Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, founder of architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), took the stage yesterday morning at the New Yorker Festival, that annual celebration of folks in the arts, letters, and sciences. Ingels is often described as a "wunderkind"—At 42, he is, as Sunday morning’s moderator, New Yorker magazine staff writer Ian Parker pointed out, decades younger than most architects in positions of prominence in the field.
But in a wide-ranging, 90-minute talk—which also involved some impressive live sketching—Ingels tackled topics from what makes for good architecture, to creating dense urban housing, and the BIG design for 2 World Trade Center. In it, he proved that, whether or not you’re a fan of his effervescent public persona, there’s some intelligent thinking deployed in the work of his firm. And this thinking tends to challenge certain status quos about the design process, "style" in architecture, and architects’ role in the public sphere, even as some journalists, historians, and, perhaps, TIME magazine (which named Ingels one of its 100 Most Influential People this year, dubbed him the "highflyer of skylines") cling to the notion of architecture as a profession of single, oft-male, protagonist-masterminds.
Here are three highlights from the conversation, should you want the CliffsNotes version of the chat:
1. "Architecture is practical poetry"
Prompted, Ingels spent a bit of time during the conversation talking about his and his firm’s style (or, rather, the lack of a typical one, at least to the casual eye). The Burj Khalifa was, after the fact, said to have been inspired by local desert flowers, but though a romantic notion, Ingels says, that wasn’t actually the case. "Real life is already interesting enough that you don’t need to find metaphors to describe buildings," Ingels added. "Architecture is practical poetry."
Though today the skewed-pyramid shape of his VIA housing project on Manhattan’s far west side, for example, is likened to the sails of boats on the Hudson River, which the structure fronts, Ingels insists its unique shape really came about because of design concerns. The same can be said of the metaphor attached to Ingels’s 2 World Trade Center design, the fate of which is now uncertain after News Corp and 21st Century Fox decided not to be the anchor tenants for the project. Though the relative of a 9/11 first responder called its stepped shape akin to a "stairway to heaven," that wasn’t the design team’s intent. Ingels embraces this mutability in his work; Call it what you will.
2. "London looks like a ‘fun festival’ of architecture"
London, whose skyline of nicknamed, blobby, sharply geometric forms has come under fire for stylistic and more practical reasons in the last decade, got some playful ribbing and praise from Ingels, who likened its riotous shapes to the skylines of Shanghai or Dubai. In a way, he said, it makes sense that the capital of the Commonwealth, so influenced in other ways by Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, would have towers that echoed those global cities’ more outlandish skyscrapers.
3. The secret to design success is a symmetrical plan and an asymmetrical section."
It’s as simple as that, Ingels joked. Even some of the world’s most beloved icons, rightfully upheld as real departures from the box-on-rocks norm of modernism in the 20th century (think the Sydney Opera House) are largely symmetrical in plan and wildly asymmetrical in section. He even did a rough sketch of the famed Australian opera house for reference.