For the past two decades, Bjarke Ingels, founder of the eponymous architecture firm, has designed forward-thinking and conversation-starting objects, buildings, and master plans across the globe. In this conversation, Ingles talks about the sources of his optimism, creating a “master plan” for the planet, and how important storytelling is to design. It mixes conversation between Ingels and Paddy Harrington with editorial interjections, marked by italics, from Harrington about the episode’s—and the podcast’s—broader themes.Episode Transcript
Bjarke Ingels: The Danish word for design is formgivning, which means “to give form to that which has not yet been given form.” In other words, to give form to the future. And, of course, more specifically, to give form to the world that you would like to find yourself living in in the future. That’s an incredible human superpower: to imagine and create the future we would like to live in.
One of the best examples of something that goes from being in the realm of pure imagination to being hardcore reality is this waste-to-energy power plant in Copenhagen, the cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in the world. It’s so clean that we could turn its roofscape into a man-made ski slope complete with hundreds of trees and a ski-lift system. It has the tallest climbing wall in the world. It means that my one-year-old son won’t remember a time when you didn’t go skiing on the roof of the power plant and its facade wasn’t a climbing wall. For him and his entire generation, that’s going to be their new normal. That’s the new reality that they grow up in. And when they start making … coming up with crazy ideas for their future, that’s the starting point that they jump from. We have this incredible optimism about our power as human beings, as architects, as form givers, to give form to the future.
Paddy Harrington: At Frontier we’re trying ourselves to build out the idea and practice of Purpose Design. It’s tricky. People have a hard time understanding what design is, let alone a new kind of design. Architecture, on the other hand, is something most people understand. But the kind of architecture that Bjarke Ingels performs with his firm BIG, goes a step further and often attempts to bring about explicit positive that shifts perception of what architecture can do.
The part of Purpose Design that we struggle to explain is that purpose, alone, is not enough. You need inspiration, or design, to create a desire for change. Ingles’ architecture is all about inspiration.
This conversation was recorded right before the pandemic but its ideas are as relevant as ever. In fact, Ingles has been thinking this way for a while. He’s an optimist architect. But he’s under no illusions. The great architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is known for the saying ‘Less is More’ which has been borrowed by countless other professions as a way to think about the power of minimalist philosophy. Bjarke’s own ‘Yes is More’ philosophy is grounded in the idea that the best antidote to a world of challenges is to approach it with an attitude of informed positivity. Bjarke sees a bigger opportunity in bringing varying ideas together where the sum is greater than the parts. His power station in copenhagen brings together a climbing wall, an artificial ski hill, and a power plant into one building.
That kind of thinking is optimistic on many levels. But, again, it’s an optimism driven by an eye on the bigger picture.
BI: Of course, to be optimistic and to say that things are consistently getting better and better, in many aspects, is not to say that everything is perfect, right? Or that there are not incredible things to address. But the general proposition is that things are, in fact, consistently going better on almost all accounts except global warming. If we put that on pause for five seconds and just look at poverty, child mortality, life expectancy—all of those things are consistently going better. Of course there is still a lot to do. This kind of nostalgia we have about how it was better in the good old days is completely made up. We’re being bombarded with all kinds of instant news, instant images from everywhere. So it’s hard for us to discriminate because our perception has not evolved to get all this remote information.
One of the things we’ve been looking into lately is, Why do we seem so incapable of dealing capably with climate change? Human beings have historically proven to be incredibly capable of taking on, you know, multigenerational endeavors costing massive resources in terms of materials, money, time, and skill. A great example are the cathedrals: Notre Dame, which just burned, took 181 years of construction. The great cathedral in Cologne took, I believe, 623 years, I believe, to be built. It was started in 1200 and something, and finished in 1880.
PH: Barcelona, too, right?
BI: Yes, Sagrada Familia—we almost laugh at the Catalans, but they’ve only been building for 137 years. They’re not supposed to be more than two-thirds done. It’s a cathedral, after all! So how can we do that? Of course we could do that because we had blueprints, we had a master plan. One of the problems of climate change is that it’s been very much the domain of scientists, climate scientists, who are incredibly good at science but they’re academics, they’re not really entrepreneurs. They’re not very good at making things happen. They’re good at understanding them and studying them. And then politicians, because of our electoral system, politicians have a horizon of four years until the next election … maybe eight. But then, also, the mayors or the presidents have to step down after eight years.
PH: And companies are on quarterly cycles.
BI: So … there isn’t really anyone involved that has the kind of perspective and experience with giving form to the future. Our projects, the waste-to-energy power plant, took almost a decade. And that’s typical for an architectural project. Just like you can apply architectural thinking at the scale of a building, or a city block, or a neighborhood, or a city, or a region, or a country, of course you can apply it at the scale of a planet. So we actually started the work on what we call The Master Plan for the Planet. We were saying, if we were doing a master plan for a city or a country, what would be the things we would do? You’d look at the history, you’d understand the parameters, you’d look at the key criteria. Earth has an annual energy bill: 153,000 terawatt hours. That’s today, at around seven billion people. Once we’re ten billion people, which will be around 2050, and let’s say they’re all going to have the same quality of life as Singapore—the highest life expectancy, the lowest rate of child mortality, the highest general distribution of wealth—then that energy bill is going to be 750,000 terawatt hours. So that’s what we need to design for
It’s clear that it’s completely different than some kind of political speech. Right now, it’s all so fragmented: Toronto has a 2050 plan, Copenhagen has a 2025 plan … there are all these partial goals. But no one sees how it sums up. Actually, recently, we have actually successfully made a globe-spanning network: the world wide web. It took us fifty years to get that one installed. So, we know we can do it.
PH: What’s in a name? The thing about inspiration-led positive change is that it has to actually inspire. And it has to be catchy. People are bombarded with information. You see over thirty brand names before breakfast. How do you cut through that? If you’re going to change behavior, you need to change the way you connect with people. Ingles is a master of catchy. His Master Planet project says everything you need to know in the name itself. It’s clever. It captures your interest and it sets your expectations. This way of thinking is essential to his work. The flip side of catchy is gimmicky. Human beings, while we can be seduced by inspirational, clever, shiny things, also have a fundamental built-in bullshit detector. How do you walk that line between catchy and kitschy? And what’s the benefit of this kind of verbal invention?
When we work, when we design something, we constantly re-iterate the narrative as a form of design critique
BI: Especially in collaborative efforts, being capable of naming ideas is incredibly useful. It’s funny: I was studying in Barcelona when I was like twenty-one, twenty-two, and I was living with a Catalan intellectual who was so fascinated by German philosophers. He was convinced that, for a Spanish-speaking person, because their language is a kind of evolved version of Latin, they can’t hear the origin of many of their words. Whereas in German and Danish, you can hear a word, begreb, which means “concept,” as basically a combination of two other words that have been put together as a single word with a new meaning. But you can somehow, etymologically, trace it back. Moving that forward, one of the most powerful abilities we have as thinkers is to create new concepts. Deleuze believes that is the purpose of philosophy. In his book What Is Philosophy?, he says, “The artist-philosopher’s primary purpose is to create new concepts.” I think that’s what you can do when you bring words together. In design, and in architecture, everybody will know what a design narrative is. Typically a design narrative is some kind of retroactive way of communicating what it is you already did. Once you finish all the work and somehow you arrived here—now we have to explain it to the rest of the world, not least the client. So you come up with some kind of story and you see if it works, right?
I think what we’ve done, which is definitely not always the case with some of our colleagues, is to almost turn it the other way around. When we work, when we design something, we constantly re-iterate the narrative as a form of design critique. We start by identifying the greatest problems we need to address, the greatest potentials we can unleash, and the core values. Then, with that in mind, we start telling each other, as we look at the different design proposals, what the narrative would be for each—and where does it link to the core principles we’ve already identified as critical for the project? Then, as we reiterate the narrative, we can hear—“Ah!”—an idea comes up, let’s try that. So we go away and try that, then we come back, and in that kind of constant re-narration, designing the narrative becomes designing the project and vice-versa. Rather than having to come up with the design narrative, the method is already narrative design. The narrative is actually the guiding creative force.
PH: Stories, then, are key. They are not just words. They are guiding creative forces. This idea is central to design and in opposition to how many of us understand the world. When bombarded with branding and marketing we are trained to try to see past the story to the “truth” behind it. We’ve been conditioned to doubt clever stories because we’re pummeled by advertising where the words used and the product they describe are often at odds. There’s an old McDonald’s print ad that shows a Big Mac with the words “Height of Perfection” in big letters across the top of the page. Do we truly believe that a McDonald’s hamburger is the height of perfection? Is it any wonder why we distrust a lot of the advertising we hear or read in our daily lives?
What changes if the words and stories are true? If a building that converts waste to power is designed in a way that creates a ski hill on top in Copenhagen and gets called the Copenhill, is it slick marketing speak? Or is it a more interesting way to describe the truth? It’s clever. But our first instinct is to doubt it.
What if we hijack the skill of advertisers in manipulating words and powerful stories as a way to draw attention to truly world-changing projects? What happens when the narrative becomes a guiding creative force for positive change? And what about the skeptics who will remain … skeptical? How can you bring people who are doubters or who prefer the status quo into a more inspiring and sustainable way of living?
BI: When I was eighteen, in my last year of high school—in Denmark you have to have a major in high school and my major was political science. In the last semester of the last year, you have to do a third-year report. You do it in your major. This was in January 1993. So, my political-science report became environmental policy on global, regional, national, local, and individual levels. It was a follow up on the 1992 Rio conference, where they announced Agenda 21 based on [Norwegian Prime Minister] Gro Harlem Brundtland’s report. The whole concept of sustainability that was launched by Gro Harlem Bundtland’s report. Somehow, I was already pretty well-versed in sustainability as I graduated from high school and started architecture school—not knowing, of course, that it was going to be that incredibly relevant.
One of the things that struck me was that, back then, there was also this kind of distinction between the growth optimists and the doomsayers, people that believe everything has to stop. I think it’s quite clear that neither side is wrong. But I think the people that say growth has to stop … it’s not a viable proposition because you forget all the good things that have come with growth, like the decline in child mortality, the increasing life expectancy, health care, and education—not to say the entire [women’s] agenda, which has often been sacrificed when growth and prosperity is not available. [They are] forgetting all the incredible accomplishments that we’ve achieved.
PH: For too long we’ve taken an earnest approach to environmental sustainability. Somehow, if it wasn’t serious feeling, we didn’t trust it. Take electric cars. For decades they were seen as fringe options for tree huggers.
BI: When the first Tesla roadster came out, it was this clear example that an electric car shouldn’t be some kind of “car lite” or “car minus.” It should be the coolest fucking sportscar on the market, with the fastest acceleration and the most beautiful design. Then, of course, the other models came. But from the first one it offered this whole new idea that the sustainable could actually be cool or fast or more beautiful than the unsustainable.
PH: We use the Tesla example because most people have heard of it. It’s a great example of a different way of thinking about our big challenges, gas-powered cars being one. Tesla is leading a movement toward electric cars that doesn’t rely on people having their intentions in the right place. You don’t need to be a tree-hugger to love a Tesla. And that’s the point. How can we get to a place where the better and more responsible way of doing things is also the most inspiring and exciting?
While Bjarke has been thinking this way for a long time, the origins of his philosophy share a common DNA with our own thinking at Frontier and our shared experience of working with a common mentor.
BI: In 2004, we did a major collaboration with Bruce Mau for which he came to Denmark. We were commissioned to do the Danish pavilion at the architecture biennale in Venice together. We showed Bruce around our office also, and ended up showing him a little study we had done on Danish harbors. There was this fact that in the post-industrial cities, the industrial harbors are slowly shutting down. You have bigger and bigger facilities are freeing up, you have a lot of free area. The twelve biggest cities are port cities. We were just beginning to look at whether, instead of accepting this gradual decline and gradual transformation, what if we actually created a new “superharbor,” place it at the entrance to the Baltic sea, together with the bridge between Denmark and Germany, as an artificial island. With a magical swoop we could free up immense amounts of real estate in all of the major cities of Denmark, we could make Denmark the new gateway to the entire Baltic sea, with a hinterland of three hundred million people that incorporates Russia and other former Soviet countries. So rather than this sort of gradual decline, to turn it into a sort of massive, game-changing event.
We decided that sustainability is not a political dilemma, or a moral dilemma—maybe it is simply a design challenge
And Bruce said [snapping], “Let’s do this! Let’s do seven of these. Let’s redesign Denmark within seven different economies, one of them being the economy of movement—that’s the superharbor you already have. Let’s do one more. Which one should it be? Bruce took Greenland as an issue and the whole idea of the melting ice, that maybe Greenland could quench the thirst of Africa. We picked energy. The challenge was to say, “What if?” something. To imagine something that isn’t, if it was. We came up with, “What if Denmark had an energy bill of zero”? What if you could design all of Denmark in such a way that all the checks and balances even each other out and you end up neutral.
At the time, we kind of cheated because it felt a little abstract. Maybe we were too much architects at our core. But we thought, “What if we take Denmark, statistically, and say, you know, in Denmark there’s this much housing, this much office, this much industry, this much agriculture, this many cultural institutions, etc., and we boil it down to 100,00m2?” That’s a big building, but it’s still manageable as architecture. If we can solve it there, we can also solve it at the full scale. We made it almost like a tissue sample of all of Denmark. There we came up with the idea that maybe sustainability is not a political dilemma, or a moral dilemma, but maybe it is simply a design challenge.
What if there is a way in which you can continue with the amazing quality of life you’ve fought for and won, but because we’ve designed the way we deliver that quality of life differently, we’re using different technologies, we’re not wasting our byproducts, we’re feeding them back into the human-made ecosystem, you can actually take long, warm showers and have a good conscience at the same time.
So that’s how I came up with this idea of hedonistic sustainability. A sustainable building or a sustainable city is not just great for the environment, it can be amazing for the quality of life of its citizens. It just so happened that our first project that we had just done, two years before that, was the Copenhagen harbor bath. It turned out that the Copenhagen harbor bath is the perfect example of hedonistic sustainability because it shows that by having environmental laws in place that make the water clean, it’s not only good for the fish, it’s incredible for the people living in the city. They don’t have to sit in their cars for hours to get to the beach. They can jump in the port in the middle of the city. It became clear that that’s how you win: not by scaring people, or by forcing them to have this kind of incompatible reality—they’re flying for work or on holidays but they know they shouldn’t. No! You should have everything you ever wanted, but we should deliver it in a way that is sustainable.
PH: Hedonistic Sustainability is a catchy phrase. Maybe a bit obscure, but it captures the idea perfectly. Let’s make a more inspiring and exciting world that’s not just great for the environment, but amazing for the quality of life of the people who use it.
BIG is designing buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and, you might even say, the planet with this mindset.
How might we apply that to our organizations, our communities, and our governments? If BIG is doing the hardware, what about the software? How can we build the purpose of these organizations with a hedonistic-sustainability mindset?
That’s the task we’ve taken on. It’s about taking a design approach to traditional marketing, branding, strategy, and advertising. The idea is that if you can think like an architect, then you can design the way that people work and how they communicate. If you can use the tools of marketing and advertising then you can capture people’s imaginations and inspire them to change.
Changing the way your company defines its mission, vision, and values in this way, using Purpose Design, helps you align your values with those of your employees in an environment where young graduates are demanding change. But instead of making it boring, it can be a lot of fun.
Learn more about Bjarke and BIG at BIG.dk.
Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to know when our next episode is released.Credits
This episode features edited versions of “My Earth,” “Island 1,” “Glowing Moods,” and “Dreaming Floating” by The Sound Room; “Water Fragments” by Joel Loopez; and “Melodramatic Ambience” by Jonathan Hyde.
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