Why The Architect Behind NYC’s Enormous Flood-Proofing Plan Is Inspired By Martian Sci-Fi

Bjarke Ingels, one of the most creative architects in the world today, is a big sci-fi nerd.

The famed author Philip K. Dick once described the genre of science fiction by what it’s not: It is not about space, the future, or technology. Science fiction, he said, is a fictional plot triggered by innovation. The innovation can be political, cultural, biological, social, or technological, but the key is that it allows the story to become a narrative exploration of that tweak and the alternate world it creates.


Bjarke Ingels is a science fiction fan. Whether he’s designing Google’s new Mountain View campus or a clean power plant in Denmark that has a ski slope on the roof, Ingels is known as one of the most inventive architects in the world today. His creativity process is inspired by the structure of the genre.

“Once you alter one variable, the whole design process becomes an exploration of an idea,” says Ingels, who runs the firm BIG in Copenhagen. “Architecture and design—at the core of it, is the art and science of turning fiction into fact. You spend a lot of time getting permits,” he says, “and suddenly what started out as a wild idea, now it’s the world as we know it.”

It was in 2010, on an expedition with artists and scientists on a ship off the inhospitable coast of northeastern Greenland, that he began to read Red Mars, the first book in a trilogy that describes the life of 100 colonists to Mars. In the year 2026, they’ve left to escape Earth’s ecological disasters. Over the course of the novel, the colonists work to terraform Mars to make it habitable, eventually releasing chemicals to thicken the atmosphere and detonating nuclear bombs to create a source of water.

Essentially, the trilogy is about designing a planet–and the political struggles and maneuvering required in such a sizable task. To Ingels, who invited Red Mars author Kim Stanley Robinson to talk with him on stage at the Ideas City festival in New York in May, the novels are a useful reminder of the work the world needs to do in order to preserve Earth’s planetary balance (and how geoengineering, as terraforming is known on Earth, isn’t an easy fix for climate change).

“When we see the monumental, almost catastrophic scale of interventions that are necessary on Mars…it again reminds you of how much easier it is to actually proactively take care of a planet that comes with a completely inhabitable ecosystem,” Ingels says.

Ingels’s own recent work emphasizes this approach. His firm, BIG, won a federal design competition to imagine better storm protection for New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy–its “Dry Line” proposal involves a 10-mile loop of berms, parks and community spaces designed to shield Lower Manhattan from another catastrophic flood and to create fun spaces in drier times.


Ingels says the goal was to combine environmental engineering with social engineering. The result was a flood barrier that could be both centrally coordinated but also desired by local communities. “We thought this needs to be almost the lovechild of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” he says, referring to the polar opposite approaches of the two giants of urban planning, whose conflicts over highway building helped shaped New York City’s development in the 20th century.

As he did with ski slope on the clean power plant, in the end, Ingels is interested in creating designs that create joy, even while tackling dire issues like the effects of catastrophic climate change.

With an escape to Mars not very feasible in the near future, Robinson still believes there’s a lot of hope for Earth. “The idea is that the utopian possibility is still there. Seven billion people can live on this planet, stably over the long haul, with really smart agriculture, really smart technology, and really smart design. It’s not at all physically impossible.”

That’s not a bad inspiration for any designer to think about.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.