Dr. Yes: With W57, Bjarke Ingels brings the Copenhagen idea to New York’s private sector

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Bjarke Ingels. (Photo by Jakob Galtt for DAC.)
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Late on a recent spring morning, the architect Bjarke Ingels was sitting at one in a row of several long white tables in the main work room of his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group. His feet were up and he was reading in the light from the nearby windows when he looked up.

I'd found him in the warren of bleak hallways that make up the interior of the Starrett-Lehigh building, at the very western end of West 26th Street, only after lots of false starts. His floor is made up mainly of big steel doors, locked and unlabeled, and before you get to the incongruously fashionable glass doors of the Bjarke Ingels Group, you might need to be directed there by a man who has something to do with another tenant on the floor, a costume shop.

Much has been written about Ingels, most recently about his move to these offices: He is, on the strength largely of one commission, a native presence in New York architecture now. Between Copenhagen and New York, there are about 110 BIG employees. The word "starchitect," a fairly useless term for fancy architects, has often been applied to him, even as he believes it applies to a type of architect which he is not.

He was born in Copenhagen in 1974, where he later studied at the Royal Academy, before going on to the Technica Superior de Arquitectura in Barcelona, where he graduated in 1998, at the age of 24. He worked for Rem Koolhaas until 2001, when, at the age of 27, he left Rotterdam for Copenhagen and founded an architecture firm called PLOT.

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It was PLOT that won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of architecture in 2004, when he was 30, and PLOT that designed the VM Houses, which won more than one award. In 2005 and 2006, at 32, he founded BIG, which was the same year as The Mountain—a project that won numerous awards and is possibly the firm’s signature completed work. With BIG he has been awarded, among numerous other prizes, the 2008 World Architecture Forum Housing Award, the 2009 Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence, and the European Award for Architecture in 2010. He’s taught at both Harvard and Columbia universities. This week BIG won a competition to build a complex in Tirana, Albania, that is comprised of a mosque, an Islamic cultural center, and what is being called a Museum of Religious Harmony.

As with most fashionable, successful architects, there are critics who hate his work, others who love it; some who waffle, others who swing on the pendulum of praise and backlash either for or with the majority.

The chief reason this is all so remarkable is that, in what's been called a "gerontocracy" of a profession, Ingels is all of this at the age of 36.

He was wearing a grey sweater that had an orange half-zipper. He has a stylish haircut and Scandinavian features. He speaks accented but absolutely fluent English, and scatters it with idiomatic gesture-words ("like" is a favorite).

We looked at a few models for the residential apartment complex he is designing for New York developer Durst Fetner Residential, which is to be called W57 but which on the architectural blogs, because of its somewhat pyramidal shape, is being called the Pyramid Scheme.

If nothing else, it is unusual, and definitely cool; that’s part of why a number of reviews have been sort of ambivalent. It does look like a massive, bottom-heavy pyramid from some angles, but from the street it looks more like a sail. It’s asymmetrical: a pyramid that twists and which has, seen from the side of the river, a gash that permits more apartments with good lighting. The design is supposed to maximize the building’s potential for Hudson views, including from the courtyard, and to provide most apartments a terrace. The idea is that the building is a hybrid between the European perimeter block, with the buildings surrounding a central courtyard, and a traditional Manhattan high-rise, the tower in the park, with the park not always making it in.

Reviews of the plans for W57 have been mixed. Some of the writers sound somewhat astounded by it, and not all of them in a good way.

In New York magazine, Justin Davidson wrote, “he has designed an utterly unexpected form, neither tower nor slab nor even quite a pyramid, but a gracefully asymmetrical peak with a landscaped bower in its hollowed core. It looks wild, but it’s born of logic; true originality is the inevitable endpoint of rigorous thought.”

In The Real Deal, James Gardner wrote, “Ingels' design reads almost like a Klingon warship establishing hegemonic control over the Far West Side.”

Referring to that particular description, Jordan Barowitz, a press man for Douglas Durst, a partner in Durst Fetner, said: “Maybe that’s not an insult; maybe that’s a compliment.”

He was on the phone with Durst and me. “I can see the resemblance,” Durst said.

(Later Gardner wrote, “the result is more striking than beautiful.”)

But aside from its cool, the W57 project is arguably among the most intellectually ambitious projects underway in New York City right now.

That's not because of its civic importance. It’s roughly 450 feet tall, is to contain roughly 600 rental apartments, and is made of 870,000 square feet. 8 Spruce Street, the just-finished residential tower Manhattan, which was designed by Frank Gehry and financed by Forest City Ratner, is the tallest residential structure in New York. W57 isn’t meant to compete for a place in the skyline. The site, which has been vacant for years for no interesting reason, does not have the civic significance of Ground Zero, where the Libeskind-Foster tower is going up right now.

And as a building of private residences, it won't have the civic significance of Calatrava's transit center, the much-delayed new Penn Station designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the old Post Office building on Eighth Avenue, or even, arguably, the revamping of the Tweed Courthouse for a new home for the Board of Education a few years ago.

What sets this building apart and has generated so much interest is this guy, Ingels, and his ideas about work, economics, and architecture. He and I went downstairs to the Tom Colicchio quick-lunch-and-coffee outpost 'wichcraft. Buying him coffee and talking about this was more the point than looking at models.

Architects often find themselves spending years in a city cumulatively to bring a big project off the ground, sometimes opening an office for a single project, or buying an apartment. It does not always mean the architect has made a conscious decision to embrace a new field of operations, or that that architect wants to engage the entire city with his ideas. Daniel Libeskind, whose design won the competition for the World Trade Center site almost a decade ago, famously worked and lived in Berlin for 10 years, raising his children there; they were not allowed to take instruction in German.

Since there was no totally obvious reason, I asked him what he was doing here.

He thought for a second, then said: “There’s two answers—there’s always the specific reason.” Here he was referring to the events—how the principals of Durst Fetner Residential came to know and then choose Ingels—that led up to W57, and then he thought further.

“Maybe the ‘why New York, and why now,’ I really think is that, America in general, with New York in the forefront—one of the front-runners—is really questioning some of its former paradigms, and is starting to through sort of another layer. I think in the Bloomberg administration—with [Transportation Commissioner] Janette [Sadik-Kahn] and [City Planning Commission Chair] Amanda Burden, there’s been like this superdynamic transformation of the city, where the paradigm of, like, having the sort of skyline purely growing out of like commerce and finance and industry, but there’s like this refinement of, you know, making the city more livable.”

“Livable” has been a theme of the administration, and it is why there are no cars in Times Square, why there are miles and miles of new bicycle lanes, why we now have Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the Hudson River Park, continuing recreational development of the waterfront on the East River in Manhattan, and continuing development on the other side of the river, in Brooklyn.

Not incidentally, the city in the world that has arguably most successfully adopted these “liveable” features is Copenhagen, where BIG is based, and has completed numerous developments that followed “livability” principles. And so the city has sent Sadik-Kahn and Burden to Copenhagen, and one of the more influential urban planning consultants the city has employed is Jan Gehl, whose 1971 book “Life Between Buildings” was more or less the first articulation of this kind of planning, and who was highly influential in reshaping Copenhagen.

When he moved, for all practical purposes, to New York, colleagues asked Ingels why he wasn’t going to China (where the People’s Building—an enormous hotel-residential-sports-conference facility designed, originally by accident, in the shape of the Chinese character for people—might have actually been built had the mayor of Shanghai not been corrupt) or to India, where the economies are growing, and where cities are still urbanizing at a rapid pace, conditions which presumably will provide enormous opportunities for architects to shape new urban territories themselves.

BUT HE'S HERE INSTEAD, HE SAID, IN PART BECAUSE America is not at all a blank slate for architects, and New York doesn’t want for iconic buildings, but perhaps does want for original architecture, particularly since the flourishing of unoriginal condominium buildings, and the fading of “starchitecture,” in no small part because there is just not as much money to build it.

“Two approaches that fall short a little bit,” he said. “One is, like, the pure service-oriented, practical, pragmatic, corporate company that makes predictable but boring boxes; and then the crazy starchitect that makes really spectacular and expensive and irrational and sometimes inconvenient and unpractical masterpieces, right?”

So the point is that, when it comes to architecture, something has to be next, and it’s not necessarily Ingels, but there is a sort of vacuum, part of why he wants to build in America.

“Being the world’s, sort of, innovative superpower,” he said, “with an ongoing crisis—questioning some of the paradigms that have paved the way so far—is a very interesting place to participate.”

That might seem obviously sensible, but consider the discipline in which Ingels was trained: a generation of “paper architects” building theory and writing about buildings, and then by way of the reputations of the Harvard Five, a generation of “starchitects” that were the first to break out of that mold, in the giddiness of the real-estate boom, with unbelievable checkbooks and the freedom to wreak their particular form of havoc on the bank accounts of the big builders.

The very notion of an architect who believes in architecture that allows the market to do its work is a radical conversion for architectural theory, though Ingels is almost intentionally untheoretical in his approach.

For instance: His book, his sort of manifesto, is a comic book. (Ingels wanted to be a graphic novelist before he was an architect—which sounded, to me, sort of pretentious and a little too hip, but it’s actually very effective.) It’s called Yes is More, yet another riff on the phrase coined by Mies van Der Rohe, and which all of architecture since modernism has had to contend with one way or another, it seems.

What it means here is that Ingels has, in some sense, made a philosophy out of accommodation, which has earned him, from both admirers and critics, the title “Yes Man.”

Yes Is More,” he told me, “is a sort of manifesto for an inclusive approach to architecture—that you incorporate all the concerns and demands of the people you work for and work with, such as the demands of the client, etc."

Ingels’ next book is titled Bigamy.

“You can have both,” he said. “It’s quite often people see things as opposite, like hedonism and sustainability, pragmatism and Utopianism, but quite often the two can actually—there are overlaps, there are both parties, they can both be environmentally and economically profitable. And socially profitable.”

That is: It is not enough to get your profit-hungry builder to agree to make sacrifices to improve his reputation or the architectural standing of his buildings, nor is it an excuse to make bland buildings that one is working with an unimaginative builder. The very innovation in the design should speak directly to the concerns of the builder; the building should be all economics, and all design, at once. Compromise, in that sense, is lazy. You just haven’t looked hard enough for the solution that works best for everybody. The best solution, to borrow a phrase, is not one in which nobody is happy, but one in which everybody is; the former formulation is just an excuse for not doing the job.

Is this an idea, or just a frame of mind?

It doesn't matter much, because another part of Ingels’ idea is that something that does not work in its economic setting will not ever work the way the architect wants it to, anyway. The giants of the last decades are “masters of the universe,” but the universe, and time, were not always friendly to their work. Ingels considers himself something a little less masculine, and a little more sustainable.

From that point of view, New York might, theoretically, offer an advantage over Copenhagen.

Before he came to build in New York, Ingels was warned about about two things: dealing with the building code, and working with American developers, because, people told him, they only think about profit. Ingels finds the first one typical—it’s hard to build in all cities, he told me—and the second one self-evident. “All developers think about profit—it’s their business right?”

On the other hand, before he began working with Durst, Ingels was thinking, “OK, New-York based American real estate developers talk about sustainability,” Ingels said. He thought it was a ploy of some sort. (And of course with some developers it is.) “But it’s not,” he said of working with Durst Fetner. “It’s much deeper than that; it’s a profound connection, and at the same time it’s sort of a connection to finding ways of actually making the right thing profitable.”

“You can’t have buildings that don’t make money,” Durst was saying to me. “My grandfather told me, and it’s more true than ever, that the prettiest building is one that’s fully rented.”

It hooked up with something Ingels had said over coffee.