Can Designing for a Dictator Actually Be Virtuous?

Baby-faced starchitect Bjarke Ingels sits down with Co.Design to discuss a controversial commission and saving Brazil from the Olympics curse.

Just shy of 36 years old, Bjarke Ingels is, without a doubt, the most precocious contemporary architect on the international scene today. And his firm, BIG — short for Bjarke Ingels Group — is about to become even more prominent. After several splashy commissions in their home-base of Denmark, the firm is now opening a New York office that will work on several high-profile projects in the city, including a high-rise condo in Manhattan and other, big-time commissions that remain confidential for now.


Ingels cut his teeth working for Rem Koolhaas at OMA and just like the master, Ingels’s buildings have a severe, monolithic aesthetic. But when explained, they reveal an irresistible logic. Ingels recently sat down with Co.Design to talk about his upcoming works and what may be his most controversial commission yet, the Astana National Library, commissioned by the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who oversees an infamously dictatorial and corrupt government.

Ingels was on a short jaunt in New York, to sign a new lease on an apartment in TriBeCa. And he’d just bought an old Porsche to commute between New York and Boston, for a teaching gig at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

We talked about how better architecture might solve the curse of hosting the Olympics; why designing for a dictator can still be virtuous; and why surf & turf is the quintessential American meal.


So what are you going to be teaching up in Boston?

Between 2014 and 2016, Rio de Janiero is going to host both the World Cup and the Olympics. So we’re going to be looking at ways to transform the who investment into something that Brazil can benefit from in the long-term. Because generally the Olympics have a traumatic impact on the host city. It usually creates a construction bubble that leaves behind empty spaces forever.

What’s funny is that right when I agreed to teach this class, The Economist had a cover with the famous Christos statue with rocket fins photoshopped onto it, with the headline “Brazil Takes Off.” The economy has become an amazing locomotive for the South America — it’s bigger than all of Latin America put together — but Rio also has tremendous social challenges. We want to see if we might solve these with investments for the Olympics.


[The Astana National Library, scheduled for completion in 2012]


So how might one of those solutions work?

My girlfriend and I just went on holiday in Rio, and we stayed in a small favela of 2000 inhabitants. The reason we could stay in a hotel run by a local artist is that a decade ago the SWAT team moved their headquarters there. Having 600 armed men having coffee in the neighborhood every morning suddenly cleaned things up.

But what I noticed was that with their spiraling roads and nested buildings and maze of tiny shops, the favelas have a type of architecture shared by the wealthiest parts of Italy, along the Amalfi coast. The only difference is that Italy has better plumbing and white paint. So the favelas are actually a pretty desirable type of city planning. We might be able to find ways to create some kind of positive gentrification where old and new residents could coinhabitat the area — rather than erasing those neighborhoods. This wouldn’t just be philanthropy, but sane investment at the same time.


[The 8 House, which just recently won an award as Scandinavia’s best green roof]


Is the Brazilian government taking these sorts of ideas seriously?

Well, they’re going to be only hiring local architects for the work, but we want to present the results of studio in the form of a newspaper or a magazine that we can present to local officials.


[Another view of 8 House]

So tell us more about what you’re working on in Manhattan.


I can’t say, unfortunately [laughs]. But as for the apartment building, we’re trying to introduce a new hybrid that combines the classical New York high-rise, and the traditional European block, with a courtyard in the middle.

It seems like things might be a lot different here, than in your home country. What can New York teach a young architect like yourself?

As an architect, you’re always trying to accommodate different interests in a single building, from the residents to the developers to the city planning officials. In Manhattan, the density makes that even more extreme, and there’s something in the American culture about bringing together competing interest groups. I mean, this is the country that invented surf & turf! I mean, steak and lobster! What other country would thing to combine those two extremes? I sense some interesting possibilities here.


[The so-called KUBE development, a cultural center for Copenhagen]

A lot of your buildings — such as the 8 House apartments and the Mountain Dwellings project, or the Astana National Library and the Danish pavilion look like evolutions of a theme. Is that part of BIG trying to develop an aesthetic, or a signature?


No, we don’t have a commitment to certain forms or styles. But as we develop stuff we learn how things relate and connect, and we learn how those forms can be reinterpreted to create new possibilities. So for example, the basic form of the 8 House, which allowed both a courtyard and views and a sloping green roof, has become in TED [pictured below] which attempts to bring street life up to the level of the penthouse.

It’s a bit like in nature how some fish developed bigger flippers that could be used as legs. It’s not like the fins had a purpose for walking, but through an act of relocation and misinterpretations, they became legs. A major part of design evolution is that things developed for one purpose can be used in other ways. And that’s why you see diversity and continuity in design.


[BIG’s most recently announced project, TED, a mixed-used building in Taiwan]

What’s it been like working for Kazakhstan?


It’s a very top down type of decision making [laughs]. For example, in Copenhagen we’ve been working for five years on a mosque design and we’re still working on local permissions. In Kazakhstan, we signed the contract and the client said, ‘We want to move this 800 meters closer to the president’s palace.’ So we took a look at the site. It was already roped off, and they started digging the next day. You don’t have the same sorts of public hearings as you do in other excessively democratic countries [laughs].

It can be exhilarating. Kazakhstan is a tabula rasa. It’s only been an independent country since 1991, and the capital is still inventing itself. We’re working in a similar way in Greenland, where we were just asked to compete to design the National Gallery. The country just got homerule from Denmark a few years ago, and they’re now reinventing their national identity. Art is one of those tools. And actually, I just spent my summer in Greenland hunting reindeer and snacking on Rudolf [laughs].

But then again, you’re a foreign architect, so does it make sense to have foreign architects create national symbols for other countries?

We’ve been on an architectural safari for the last five years, working abroad. At home, you might be so busy rebelling against the establishment that you miss the virtues of your inheritance. But working abroad, you can wield traditional materials without being petrified.

So give me an example of that.

In Denmark, with the 8 House we tried to dodge the tyranny of the courtyard/perimeter block. But in New York, we’re trying to cross breed the perimeter block and the high rise, to allow a communal garden in the heart of a building. It’s more about what you can do by merging cultures.

And we’re doing a project in Athens. The international style of modernism was inspired by vernacular Greek architecture. So we designed buildings that are cracked at the bottom — at street level, you get a medieval circulation, with streets winding through. But at the top, the buildings lean together, leaving on a few feet between each. That protects from the hot midday sun but preserves the ethos of an organically grown Greek village. Right in central Athens.

[Below: Designs for HOLY, the Athens project mentioned above]

Let’s go back to Kazakhstan. I have to ask: How is it working for a man whose political opponents have a habit of getting shot?

Well, we’re also working in China. I find that sort of salon socialism naive, where you stand against the politics while everyone is wearing Chinese sneakers. The basic criteria should be this: Are you improving conditions by intervening? And I think that just because people don’t have the right to vote doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to good buildings. The best way to maintain the proper distance is to make sure that Kazakhstan gets a great library. You know, all of the core Danish institutions were built by the monarchy. And all illumination starts with a library. That does Kazakhstan more good than a weird boycott.

Well said. And I don’t meant to single you out, because even Norman Foster works there and Lance Armstrong takes Kazakh money. But still, does it feel weird? I mean, you shook the president’s hand after you won this commission.

Well, even he has said to us, ‘This is not my building, it’s for the people.’ It’s not like we’re doing a library that’s also a statue in the shape of the sultan. It’s a library.

[More images of the Astana National Library]

So let’s talk about the design.

Most libraries are organized by the Dewey Decimal system, so the simplest form for an archive would be one long stick. But that creates dead ends, so we wanted to create a perfect circle combined with a Mobius strip. All of the rooms are plugged into that circle. For instance, the reading rooms go on the outside, with daylight and views. Auditoriums go in the center. At the top of the loop is the museum. To express all that in the exterior, we rotated a rectangular profile, creating a Mobius strip. And that means that the building facade transforms from a cylinder to an archway, and creates an entrance-way for entering the heart of the building.

Thanks for your time, and good luck with the new office and the new apartment.

Thank you. We’ll let you know when we can share our new work.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.