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Interview with Architect Bjarke Ingels

Aired April 22, 2012 - 14:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you could do anything, what would we really do? What are the things that we lack in our city? What are the things that we would like to do, but we can't. And then make them happen. That's exactly what architecture should be all about.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: That's just a small window into the mind of the man you're about to meet. He's a young Danish architect named Bjarke Ingels.

His bold innovative ideas are pushing the boundaries of the design around the globe including the Manhattan skyline. But he's not just dreaming up high in the sky projects, he's actually getting them built.

You see, Ingels architecture is not about building monuments, but about creating possibilities for human life. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to THE NEXT LIST.


BJARKE INGELS, ARCHITECH: In the big picture architecture is the art and science of making sure that our cities and buildings fit with the way we want to live our lives.

The West 57th project, it's a really beautiful site, overlooking the Hudson river, has a view like we have here. It is perfectly oriented towards the south and the west, but it's, you know, right where the west side highway takes off.

And it's in hell's kitchen, as you can imagine, from the name, it's a pretty sort of industrial neighborhood. So we thought that maybe it would be interesting to really create a sense of place. Having spent 10 years of our career in Copenhagen trying to escape the tyranny, it could be an interesting thing to rediscover in Manhattan.

Like the European courtyard is that the architecture scale is of the urban scale, like an urban oasis at the heart of the city. This is the West 57th Street Project. As you can see, it's this mixture between a skyscraper and a courtyard building.

And to sort of open up the courtyard for the viewers, it tilts from being horizontal to being almost vertical, opening up the entire court yard for the sun from the south and the west, so you'll be able to see the sunset over the Hudson River.

And the southwest corner is 42 inches. So it's really the height of the hand rail and here you're up 430 feet. So you have this -- from the human scale to the city scale in one single building.

ROBERT A. M. STERN, DEAN, YALE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE: It's a big idea that caught everybody's attention. Just the kind of idea when you see it, you say, how come nobody's thought of it before.

DOUGLAS DURST, DEVELOPER, WEST 57TH PROJECT: I describe him as a genius. He doesn't fit what you think of as an architect. He's brash, he's very young, but he is, I think, a true genius in the sense of being able to see designs in his mind and put them down on paper better than anybody I've met.

INGELS: Today a lot of people have this feeling that they ask why are all modern buildings so boring? And essentially you say like modern buildings have degenerated in to these big boring boxes.

Where the architecture is very passive and all the quality that makes the space inhabitable is like this onslaught of machinery that pumps air and life into the building.

So what we're interested in is what you could call engineering without engines. That essentially we use contemporary technology, our capacity to simulate and calculate the performance of a building to put the attribute in to the actual design of the building, the way it's structured.

The way the windows are proportioned, the way it's oriented to capture the sun or create shape so in a way five new ways of informing the architecture, the design of the buildings.

So essentially what we're interested in is buildings that look different because they perform differently.

STERN: Bjarke has a capacity to read deeply into the situation, the zoning, the economics of a project, the constructability of a project, in a way that most architects tend to say, the zoning the constraining. He sees the zoning -- I won't say it's liberating as something if you master it, you can move on to a higher level.

INGELS: I think all projects always start with some kind of anxiety that this time we're simply never going to get there, right. You have a feeling that maybe it's not going to come out, no matter how hard you are going to squeeze, it's simply -- it's not getting there.

So for each project, we might have like even like a hundred models that are each like early attempts to capture an idea in its most blatant form. So no idea is allowed to exist only inside the head of one of the collaborators.

It has to come out in a diagram, in a drawing, in a physical model. You might walk around with a brilliant idea inside your head, but because you don't bring it out there, I'll never be able to respond to it. Nobody will be inspired and nobody will be able to inspire. (END VIDEOTAPE)



INGELS: We're doing a competition for public tier. St. Petersburg is a wonderful city. You have wonderful parks, birds singing in the trees, manatees in the water, pelicans. So it's like this little paradise on earth.

So there's not a big problem to solve, but still there's this almost like rooted in the DNA of the city is this idea that the pier is where the whole city comes together to meet.

So in this case, rather than solving a problem, we had to sort of try to create a potential for something new. Instead of dumping some arbitrary building at the end of the pier, we thought what if the pier itself could simply come out of the water and become its own pavilion, a pavilion where all the citizens could gather.

And of course, in some way it creates this sort of magical draw. Can you imagine the flow of people comes together and the whole series of activities it brings daily life in more direct contact with the water?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I like it a lot. I like the lights and how it reflects on the water and the circular movement of the whole thing, really pretty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's iconic. You look at it. It's distinctive from anything else that you'll see in Florida let alone the eastern seacoast of the United States. And I think it will put St. Petersburg, architecturally speaking, on the map.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Amazing architecture, that you can have that much structure with all the glass and everything in it. So me it's amazing that they can do that.

INGELS: The project that we proposed is pretty wild. The inverted pyramid that we're replacing is also pretty wild. You do ask yourself if this is too crazy, but then when you go through all of the questions and answers, you see what kind of parameters we're responding to, although unexpected and maybe unusual, it actually feels like the right thing to do.

And I think this is one of these unique situations where something insane has the whole world upside and down or inside and out actually seems like it could be the right answer to this specific situation.

You can say like planet earth has an existing geology, and what we do as human beings and as architects is that we try to sort of alter and modify and expand the geology. And when you look at it this way, you realize that our cities and our buildings and architecture isn't the way it is.

Because there's some kind of universal law that says that's how it has to be, they're the way they are because that's how far we got the last time we tried. Since it's an ongoing experiment like human presence on planet earth is constantly evolving and so should architecture and our cities.

Architects have to become more than just designer of two-dimensional facades or three-dimensional architectural objects. We have to become designers of ecosystems, systems of both ecology and economy to channel not only the flow of people throughout the buildings, but also the flow of resources like heat, energy, waste and water.

Stop seeing our presence like the human presence on planet earth as a sort of detrimental to our ecosystem, but actually tries to sort of integrate and cooperate our patterns and our leftovers into our environment

Sustainability can't be like some sort of a moral sacrifice or political dilemma or a philanthropical cause. It has to be a design challenge. This is the Dainj Pavilion in Shanghai. The Dainj Pavilion was part of the Shanghai World Expo built with sustainable cities.

Our idea was to try to capture all of the elements of the city life where the fact that the city is sustainable increases its life quality. The 37 percent of Copenhagen is commute by bicycle means that they're never stuck in a traffic jam. They never have to They can move to and from freely.

At the heart of it, the (inaudible), sort of water where people can actually paddle and swim with the little mermaid, the national symbol of Denmark that we actually managed to kidnap for six months.

We decided to place the little mermaid of Denmark, not a copy of the mermaid, we actually moved her to China. We had to wrest out of the hands of the equivalent of the Tea Party who is trying to pass a law specifically against moving a mermaid. We had to get her through Chinese customs and there she is.



INGELS: I grew up in north of Copenhagen. My parents live in the house where I grew up. So they have like a tiny little house on a beautiful sloping side down to a lake and a forest. Every fall there's some storms and normally one tree from the forest comes down.

And in this case it came down over the wooden fence into the forest. So suddenly we had a lot of lumber and the idea came that we could build a fort for -- I was a kid at the time. So since I was into drawing, I got the idea that I would draw this fancy fort, a hybrid between a western thing and some Roman forts.

And of course, I designed some kind of massive castle with like four towers and, like, a drawbridge that came down. There was a moat around it. So it was a pretty full-on enterprise. With my experience in engineering, my dad boiled it down to an extruded box. But I still that I'd been significantly involved in the design process and the construction process, although it was a much more optimized version than my original fantasy.

That's first experience with how it is in architecture, unless you really begin with the parameters of reality you'll end up sort of amputating your ambitions quite quickly.

I have two siblings, a big sister then a much younger brother. So I think the first half of my childhood I was definitely my big sister's little brother.

And then I definitely became my little brother's big brother, which I think is almost the ultimate education in life you can get is to assume both roles.

I think among the three siblings we sort of divided the talents between us. So my sister was singing and playing the piano. I had piano lessons for five years and I have practically no keyboard skills left to show for it.

My little brother is the sort of numbers genius and I was always good at drawing. All my life I've always been the best guy in the room at drawing.

Great work. I always loved your work. I had imagined that I would become a cartoon, historic graphic novelist, then I got fascinated by architecture and lost track of my original schemes.

I had this professor, a neo-hippie, definitely a flower child when he was a kid, and his person and his approach has been an inspiration. When I was in school on the first day of the year, he gave this opening speech and he basically said that he didn't care if we learned this or that or like to follow the curriculum, whatever.

All he wanted us to promise him and this we had to promise. When we graduated we would leave the school with something at heart. He meant that we shouldn't just go out there and show the world what we can do.

We should go out there with the intention of contributing somehow to life, to society. But it had to do about caring for how people would inhabit the spaces and live in the cities and move around.

It's just not looking at architecture as some kind of stylistic exercise or some kind of aesthetic practice, but really being about creating possibilities for human life.


GUPTA: Creating possibilities. It's the goal of every project Bjarke Ingels takes on. Coming up, he shares his passion for big ideas.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) INGELS: I came to Yale to teach studio, which is sort of a class where a group of students, 12 students, are given a real challenge. What do we like to do for this studio is to look at the idea of social infrastructure?

The specific idea is to make an inhabited bridge, to propose a bridge over the east river of New York where what carries the bridge is not going to be just steel and concrete, but it's going to be inhabited structures for apartment spaces for living and working, maybe a little piece of park, a bicycle path.

We're just going through the harbor to see what would bridges be like as buildings, especially when you see them from the water looking up at them. What would a bridge be like a building?

We see these bridges from below, you always feel like it would be amazing if you could crawl around in these girders and go where you're not supposed to go. The idea of this is to see what if you could actually go, what if people were really living inside the bridge.

JAMES SOBCZAK, YALE STUDENT: A huge scale. You look at some of the bridges compared to skyscrapers and they're quite bigger than them.

KARL SCHMECK, YALE STUDENT: Bjarke is doing thing in architecture right now that nobody else is doing. He's doing kind of projects, the way they're explained, what he's creating and the idea of synergy, brings out a lot of disciplines. This is novel and Bjarke is doing it better than anybody else right now.

NIGELS: What I'm trying to do is make a project where it could create amazing public opportunities, but also the value that it generates to suddenly have a lot of real estate in the middle of the water with amazing views looking up and down the river, probably the best views in New York, that value can actually contribute to pay for the bridge.

STERN: Big idea that got lost in the shuffle of big ideas, and in bringing it back in a new way, it should be astounding what he does.

INGELS: The big goal of the studio is this sort of pragmatic Utopian approach to give the students the tools and the skills to approach the sort of -- almost the unimaginable or like the wildly creative with a very practical and straightforward approach.

The more wild ideas you want to realize, the more dry and rational and professional and rigorous you have to be in your approach. Because if you're just going to do the standard solution, you can be quite lazy because nobody will question anything so you can just do it.

You want to go even a little bit beyond the sort of conventional path, you have to try hard to convince a whole series of authorities and also clients and investors and neighbors that this is feasible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's kind of fun in school to make these more utopian out-there projects that push the boundaries of what may be possible or what could be. DURST: He's annoyingly young and annoyingly brilliant. When you first meet him you want to dislike him for those reasons, but he's such a charming person and so open that you just can't help but like him.

INGELS: And also in Copenhagen this building called the Eight House, which is almost like a hybrid between a mountain village and a Copenhagen courtyard building, people can actually walk and bicycle all the way to the penthouse in the middle of the city.

So this is the view from the top path where you look out over the flat landscape of Copenhagen. It's a big park. The lake here delineates the city limits so you really have cows grazing on the other side of the water, the sort of meeting between man and cow.

And essentially what it does is it sort of amplifies the topography of Copenhagen this like complete flat landscape suddenly gets a place where you can go for a walk hand in hand with your girlfriend and check out the amazing view that you wouldn't have otherwise.

So in a way, the building also becomes part of this man made landscape itself. As architects, we try to sort of observe life, see what are people doing and then we try to see what it is that people want?

What is it that they desire? Why did they move into the suburb in the '60s and '70s to get a private garden? Why are they moving into the cities now? Why can't you have both?

That's what architecture should be about, is to try to make the world a little bit more like our dreams. Ask ourselves, if we could do anything, what would we really do?

What are the things that we lack in our city? What are the things that we would like to do but we can't then make them happen.


GUPTA: There's no question that Bjarke Ingels sees the world differently and it's easy to see the passion he brings to his work. He's challenging us to rethink what architecture can do for everyday people and re-imagine the world as it could be.

That makes him an agent of change and earns him a spot on THE NEXT LIST. For more go to and go to my lifestream at

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching. See you back next Sunday.