In a previous post we wrote that Bjarke Ingels (1974), founder of the relatively young architectural practice BIG, is amongst the most prominent representatives of a generation of architects that tries and surpasses postmodern conventions, attitudes and strategies. Ingels’ approach to architecture is perhaps best described, in his own words, as Yes is More, sustainable hedonism or, more generally, pragmatic utopianism. Ingels, we wrote, seems to tap into the metamodern sensibility, appears to embody the metamodern attitude. For he most definitely oscillates between modern positions and postmodern ones, a certain out-of-this-worldness and a definite down-to-earthness, naivety and knowingness, idealism and the practical. The question remains, however, how Ingel’s rather contemporary approach to architecture translates into his designs for contemporary built space.
BIG’s recent work has come to be associated with iconic motifs and ‘geological’ metaphors. Ramps and slopes and folded paths have become recurring and recognizable elements in a ‘BIG’ building, the driving force that sets it apart from other, aesthetically similar, solutions. Driven by a process of ‘pragmatic idealism’, BIG typically creates a synthesis between different programmatic elements that would not feature together ordinarily – and with unexpected results. The forms presented in the glossy magazines of the architectural press are ones of continuous surfaces that blur the boundaries between landscape and cityscape (nature and culture) and town and country (urb and suburb). Let’s have a look at three different, yet related projects that surpass classic contradictions, as they grow increasingly complex, massive and fascinating.
Completed in 2004, The Maritime Youth House in Copenhagen, (by the practice PLOT that would split to form BIG and JDS in 2006), was built for clients who had to share facilities but who had conflicting requirements. Part social project with a youth space and outdoor space, the site was also required for the local junior sailing club to moor their boats. Further difficulties existed with the actual site itself as it was highly contaminated with polluted soil. A study commissioned by PLOT revealed that the pollutants were relatively stable, comprising heavy metals, and as such they developed a solution that didn’t require moving the contaminated soil – a undulating deck, raised on piles above the site – with the saving on costs being transferred back to the public functions. This deck allowed a dialogue between the users of the two building as it pushed up or down depending on the required functions. The deck was then transformed into a publicly accessible landscape/roofscape that flows over the clubhouse.
Another project in Copenhagen, on a larger scale, the Mountain Dwellings project can be seen as the ‘breakthrough’ project for Bjarke Ingels. Like the Maritime Youth House the project was started when the practice was still known as PLOT but the majority of the work after the split has been accredited to BIG. The original brief from the developer called for two separate buildings, a block of housing and a block of car parking, but in what is, arguably, the most important move for the project the team restructured the program so that the parking became a podium for the housing to sit on. By sloping this new hybrid block the residential units are able to step up the building, creating a stepped landscape of individual courtyard houses and generous views. The residential units are modelled on suburban typologies (operating on an urban density) and step down the southern facade; wooden cladding, fake grass and areas of vegetation are designed to enhance the ‘suburban experience’, whilst the L-shaped plan used for the houses creates protected and more ‘public’ outdoor spaces. The parking element underneath is furnished in materials more traditionally associated with car parks, pragmatic and efficient, freeing up the budget for other parts. Each floor is finished in a different bright color and a diagonal lift, brought in from Switzerland, works with the sloping form. The car park is wrapped in a perforated metal screen dressed with an rasterised image of the Himalayas so the “mountain” metaphor becomes literally embodied on the northern facade. Moving back through the building a series of interesting spatial sequences are created from the ‘postmodern’ ornament of the exterior, the inside of the naturally ventilated car park, into the apartments and finally out on to the ‘modernist’ decks.
With the masterplan for Zira Zero Island, an isle within the crescent-shaped bay of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, BIG recently moved into the world of urban planning. Taking its inspiration from the mountainous landscape of Azerbaijan, the design recreates the “iconic” silhouettes of the country’s most famous mountains and turns them into a string of buildings, which holds, amongst others, resorts, recreational zones and residential units. From afar, the island’s built space resembles a mountainous skyline, an artificial wilderness, just off the coast of Azerbaijan. On the island itself, the “mountain-buildings” are used to playfully define the features of landscape such as its various microclimates and tree lines, pathways and hiking trails, valleys and vistas.
The actual beauty and perhaps even sublimity of the design aside, questions can be raised as to whether the program, with its focus on high-end tourism and residential activities (with golf course), represents the best investment socially. Zira Island, after all, seems to be one of those megalomaniac constructions of an utterly egomaniac elite. This might be the case. Yet to our mind its hedonistic aspirations are being countered and held in check by the project’s aimed for self-sufficiency and sustainability. For Zira Island will indeed be a Zira zero Island as it will be entirely independent of external resources. This is hardly unique – it places the island on a par with similar masterplans for zero carbon developments such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi and Dongtan in China. As much as we might abhor the moneymakers and powerbrokers that sponsor such plans, however, the know-how, expertise and innovation gained from such projects will ultimately be more broadly applied to develop more ordinary models for sustainable living.
The defining characteristic of these, and other BIG projects is a pragmatic utopianism that translates into a rather “organic” aesthetic. It’s pragmatism is expressed by the willingness to take into account site-specific conditions, constraints and requirements; its idealism by a commitment to social and, most significantly, sustainable solutions. Increasingly, moreover, BIG’s aesthetic seems to revolve around a geological leitmotiv; around habitable landscapes, organic cityscapes and artificial wildernesses. Consider, the above discussed examples aside, Amagerforbraending, the plant-cum-piste or the fascinating Lego Towers. Skylines become mountainous, cities contain ridges and cliffs, buildings become hillocks, walls are slopes and plateaus.
* written in collaboration with Robin van den Akker.
images (from top to bottom): Amagerforbraending, Copenhagen (Image; BIG Architects); Maritime Youth House, Copenhagen (Image: BIG Architects); Mountain Dwellings, Copenhagen (Image: BIG Architects); Zira Zero Island Masterplan, Azerbaijan/Caspian Sea (Image: BIG Architects).