Culture | The poster-boy of 21st century architecture

Bjarke Ingels seeks to lead the industry into the future

I am sitting on the steps of the fully packed Leacock 132, the largest lecture venue McGill has to offer. The crowd surrounding me sports excellent haircuts and flattering grandfather sweaters.  People are lined up at the entrance, trying desperately to squeeze their way in. Why are we all here? We’re here to admire Bjarke Ingels – the “extrovert starchitect” (as one of the many moderators of the talk puts it) behind the imaginatively named Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Tonight, Ingels is giving a talk called “Yes Is More” as part of the David J. Azrieli lecture series in architecture.

BIG has taken the world of architecture by storm. In the past ten years the company has designed over 20 projects and won more than a dozen notable architectural prizes. BIG aims to innovate and explore using what the company refers to as “pragmatic utopian architecture.” The goal is to “steer clear of the petrifying pragmatism of boring boxes.”

What does this all mean? BIG’s past projects include condensing all aspects of Danish city life into one pavilion that can be navigated by bike, an apartment building that looks like a work of modern art, and a public park in Copenhagen that celebrates Danish multiculturalism. Their future plans are equally ambitious: a space needle in Phoenix, Arizona; the Danish Maritime Museum; cool high-rise buildings all across North America; and a waste-to-energy plant that can also be used as a ski slope/BMX course.

My first impression of Ingels is that he looks like a warped version of Tom Cruise circa Top Gun. It must be the combination of his luscious mane of hair and bulky leather jacket. His manner of speaking is humourous, with an air of uncensored Scandinavian frankness comparable to his countryman, director Lars Von Trier. A consummate professional, he warms up the audience with tales of corporate comedy, like when Ingels attempts to use his remarkable PowerPoint skills to demonstrate what New York City’s shoreline might look like in the future while blasting Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” in the background. Due to a glitch in the AV system, the song ends up sounding like a distorted jet plane taking off. The audience tries not to cringe. Ingels is not pleased.

For a company that prides itself on steering clear from boring boxes, most of the buildings BIG builds look confusingly similar. The tested and approved method seems to be to build pretty buildings that are slightly slanted. Also, most of these buildings are privately commissioned and financed, which goes against the socially conscious message BIG is trying to broadcast. Furthermore, what is an eco-friendly company doing building a space needle aimed solely at tourism? Ingels tries to convince the confused audience by stating that the project will be carried out as reasonably as possible. Wouldn’t the most reasonable approach be to not build it in the first place?

Ingels’ talk is not solely about architecture. He also judges the existing power relations in society, stating that though architects might not have power over physical or financial environments, they do possess the power of ideas. Ingels obviously has the power to do whatever he wants: he removed Edvard Eriksen’s “The Little Mermaid” statue, the most famous Danish landmark, and placed it in his exhibition pavilion in Shanghai for a while. He also entered and won a competition to design the Danish Maritime Museum, even though his company’s design didn’t exactly match the competition’s initial requirement – BIG was sued by other companies who had stuck to the rules. Ingels’ attitude towards competitors and critics seems to be that people who have time for hate-blogging must not have much going for them.

There is no doubt that Ingels is an impressive speaker and innovator. But while he has been busy building an empire Ingels seems to have forgotten what it feels like to be anything less than a “starchitect” superstar.