a boxy, retro camera hanging from a strap around his neck.

At 41, Bjarke Ingels could be fairly described as architect-famous, meaning people outside of his profession might be able to finger one of the buildings he’s designed, but not the man himself. In person, he exudes a boyish charisma that one minute suggests a Silicon Valley wunderkind and the next a president of a frat house. He speaks basically flawless English and often seems amused by the world around him, especially if there’s a hurried or chaotic element to the scene – a mood he’ll signal with a roguish grin, as if he’s revelling in everyone else sweating it. His most distinctive features are his eyes, which are such dark pools you can practically see your own twin reflections in them. Though not today: Here in the desert, he’s wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses with lenses so flat that to look upon them feels disorienting, like staring at the surface of a glass office tower designed to repel birds and bullets and building-scaling human flies.

Ingels has come to Las Vegas because his firm, the Bjarke Ingels Group, a.k.a. BIG – he possesses a fatal weakness for lame puns – has partnered with Hyperloop to design its pods and stations. Noting that the Danish word for design, formgivning, translates literally as “formgiving,” Ingels is particularly excited about the Hyperloop project because, he tells me, “This is the first time we’ve really been able to do it – to give a form to something completely new.”

The ecstatic, futuristic sensibility present in all of Ingels’ work makes him a perfect fit with Hyperloop. The renderings in BIG’s two monographs, Yes Is More – see what I mean about the puns? – and Hot to Cold, could easily adorn a City of Tomorrow pavilion at a world’s fair. But Hyperloop is just one of a dizzying number of high-profile, extraordinarily ambitious commissions BIG is presently juggling. The list also includes the new Googleplex, a full redesign of the company’s 60-acre Mountain View, California, headquarters; the Big U, a sea wall girding Lower Manhattan as flood protection from sea-level rise, for which Ingels was awarded $335 million to design; a $2 billion reworking of the Southern Campus of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; and 2 World Trade Center, the final of the new towers scheduled to rise from Ground Zero, a 3 million-square-foot building that looks like a stack of seven children’s blocks – in profile, a staircase, with each of the “steps” sporting a rooftop garden inspired by a different climate.

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A rendering of 2 World Trade Center (middle) in Lower Manhattan, which is in progress.

Because of the prohibitive costs involved, it’s highly unusual for an architect as young as Ingels to be snagging such coveted assignments; most of the world’s noted “starchitects” – Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel – are at least a generation or two older. In fact, Ingels’ international fame is a relatively recent development, having come after he turned a series of rather quotidian assignments into dazzling, visionary structures. His first major buildings were affordable-housing complexes in Copenhagen, one of which wrapped around its twin courtyards in the shape of a gigantic figure eight. (A sloping bike path traced the perimeter, allowing residents to cycle all the way up the building’s 10 stories.) Later, he was tapped by the city of Copenhagen to design a waste-to-energy plant – a trash incinerator. For that project, currently under construction and set to fully open in 2018, Ingels decided to transform the slanted roof into a seven-and-a-half-acre ski slope. To remind citizens of their carbon footprint, the plant will also feature a towering chimney that will emit enormous, perfectly circular “smoke” rings (actually made of steam) each time the plant pumps a ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

When Ingels started out, he had a single partner; they worked and lived together in the same apartment. Today, BIG has 100 employees in Copenhagen and 150 in New York, with 40 different projects in the works worldwide, all showcasing BIG’s overriding aesthetic, a blend of an inclusive, at times madcap playfulness with a serious devotion to sustainability and innovation.

A new stadium for the Washington Redskins will be surrounded by a moat instead of a fence, where tailgaters will be able to kayak or hang out on a man-made beach. The Google headquarters, a joint project with the British architect Thomas Heatherwick, will be composed of a series of glass-canopied “microclimates”; inside, modular office spaces will be stacked and shuffled on-demand by crabots. (Yes, robot cranes.) A pavilion designed by Ingels for London’s Serpentine Galleries, unveiled this summer, is made of open-ended fiberglass boxes that Ingels himself, in an Instagram post, compared to the building blocks from Minecraft; his Lego museum, currently under construction in Denmark, looks as if it’s made out of gargantuan Lego bricks.

The 35-floor VIA 57 West in New York, Ingels’ first completed residential building in North America – and his first completed skyscraper anywhere – is a gleaming pyramid overlooking the Hudson River. From across the river in New Jersey, it could almost pass for the sail of an enormous ship. Between VIA 57 West, the Big U and 2 WTC (along with proposals for a skyscraper at the north end of the High Line and a reinvented building exterior near Penn Station), Ingels could be poised to reshape the look of Manhattan like no other architect in recent memory.

Writing in Vanity Fair, the venerable architecture critic Paul Goldberger described Ingels’ proposed 2 World Trade Center as “one of the more provocative and notable towers of the last generation.” And Aaron Betsky, the dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, has written for the blog Dezeen that Ingels “is the architect my students love more than any other designer working today.”

That said, there’s often a slightly patronising quality to the praise Ingels receives, a skepticism of a messenger so adept at popularising a profession as theory-bound as architecture. I met Ingels for the first time the day after he’d been the subject of a largely laudatory 60 Minutes segment, and he felt the piece portrayed him as a “salesman.” Later, he elaborated, “I think the biggest backhanded criticism-compliment I get is that I’m ‘good at communicating.’ Which implies that you’re bad at doing. To me, it’s a strength that there’s clarity. We know what we’re doing, and that’s why we can also explain it. The fact that something is actually understandable and relatable doesn’t mean that it’s unsophisticated or banal. It just means that it’s crystal-clear. And if you can’t explain it, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s so brilliant that ordinary mortals can’t fathom it. It might just mean that it makes no sense.”

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Left: Ingels sketching ideas for the Hyperloop, a high-speed transport system, with then-project CTO BamBrogan; Right: As a child in Denmark, Ingles and his dad built “Fort Bjarke” in their backyard.

The day before the desert test, Hyperloop made its initial presentation in a Gehry-designed event centre in downtown Las Vegas. Ingels, who’d only just flown in from New York, where he now lives, arrived late, sliding into his seat in time to hear Brogan BamBrogan, the co-founder of Hyperloop, describe him as “fucking rad” from the stage. As a product of Silicon Valley, Hyperloop, which has raised $100 million in startup capital, was selling itself to potential investors by using the language of both utopian science fiction and P.T. Barnum. To that end, we weren’t being introduced to some mundane tweak on an old concept like high-speed rail; no, Hyperloop, per its website, was “reinventing transportation to eliminate barriers of time and distance.”

BIG’s own sensibility, drawing as it does from startup culture’s tech-friendly optimism and careful eye for storytelling, feels thoroughly compatible with BamBrogan’s pitch. “Our cities are not polluted or congested because they have to be,” Ingels writes in Yes Is More. “They are what they are because that’s how we made them.” Later in the book, he makes the case for what he calls “hedonistic sustainability” – a sustainability that, through smarter design and technology, rejects the old “puritan concept where you’re not supposed to take long warm showers or take long-distance flights for holidays,” and essentially allows people to get exactly what they want without making any sacrifices in aesthetics or comfort. “Instead of trying to change people,” Ingels insists, “we could change the world.”

After the presentation, Ingels makes his way to the open bar and orders a vodka and soda. “I’ve been an architect for 20 years, and it’s been annoying to me that the engine of the economy has been immaterial,” he says. He’s referring to the Internet, and says he sees ventures like Hyperloop as a happy development for his profession. Someone asks Ingels about other projects he’s working on. He mentions a smaller one: a panda habitat for the Copenhagen Zoo. “Pandas have very specific needs,” Ingels says. “They’re a demanding client! My job is much more interesting when the client is demanding. And you can’t be more demanding than being a different species.”

Ingels orders another vodka-soda. BamBrogan wanders over to say hello. He is a fascinating character: A former engineer at SpaceX, Musk’s spaceflight startup, BamBrogan was born Kevin Brogan, but then he married a woman named Bambi and they decided to merge their names into a new surname, BamBrogan. And then he changed his first name from Kevin to Brogan. BamBrogan is tall and lanky, with a flamboyant, porn-y moustache; this afternoon, he’s wearing torn jeans, sneakers and a white dress shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, and, like a villain in a Bond movie set entirely in Southern California, he’s carrying and petting his Chihuahua, Toby.

Ingels points at BamBrogan and says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… Nicolas Cage!” BamBrogan seems confused. Ingels explains that he has a habit of seeing people’s celebrity doubles. “I don’t mean Nicolas Cage now,” he clarifies. “I mean Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart. ‘Did I ever tell you that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom?’ ” BamBrogan chuckles. Ingels turns to a young venture capitalist and shouts, “Edward Snowden!” The venture capitalist does not seem amused.

There’s another round of drinks. BamBrogan is becoming more animated. “I’m big into ‘This is the 21st century, yo!’ ” he declaims loudly. “The gear-and-grease age is over. We have to change the future. These other pussies won’t do it! Who else will?” Ingels nods and recommends a book about speed by the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio. Later, BamBrogan says, “I’m trying to think of a travel experience that I have where it’s like, ‘God, that’s awesome.’ Uber’s probably the closest example, because it’s convenient. Like, that’s the best I can say about travel.”

Ingels gives a slight smile and says, “I disagree. Go to the lobby of one of these buildings and take the stairs up to the top floor.”

BamBrogan nods. “OK, OK. I can see that,” he says. “An elevator is a pretty good experience.”

Someone asks Colin Rhys, Hyperloop’s “Director of Experience Design,” about the beads adorning the nails of his pinky fingers, and he explains the look dates back to his days playing in a band. “I have the same thing,” Ingels mutters, deadpan, “except it’s on my dickhead.”

While waiting for a taxi, Ingels wanders off to pee in the bushes. A security guard catches him and points out the surveillance camera he’s urinating in front of, but otherwise leaves him to it. In the cab, Ingels nods at his favorite building in Las Vegas, the Luxor pyramid. “It’s such a pure idea,” he says. “Though it’s quite nasty inside.”

Later, I ask Ingels if there’s a city he’s drawn the most inspiration from. He considers the question, but then, instead, brings up a recent camping trip he took in Iceland. “When you’re in a city, everything is so proscribed,” he says. “You walk on the sidewalk, and you stop at the red lights, and you walk into a lobby and take an elevator. You can only do what you’re supposed to do. Whereas, what I like about being in the wild is, you can climb a hill, you can cross a creek with your bare feet. It’s a world of possibility, like a playground for grown-ups. And you can still remember how to play. In most of our projects, we try to make the city a little bit more like that. We try to create more possibilities than just the things you’re supposed to do.”

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VIA 57 West in New York, Ingel’s first completed high-rise.

As with many brilliant people who have a fondness for speaking aphoristically, it’s hard to know when to take Ingels seriously. His spiels flow with such fluidity, but what’s the precise ratio of sincerity to cynicism? Of eloquence to sophistry? Of uninhibited imagination to TED Talks bullshit?

Or maybe these questions are cynical, and the surface enthusiasm of Ingels the guileless futurist is a true expression of his inner self. Ingels grew up in a small, single-story house in a suburb north of Copenhagen, the middle of three siblings, both parents professionals (father an engineer, mother a dentist), the spectacular Danish coast just minutes away. It all sounds fairly idyllic, especially considering the off-the-charts ways in which Scandinavian countries tend to score on various quality-of-life and personal-happiness indexes. But Ingels found himself chafing at what he saw as the constraints of Danish socialism. There’s a Danish word for elevating the collective over the individual, janteloven, which Ingels says “basically means everyone is the same.” Kaspar Astrup Schröder, a Danish documentary filmmaker who has spent the past several years working on a feature film about Ingels, tells me, “Bjarke felt like he wasn’t getting recognition in Denmark, because they don’t like people standing out. So he left.”

As a kid, Ingels spent hours in his own head, compulsively filling notebooks with drawings. When he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, he had dreams of becoming a graphic novelist (Yes Is More, BIG’s first monograph, is actually written in the form of a comic), but Ingels eventually discovered, and became obsessed with, the work of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and decided to put his drawing skills to different use. After graduating, he landed a job in the Rotterdam office of Koolhaas’ firm, OMA – where he had interned during college – to work on one of its biggest projects, a $165 million redesign of the central branch of the Seattle Public Library. In 2001, he left OMA with another young colleague, Julien De Smedt, and returned to Copenhagen, where they started their own firm, PLOT; five years later, the pair had split up and Ingels formed BIG.

From the beginning, Ingels acknowledges, he had a knack for generating buzz. His firms were some of the first, he says, to put everything on their websites – contest entries, rejected proposals, whatever fantastical designs they might showcase – because at that point, with very few completed buildings in their portfolios, they had nothing else to upload. There was the zero-emission island resort designed for Azerbaijan, shaped like the peaks of the country’s seven most famous mountains, with its own self-contained ecosystem powered by wind and solar; the majestic, star-shaped “Superharbour,” an artificial island port in the Baltic Sea meant to free up prime waterfront real estate throughout Denmark; and the 3,000 terraced affordable-housing units built into an undulating “Great Wall” that would surround a plot of untouchable parkland in the center of Copenhagen.

None of these projects were ultimately built. But that hardly mattered in the end, because the boldness and ingenuity of BIG’s designs – even for budget-conscious and decidedly unsexy projects like trash incinerators and affordable-housing complexes – had made potential clients take notice. In 2006, Douglas Durst, one of the largest real-estate developers in New York, gave a lecture in Copenhagen, after which Ingels introduced himself by asking, “Why do all your buildings look like buildings?” Intrigued, Durst continued to follow Ingels’ career; in 2010, he hired BIG to design VIA 57 West, the residential skyscraper in an underdeveloped section of Hell’s Kitchen, which has become Ingels’ largest and most expensive completed project to date.

Durst had been trying to develop that plot of land for more than a decade, originally as a data-storage site. (That plan was scrapped after 9/11.) “We saw a wonderful waterfront location, with views of the river,” says Ingels, “but it was also right on the West Side Highway and next to a sanitation garage and a power plant. So we came up with this idea of a courtyard – an oasis that would be a shelter from the surrounding noise of the city.” But how to build a courtyard within the density of a skyscraper? “In Europe,” Ingels notes, “courtyards work because the buildings are five stories tall. When they become 40 stories tall, it suddenly becomes not so nice to be in this dark pit.”

Which is how the building’s asymmetrical pyramid shape developed, the sloping sides maximising the amount of sunlight and the number of choice Hudson River views. “You try to make a virtue out of necessity,” Ingels says. “So rather than trying to impose our will, it’s more like trying to really see what’s there, and then the will that we insert is in the editing and the articulation of the things that want to happen anyway. Traditionally, you would say that all of those constraints are something that paralyses the creativity of the artist. But I actually think some of our wildest projects have been conceived not for a competition – when you are theoretically free to propose whatever you want – but in direct collaborations with clients.”

Thus, for example, the proposed Redskins stadium, for which BIG had to take into account a variety of factors, some of them existential – like how to make live football appealing to fans when the televised experience is getting better and better and so much of the stadium experience is already dominated by screens of its own. “Stadiums are just a total dinosaur,” Ingels says. “It’s the same three or four global offices that have designed all the stadiums. And then it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy, where you have to be a stadium designer to design a stadium. And that means they’re all the same.”

Ingels decided to focus on the part of the live football experience that’s not replicable at home – the communal aspect of attending a game, in particular the tailgating. Rather than a flat ocean of concrete, the parking lot would be tiered and seeded with grass that’s grown in fibreglass-reinforced soil, making it more pleasant for picnics but also able to withstand heavy vehicles; replacing the security fence with a moat, “the world’s simplest invention,” enhanced with beaches, kayaks and a perpetual surf wave, would make the stadium an off-season summer destination as well; and modifying the shape of the stadium’s bowl from an oval pill to a “rather nice Pringle” doubled the number of 50-yard-line seats.

Once described by the design magazine Surface as “architecture’s swinging bachelor-prince,” Ingels now has a serious girlfriend, Ruth Otero, a Spanish architect he met at Burning Man, and bought an apartment in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighbourhood last year (he believes the high levels of taxation in Denmark stifle innovation). As a sort of raspberry at janteloven, one of the first things he did when he moved to New York was buy a Porsche, paying, he told me, “a ridiculous price by Danish standards. Over there, taxes and gas prices are so high, no one would buy one.” But he couldn’t quite shake his inner Northern European socialist: After his first frustrating commute to Harvard, where he was teaching a class at the time, he almost ditched the car in Boston. After that, he took the train.

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Renderings of the Washington Redskins Stadium.

Ingels’ savvy communication skills, his ability to sell potentially transformative design concepts like he’s pitching a roomful of first-round investors on a new app that’s going to totally disrupt going to the dentist, has cut both ways when it comes to BIG’s reputation. “Bjarke is the undisputed king of the architectural one-liner,” says Oliver Wainwright, the architecture critic of The Guardian, “but it sometimes leaves you wanting more to chew on. Most architects will reach for much more profound metaphors. They’re reluctant, I think, to spell out their process in such a direct and transparent and, yeah, childish way.”

Looking back at Yes Is More, Ingels says, “I think we did ourselves a little bit of a disservice. I mean, it was actually quite well-received, but I think it made it a little bit easy for our critics to dismiss what we do as cartoonish, because literally we made a cartoon. But, you know, the haters will hate, right?”

If the comic came off as a bit goofy and unserious, Ingels’ own habit of behaving as if he’s auditioning for an architecture-themed show on Viceland has done little to help his cause. It wasn’t enough to name his company BIG; he revels in the fact that its Danish Web address is big.dk. “Who doesn’t like a big dick?” he asked over dinner in Las Vegas. “Men like it, women like it!” (This was right around the time of the evening when he began to refer to me exclusively as “Captain.”)

One afternoon in New York, we meet in the lobby of  VIA 57 West. The building had been voted the 2016 Best Tall Building in the Americas by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which is the skyscraper equivalent of being nominated for Best Picture. Tenants had already started moving in, but Ingels, spotting a few missing panels in the lobby ceiling, grimaces, muttering, “It’s always just super-annoying to show something that is still not, like, fully finished.”

And yet, despite Ingels’ complaints, the building is a stunner, a pyramid built by space aliens. The lush courtyard does, indeed, feel like an oasis, completely muting the noise of the highway traffic just below. One-third of the units have recessed balconies, making parts of the facade look like some kind of circuit board. “You end up getting all these little textures, a variety of light and shadow and reflections,” Ingels says. He chose bead-blasted stainless steel for the roof panels, both because “it’s essentially the most indestructible material you can find” and, rather than reflecting direct light, “it actually glows a little bit.” Wherever you’re standing – on the sidewalk, in the courtyard, three blocks away – it’s difficult to stop your eyes from being drawn up.

Seeing the building so beautifully realized makes you want to believe all of Ingels’ loftier talk about “hedonistic sustainability” is possible, that the secular faith in technology and design embodied by the cult of Steve Jobs might be a worthy one. Who knows, maybe Hyperloop will reinvent transportation to eliminate barriers of time and distance?

Unfortunately, since the desert test, Hyperloop has hit a few bumps in the road, or whatever the pneumatic-tube version of that would be. BamBrogan left the company after a very public and ugly split with his co-founder, Shervin Pishevar, a venture capitalist who had previously invested in companies like Uber. Along with three other former executives, BamBrogan filed suit against the company, alleging, among other things, financial impropriety by Pishevar and threatening behavior by Pishevar’s brother, who was caught by surveillance cameras leaving what BamBrogan described as a noose on his office chair (in court documents, Pishevar’s brother “maintained that the rope was a lasso for someone acting like a cowboy” ). Hyperloop responded with a countersuit alleging BamBrogan and his co-litigants had been conspiring to form a rival company. Both suits are still pending.

Still, BIG remains contracted as the project’s architect. In Vegas, Ingels had been fixated on how the stations might look, using New York’s Penn Station as “a benchmark of the exact thing that we don’t want – a claustrophobic, labyrinthine shopping mall. It’s so bad that one of America’s greatest architects, Louis Kahn, died on the toilet there!”

Another of the main design challenges is psychological: How do you make the passenger experience of being shot through a tube at incredibly high speeds not completely terrifying? Windows, to make the pods less claustrophobic and coffin-like, would be the obvious solution, if not for the problem of the tube itself. Jakob Lange, a BIG partner, had come up with an elegant solution: If you cut 10-centimeter holes in the tube every 10 meters, and if you also cut windows in the pod, and if the pod was moving at 300 meters per second, the images from the outside world would register with the passenger at 30 frames per second – the speed of a film. “It would be seamless,” Ingels said. “Like peeking through a keyhole in your door.”

Whatever happens with Hyperloop, Ingels remains perpetually on the move. Between our meetings in Las Vegas and New York, he’d spent much of his summer in Europe: Venice, for the Architectural Biennale; London, for the opening of his Serpentine Galleries pavilion; Copenhagen, visiting his family (and also, impulsively, buying a houseboat). Though he fled Copenhagen because it felt stifling, he finds comfort in returning to a place where “your entire gene pool is within 10 kilometers.”

In the courtyard of VIA 57 West, Ingels looks around at the sloping garden paths and says, “I think this is going to take hold quite well. Two months ago, there was nothing here. Over the next couple of years, coming back is going to be more and more fun.” Pulling out his smartphone, he calls up the trailer for Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange movie, in which his building is featured prominently in the opening shot. He smiles, and then he talks about various little tweaks he’d been forced to make over the course of the design and construction process, how “as soon as you change one little ingredient, you have this cascade of consequences that you have to deal with,” like the butterfly effect, but for Ingels also a means “to escape the status quo.”

“Do you know Philip K. Dick’s definition of science fiction?” he asks. “He says science fiction is not a space opera, although it often happens in space, and it’s not a story from the future, although it often happens in the future. He says science fiction is a story where the plot is triggered by some form of innovation. Often it’s technological innovation, but it can be political, social, whatever. And the story is a narrative exploration of the potential of that innovation, of that idea. And not only the writer but the reader can actually think along and imagine how would our world be different if this one thing is different.

“So you can say that science fiction is the medium where you do that in a narrative way,” Ingels continues. “But architecture is a discipline where you have the possibility to actually do it. All of Hell’s Kitchen is the way it is. The whole world is the way it is. And we do this one thing different.” Ingels raises his hand with a conductor’s flourish. “And what are the consequences for everything around us?”

From issue #781 (December 2016), available now.