3 Big Ideas from a Visionary Architect WIRED

3 Big Ideas from a Visionary Architect

A Kazakh bus stop.

Bjarke Ingels is an architect who isnt afraid to think weird. When a competition solicited ideas for what to do with a huge trash-munching power plant soon to be built in his native Copenhagen, Ingels studio, BIG, submitted the sort of idea youd expect from a precocious first-grader: They suggested turning it into an massive artificial ski slope. To the firms surprise, the proposal won, and by 2017 or so when the projects complete, it will no longer seem odd to spend a day skiing on a mountain of trash.

To Ingels, this is architecture at its most excitingwhen it brings the world we live in a little bit closer to the world of our dreams. Yesterday, at the morning session of the WIRED by Design conference, the architect broke down some of the big ideas that inform these sort of radical designs.

Bjarke Ingels. Ben Rasmussen/WIRED

Information-Driven Decisions

For BIG, no decision is arbitrary. Every project starts with a rigorous research process. We learn everything we can before we start thinking about our intervention, Ingels explains. In some cases, that means research on sites and materials. In other cases, the data can be playfully incorporated into the design itself.

When Ingels was tapped by his high school math teacher to create a handball court for the architects former school, BIG had two choices for where to put it: on the soccer field or in the courtyard. The firm chose a third option: underneath the courtyard. Ultimately, they used a bit of data to shape the design. The ceiling of the subterranean gym took its form from a mathematical equation for a ballistic object rising and falling. In other words, the roof of the handball gym is the exact arc of a handball thrown through the air.

Open-Source Design

Since architecture is made for people to live with and enjoy, Ingels firm often looks to include regular people in the design process. His work on a park in Copenhagens most diverse neighborhood offers a perfect example. Instead of trying to come up with some sort of aesthetic compromise for the public space, his team came up with a design that actively reflected the diverse community.

An s-curve bench from Mexico City in BIGs Superkilen park. BIG

BIG asked people from the neighborhood for their favorite public objects from their native countries. Then, the firm imported them wholesale into the design. The result is a park with a Jamaican boombox, a Finnish bike rack, and a Kazakh bus stopone thats so much cooler than a standard Danish stop, Ingels points out. Theres an S-curve bench from Mexico City that lets the two people sitting in it look each other in the eyeright next to a circular Belgian bench that forces everyone to look away from each other. Visitors can use a smartphone app to learn the story behind each object.

Finding Beauty in Brutal Necessity

BIGs currently in the middle of perhaps its most ambitious project yet: storm-proofing Manhattan against future catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy. By tackling the project neighborhood by neighborhood, the aim is to create protective infrastructure that doubles as useful public space.

The effort combines the data-driven and community-centric approaches of the two previous projects. In some areas on Manhattans East side where only four feet of protection are needed to hold back waters anticipated for a fifty year flood, undulating, riverfront benches could serve as a functional dam. In other areas that could see more intense tides, covered storefronts could convert quickly into massive flood proof walls.

BIGs proposal for Manhattan includes a museum with a rad half-underwater observation room. BIG

BIG worked closely with the various New York City neighborhoods involved to figure out which sort of structures were most attractive to them specifically. Ingels jokingly refers to the approach as a lovechild of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Its unglamorous but necessary infrastructure that respects and, ideally, enriches the community its to be located in. The plan recently received over 300 million in federal grant money.

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Recently, BIGs been trying to work out one nagging detail of its trash mountain ski slope plan. Instead of having a chimney belching smoke, they wanted one that playfully puffed out a gigantic steam ring at regular intervals. It proved a tough engineering challengeit turns out no one really specializes in industrial-size smoke rings. A handful of early tests were total failures. But Ingels closed his talk with a short clip of the most recent trial, conducted in August. It shows a massive chimney. Then, theres a blast like a cannon and a cloud of fog. At first it seems like a failure. Then, you hear someone cheering as you see a thick ring of smoke sail upwards into a clear blue Copenhagen sky.

Stayed tuned for more highlights from WIRED by Design.


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