Green spots, not grey spots

“I got sidetracked into architecture,” Bjarke Ingels tells me. “I only wanted to learn to draw better backgrounds.” That comment makes more sense if you’ve seen the 37-year-old architect’s book, Yes is More, an architecture manifesto meticulously presented as an iconoclastic and occasionally very funny comic book. The title is a sly play on Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more”, the condition of architectural practice and on Rem Koolhaas’s description of the contemporary as a culture of “¥€$”.

Ingels looks boyish in his “Free Ai Wei Wei” T-shirt and his enthusiasm as he explains his early ambitions to be a comic book artist is infectious. He switches enthusiasms in an instant. At the moment, he is enthusing about infrastructure. Ingels recently won a commission to design in his native Copenhagen a combined rubbish incinerator and power plant with an irresistibly bonkers proposal to stick a ski slope on its roof. It is a kind of marketing genius, a juxtaposition of unaligned activities that creates public space from garbage. “Governments make huge investments in public infrastructure, water, sewage, trains, roads and each ends up being massively” – he pauses – “unenjoyed”. Good coinage, I think. “Each time you bring out the infrastructure shovels you should make sure it becomes not a grey spot on the map but a green spot. Something good.”

It is this cocktail of apparent naivety and perceptive thinking that makes Ingels one of the hottest properties in architecture today. Extremely young for an internationally successful architect, he is also funny, sharp and free of the clichés of the profession. He started off in the offices of OMA, the practice established by Rem Koolhaas, and worked on the early phases of the Seattle Public Library – one of the great public buildings of the past half century. He set up on his own in 2001 and formed his current practice, Big (Bjarke Ingels Group), in Copenhagen in 2005.

Big’s Vancouver Beach + Howe tower

He caused a stir by exporting the Little Mermaid to the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and sticking it in the centre of a pool surrounded by ramps down which visitors cycled to create an authentic Copenhagen experience. He is currently designing a new city hall for Tallinn; a twisting, lumber-clad new wing for Park City Utah’s Kimball Art Centre; a recently announced twisting 49-storey tower in Vancouver and too many others to mention.

His most visible current project is his super-park or Superkilen (a very Ingels coinage, all fun and superlatives), which opened this summer in Copenhagen. This is an extraordinary corridor that runs through the city’s cosmopolitan Norrebro quarter, where Big’s offices are. “It’s an extreme exercise in public participation,” he says. “A mile-long public space running through an area inhabited by residents from over 50 different countries. We asked people to nominate elements from their own cultures, so we have a Moroccan fountain, palm trees from China, a muscle beach from LA, a playground slide from Chernobyl ... it is crowd-sourced urban design.” It is an incredible sight. Its individual elements are occasionally primitive, occasionally witty, often funny and always eye-catching.

“What we’re trying to do,” he says “is to create new typologies. There’s the mountain that contains a parking garage and the New York Courtscraper ...” The first is Ingels’ answer to Denmark’s lack of mountains: a Copenhagen apartment block built on a base portraying an Alpine landscape in which the profile of mountains is picked out in perforations that give light to the multi-storey garage below. The second is his plan for a residential block in New York’s Upper West Side that combines the European courtyard with the US skyscraper (it’s a 20-storey structure). But perhaps most interesting of all is his “8” house on the edge of Copenhagen, an apartment block that wraps around in on itself. The rising and falling roofscape creates a continuous park and cycle track so residents can bike to their front doors. It is an audacious idea in a frankly bleak landscape of bland new housing. “This is an affordable housing block,” he says “and the roof, that single innovation, has accelerated the creation of a community inside. The decision to make the roof like that creates a cascade of consequences, ripples in the water which influence every aspect of the design.”

Ingels is good at using language to convey an enthusiasm for architecture. Why, then, turn to the comic book for Yes is More? “One of my obsessions is the idea that architecture is an elitist activity designed by architects for other architects,” he says. “It’s way too important for that – everybody should play a role in an ongoing urban revolution. Life, as Kierkegaard said, is lived forwards but understood backwards and the comic book is able to spatially structure that element of time.” I wasn’t expecting Kierkegaard. Ingels continues: “Understanding precedes intervention. Architecture isn’t just about decorating a box but about reconfiguring things for the better. If we’re extremely successful we can maybe build 50 buildings but if we can make something which inspires a new DNA we can make a much more substantial impact.”

Ingels’ thinking is surprisingly unarchitectural. He conceives problems more like an engineer, less concerned with the particulars of the place and more with the type, a universal solution. “Hedonistic sustainability” is another of his irresistible coinages. I notice that the address of Big’s website is More of a single than a double entendre, I ask? “The grotesque thing,” he replies, “is that it is completely accidental. It doesn’t work in Danish. But I do get a lot of giggles.” He grins, as he shakes my hand.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

Home from home

An aerial view of Superkilen

It’s a park that pays more than just lip-service to the fashionable concept of cultural diversity. Copenhagen’s central areas are home to some 50 nationalities and cultures, and the city authorities, in conjunction with the architects, decided to involve local inhabitants of the park’s perimeters in thoroughly practical ways.

All sorts of park furniture – not just bins and benches but trees, manhole covers and even signage – from some of these far-flung places have been incorporated into Superkilen, Copenhagen’s new “superpark”. Some of these items are copies, some have actually been sourced and imported from Jamaica, Palestine, Spain, Texas, Thailand and elsewhere.

Divided and colour-coded into different activity areas, Superkilen includes a Red Square (café, music, sport), the so-called Black Market (classic park space with fountain and benches) and the Green Park (picnics, games, dogs).

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