Building for 2120: the Pragmatic Utopianism of Bjarke Ingels

Dear 2120,

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. This is part of the reason, I think, that Bjarke Ingels’s hedonistically sustainable, pragmatically utopian architecture has managed to stay out of Letters to 2120 up until now. On the utopian side of things, he’s undoubtedly a shoe-in. However, as an occupational side-effect of my work with design coming out of KiBiSi (which Bjarke constitutes one third of), I guess I’ve watched the global design media lose their collective shit over the charismatic starchitect and his inspired, information-driven buildings on one occasion too many. It seemed to me that everyone had had their fill of Ingels and then some, so I thought it pertinent to give him a miss. At least until the tidal wave of hype had subsided.

Thing is, though, that I keep coming back to his conceptual ingenuity and unparalleled story-telling ability. It’s inspiring. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself thinking that the man is the personification of the old adman expression ‘lightning in a bottle.’ He’s Don Draper without the alcohol, tortured soul and annoying, forced facial expressions – with an added, disarming infusion of giddy, boyish enthusiasm.

Of all the contemporary cultural moments featured here so far, I’d say that his work probably stands the biggest chance of making it to 2120. Which is down to the simple fact that they’ll have a hard time tearing down all of that robust construction over the course of a century. Even if he’s not your bag, you’ll have to admit that he’s a seriously prolific son of a bitch.

courty

The pyramid-shaped Via 57 West Courtscraper in New York designed by Bjarke Ingels Architects. 

If I were to sum up BIG architecture glibly and superficially, I’d say that it’s the real-world manifestation of all that ingenious, uninhibited free-thinking you did when you were slurping on your homemade bong in the 8th grade – realized on a momentous scale and backed up by some pretty hefty, multinational budgets. Take one look at their sci-fi-inspired, smoke-blowing power plant-turned-skiing slope, and you’ll realize that the stoners have won.

Somewhat inevitably when an organization achieves success on BIG’s scale, there’s been backlashy murmurings here and there, allegations of implementing cheap materials, criticism of gender imbalances at partner level and claims positing Ingels as a ‘shameless self-promoter.’ All of which amounts to critique that would have stopped, stunted and impeded the careers of lesser, more fragile architects.

Bjarke Ingels, on the other hand, just goes ‘Yes is More.’ Which could be loosely translated into: ‘The haters can suck it – let’s get on with the more pressing business of blowing everyone’s mind with trailblazing construction.’

mimami
One of the twisting towers that make up Grove at Grand Bay in Miami, Florida.  

The ‘Yes is More’ maxim has the added benefit of placing BIG, forthrightly and unpretentiously, in a lineage of paradigm-shifting, world-shaking architecture. First there was Mies Van der Rohe’s modernist ‘Less is More’ dictum; then came Robert Venturi’s postmodern antidote in the form of ‘Less is a Bore’; and now there’s BIG and its ‘Yes is More’ manifesto, the deceptively simple yet unequivocally clever, new rallying cry for a new age that’s charmingly zealous, unflinchingly ambitious, empathically intelligent, and genuinely down-to-earth all at the same time. This succession of characteristics is central to BIG’s sensibility, I think, and it translates directly into Bjarke Ingels’s prodigious gift for architectural story-telling:

For me, the true merit of BIG and Bjarke Ingels lies in turning problems into challenges. Instead of approaching the ecological crisis with downcast, puritanical, crypto-protestant eyes as most of us are inclined to do, he turns it into problems that can be solved in a pragmatic way balanced with a utopian mindset. The process of solving it to the best of human ability, in a way that fuels our collective imagination, becomes a gratifying game. A kind of fun obstacle course, which matter-of-factly names and demystifies our fears by compartmentalizing them into decipherable complications that makes the future markedly less unpredictable, volatile and scary in the process.

It’s easy and very human to succumb to the notion that we have to pay for our sins and make sacrifices for our ignorance and inadequacies. For all our gung-ho secularism, the narrative of redemption still runs deep in our supposedly post-religious veins. As a dubious consequence, never has guilt-tripping the public into buying a bunch of self-righteous, hokey products they don’t really want or need been so easy. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if we don’t have to kiss modernity and technology goodbye as a means of appeasing our new secular God, the vengeful Mother Earth? What if we don’t have to wear crap sandals and go vegan to have a decent future? What if we can judo-trip the the multitude of problems we face, not only solving them in process, but slapping them around a bit to make their pressing energy work to our advantage? That’s the inviting, seductive question posed by Bjarke Ingels’s ‘Yes is More’ manifesto. And one that he consistently answers in style with uplifting, ‘unremittingly radical’, and downright incredible architecture.

hyperloop

BIG design for the Dubai Hyperloop high-speed transportation system.

My money’s firmly on this guy’s legacy being around in 2120. With a little bit of luck, you guys will eat the synthetic dust of my great-great-grandchild who’s puffing away on her space-age bong while casually skiing away from a giant smoke ring that lights up the Copenhagen horizon.

 

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