Britain’s top architecture practices face a brash new challenger as Bjarke Ingels brings his global brand to London. We should be afraid, says Richard Waite
Brace yourselves. Bjarke Ingels has officially landed his international fun-bus in the UK. Armed with a winning smile and a catalogue of mould-busting icons, he has begun to woo the nation’s biggest developers with his ‘Yes is More’-style architecture.
Actually the 41-year-old Dane’s toehold in this country is much more secure than that. Earlier this month Ingels made headlines with the unveiling of his centrepiece Serpentine Pavilion, a playful, 14m-tall Minecraft-like mini-mountain made from 1,800 stacked glass fibre ‘bricks’. Widely praised as one of the London gallery’s most successful summer showstoppers in years, it was billed by some as his practice BIG’s breakthrough project in the UK.
In truth the Serpentine curators knew they had to act quickly if they wanted to get an Ingels scheme ahead of the rest of the country. In November 2014 the Copenhagen and New York-based firm quietly scooped its first scheme on these shores – a new square at Battersea Power Station. Soon after, the practice saw off the likes of SOM and AJ100 stalwart Hawkins\Brown to bag a mid-rise scheme within the Sellar Properties-backed development at Canada Water in south-east London.
A further coup followed when BIG, teamed with Thomas Heatherwick, took over from AHMM on internet giant Google’s £600 million showpiece headquarters at King’s Cross (the scheme went out to potential contractors last week).
Then in April the practice, this time with Hawkins\Brown, was named on a stellar shortlist to create a new home for the Museum of London in the historic Smithfield Market.
This month it emerged that BIG had set up an outpost in London. It was already 16-strong and looking to grow. Early appointments include Andy Young, the lead architect on Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Leadenhall Building, and Lisa Melvin from Heatherwick Studio, who has become BIG’s UK operations manager.
’Scandi noir shook up TV drama; a Scandi shake-up Ingels-style will do British architecture no harm’
For Ingels, the move to London ‘seemed an obvious choice’ and its location between Denmark and the US ‘didn’t harm’, either.
He admits he doesn’t have any grand plan for London, though he adds that Britain has been on his radar for about 15 years. He says: ‘We don’t have a long-term vision for the studio; but when we moved to New York we didn’t really have a plan. There was one large project in New York that I wanted to take seriously. Since then other opportunities have opened up by just being there, that wouldn’t if I had stayed in Copenhagen.’
Via 57 West, New York by BIG
So here he is and more work will surely follow in the UK, too. The punchiness and clarity of BIG’s designs have become easy-to-understand calling cards – even if their bravado and wit are not always universally appreciated. Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian describes Ingels as the ‘undisputed king of the architectural one-liner’, creating schemes which ‘thrive off their ease of digestion, but sometimes leave you wanting more to chew on’.
Yet BIG has many fans.
Peter Cook of avant-garde 1960s architectural group Archigram is among them. The 79-year-old recently described Ingels provocatively as a refreshing new challenger to the dullard ‘biscuit boys’ with their beige architecture. Cook, who built little under the Archigram banner, is convinced BIG’s creative sparkle will lead to business success in the UK.
‘Watch it guys … he’ll be bigger than any of you in two to three years,’ he warned the nation’s largest practices at the AJ100 awards ceremony this month.
Richard Simmons, former chief executive of CABE and a visiting lecturer at the Bartlett School of Planning is also looking forward to seeing more of Ingels’ work here in the UK.
‘His schemes are iconic but he doesn’t just play with shapes,’ Simmons says. ‘He’s an urbanist. He wants to make great places. He cares about building decent homes in liveable neighbourhoods as much as creating intriguing forms.
He adds: ‘Scandi noir shook up TV drama; a Scandi shake-up Ingels-style will do British architecture no harm.’
Ingels’ global reputation has been built in little over a decade. It is a journey which started with a love of comic books, stints at universities in Barcelona [he won his first competition in his third year] and Copenhagen, a spell at Rem Koolhaas’ office (1998-2001), and a four-year partnership with Julian de Smedt under the PLOT banner, which culminated in the creation of the BIG brand in 2005.
The company now employs 350 staff, including 200 people in its New York office, where Bjarke (from Old Norse for ‘bear’) Ingels spends half of his time.
Clients in the States have been seduced by his photogenic designs. The New York Times recently ran the headline ‘Bjarke Ingels Is reshaping the Architecture of New York City’.
2 World Trade Center
The list of BIG projects in the US includes the $1 billion Dryline flood resilience project to protect 10 miles of Manhattan shoreline from the likes of Hurricane Sandy, a $50 million police station in the Bronx, the $460 million Via 57 West pyramidal residential tower on the Hudson, the stack-like successor to Foster + Partners’ World Trade Center 2 skyscraper, and the new Google base in California.
With good humour and charm he has toured and talked around the world, dreamt up a raft of much-publicised, headline-grabbing concepts such as his waste-to-energy plant with rooftop ski slope, and even inspired young Belgian wannabe architect Étienne Duval to create a YouTube job application which went viral. In Venice at the Biennale people stopped to take selfies with this smiling, new-era starchitect.
Ingels confesses to having an admiration for the British high-tech movement and Richard Rogers
While other big names of world architecture such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind have touched down temporarily in the UK from time to time, Ingels sees a longer-term future here.
And, perhaps unexpectedly, he is excited by the constraints imposed by working within the dense urban environment of London. He says: ‘There is something particularly enjoyable about practising in a city with such a depth of history. In the USA – except in East coast cities like New York or Washington – you have hardly any heritage to respond to. In Copenhagen there is a more complex history to bounce up against. And the same in London. The more difficult the job, the better we are at it.’
He adds: ‘When the typical response is not an option, it becomes liberating.’
He confesses, too, to having an admiration for the British high-tech movement and in particular Richard Rogers, whom he describes as ‘one of those architects who remains committed to a very pure, almost idealistic approach to how to put buildings together and how to organise them’. The Cheesegrater, Ingels acknowledges, is ‘amazing’. ‘It has a striking profile but it is not a perfume bottle design,’ he says. ‘It works. In that way it is Louis Kahn-esque with its served and serving spaces.’
Plans for Google’s HQ in California by BIG with Heatherwick Studio
Business acumen seems to go hand-in-hand with design at BIG.
Speaking at the AA last year, Ingels said: ‘BIG was not founded with the purpose of making money. It was founded to make some really cool buildings that we [as architects] wouldn’t be able to do at another company.
‘But one thing is dead certain – if you go bankrupt, it is not going to work. You’ll go out of business, have to take a job [with someone else] or go live with your parents.’
BIG’s approach has attracted sometimes scathing criticism.
’Ingels hasn’t the same finesse as Koolhaas… his talent lies in self-promotion’
Architectural Review history editor Tom Wilkinson pulls no punches when he describes BIG as the ‘stinking corpse of zombie starchitecture, a phenomenon that has appeared to be on its last legs for a while now but keeps lurching along on stumps nonetheless’.
He adds: ‘The lazy shape-making, the disingenuous claims of contextuality, the silly justifications for formal decisions – these have become mere phatic conventions, no longer seriously intended to veil the naked pursuit of easily marketed silhouettes. Which wouldn’t matter so much if his design ideas were any good, but whereas those of his hero Koolhaas have a refined banality, Ingels hasn’t the same finesse. But perhaps such criticism is besides the point: Ingels’ talent lies in self-promotion, and the quality of the product is entirely nugatory.’
But Vicky Richardson, former director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council, is happy to defend the ‘heroic’ and ‘eloquent’ Ingels. She recalls how, at the opening of the Serpentine Pavilion, Ingels hit back at the ‘one-liner’ jibe, saying that he was seeking ‘simplicity from complexity’.
Richardson says: ‘I thought this was particularly compelling at a time when many other architects seek refuge in the cosy professional world and in deliberately obscure ideas.’
And, more importantly than winning over the naysayers on the sidelines, Ingels keeps his clients happy and gives them ‘intelligent design solutions that you couldn’t have even imagined,’ says David Twohig, chief development officer at Battersea Power Station Development Company. He adds: ‘Bjarke and his team are a lot of fun to work with as they bring originality and creativity to the table. There’s passion and vision alongside an understanding of developing deliverable designs. It’s the ideal combination.’
Soon-to-depart co-curator of the Serpentine Pavilion Julia Peyton-Jones, who commissioned Ingels for this year’s pavilion, agrees. ‘He is an excellent communicator and throughout the process he has been open, relaxed, energetic and thoroughly engaged. While it is relatively modest in size, the pavilion commission demands attention, which is no mean feat when you are running a leading international architectural practice with global commissions and demanding clients.’
She concludes: ‘There is a feeling of unpretentiousness that pervades the project that is in no small part down to the lightness of touch and sense of humour brought by BIG’s youthful and highly committed team.’
You have been warned.
What the profession thinks of Bjarke Ingels
Hanif Kara, co-founder, AKTII
‘Bjarke Ingels is right to enter the architectural pantheon of London, a global city surrounded by a steel net that has not allowed many international offices in without an office. He is defining another spirit of architecture which is very relevant. That’s the simple reason why we need to embrace him: to help us stay relevant as a city. I am sure there are critics, but the fact remains he is doing some incredibly fresh things without a particular manifesto. From waste-to-energy plants, to stadiums, housing and museums, Ingels has an enviable portfolio. My suspicion is that enlightened developers are, and will, have BIG on their list for London.’
Nick Johnson, former deputy chief executive, Urban Splash
‘Ingels is in the idiom of Peter Cook, Cedric Price, Will Alsop. All colourful characters: bold, free-thinkers. There are too few people with those qualities in architecture because corporate culture forces us to surrender them. They’re all easy targets for critics obsessed with polite intelligence. Dig a little deeper, look beyond the ‘colour’ and often you find solutions that do more to celebrate humanity and human behaviour. I prefer that approach to the uptight men in black who seek to condition it.’
Chris Bown, journalist and architectural commentator
‘BIG is one of those MIPIM regulars, always there with another outrageous, in-your-face design. Their projects always seemed a bit like the Helter Skelter tower design in the City of London – exciting designs likely to be fraught with problems once the complexity (and therefore cost) of constructing them is really looked into. Ingels now has his breakthrough project in the UK with the Serpentine Gallery pavilion. But will this extravagant form translate into realistic commercial projects?’
Liane Hartley, co-founder, Mend
‘Bjarke Ingels’ acceptance in the UK heralds an exciting time for architecture here. His philosophy and approach to thinking ‘big’ helps us to appreciate buildings, spaces and cities as more than just the sum of their parts. Their emergent nature, developing personalities and communing with the myriad actions, behaviours and transactions going on with and between them, at all times, speaks to how we never really have a grip on them ourselves. They exist in a form of comfortable chaos. Rather than be afraid of this, his relinquishing of control that planning and architecture seem so jealous to covet is refreshing and liberating. I’m excited to see his more behavioural approach to architecture that not only demands a more user-centric outlook but also challenges and encourages us as users to be ultra-aware of space and ourselves as not being mutually exclusive categories.’
Roger Zogolovitch, managing director, Solidspace
’I first met BIG at WAF and was immediately impressed by their intelligence and a freshness of approach.
’Architecture always needs to find better ways of accommodating it’s place in our historic cities. Seeking innovation remains a challenge – finding new ways to frame the way for development with wit and imagination is encouraging. Ultimately architecture is the art of longevity – to succeed it must endure and grow well with age, that is my personal test.’