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“You can subsidize your way out of it,” Ingels said, referring to “green” building that is often more expensive. “But, you know, the government only wants to subsidize it as long as it’s for the few. You can have tax-free electric cars in Denmark but nobody’s driving them.”
If everyone drove them, he said, the tax break wouldn’t last long. That is, it breaks the central, almost Kantian proposition of capitalism: If it doesn’t scale, it’ll fail.
“I think this idea of the architect as, not the creator of the city, but the midwife that assists the city and society to giving birth to itself, according to its own criteria and its own demands,” he told me. “So like the parameters that created the W57 project were somehow all there, we just had to identify them and try to take the consequence of it.”
"AT SOME POINT," HE SAID, "DOUGLAS CALLED me up and said, ‘We need to have single lobby to the east, as close to the subway as possible; we can’t have two lobbies, so we need to somehow concentrate all the building mass to the east. So, that’s—somehow it shifted the design [from] how it was, towards something that was in the end even cooler.” “Somehow it becomes this process of trying to assist society in giving birth to itself.”
When he first met Ingels, Durst told me over the phone, what struck him was Ingels “brash manner."
“He asked me why my buildings look like buildings,” Durst said.
Last February, Durst gave a lecture for the Real Estate Development program at Columbia’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and he briefly spoke about W57.
“It’s a new shape for New York,” he said. “We’ve been working for three years to find a design that would please City Planning and I’m pleased to say that—with Bjarke Ingels’ help—we’ve finally come up with something that City Planning has approved; they wanted an iconic building as you come down the West Side Highway, and I think we’ve certainly done that.”
Durst didn’t settle on Ingels right away. At the time they first met Ingels was relatively unknown, and had completely relatively few major projects. Durst doesn’t remember exactly when BIG became involved with the project.
“Really I didn’t think about involving him until probably before we did whatever it was,” he said; Durst’s friendly, but taciturn demeanor, is famous in a small circle in New York; one wonders what it’s like to watch it bump up against Ingels’ brashness.
But Durst is also a famous patron of architecture, in particular “green” architecture, and he was particularly impressed with one Ingels project, called The Mountain.
The Mountain came out of a developer’s request for a parking facility and a housing complex. The chapter about the project in Yes Is More reads:
Rather than erecting a standard apartment slab next to a boring parking block...We decided to turn the parking into a podium for living...The parking lot is sloping upwards in a serpentine zigzag from south to north...The housing is smeared in an even layer over the top...So the houses are transformed into courtyard houses with big gardens and generous views.
“I was very impressed by his Mountain house project,” Durst said over the phone. “I had an idea that we wanted a European-style garden development. That’s why I went and reached out to him.”
Ingels and Durst are a somewhat unlikely pair, but as it turns out, they share a number of values aside from making money; Durst Fetner Residential has been a leading developer of environmentally friendly properties.
“it’s really like a commitment to having sort of evolutionary discovery of just what’s set in nature,” Ingels said of this project; and for those who know Durst and Fetner, it's not actually surprising that such an idea might appeal. “All of the beauty of nature, the biosphere, flora and fauna, is the way it is because it works. Because if it didn’t work, it would die, and it would die so fast that it wouldn’t have offspring. So that leaves a lot of freedom for a lot of variety, but still there’s some kind of consensus is then that if it’s—if it’s like fatally inefficient, it’s going to die out.”
“The whole idea, and I think it’s the underlying philosophy of all our work, that’s where the, sort of, pragmatic Utopianism [comes in],” Ingels said.
ONE PROJECT INGELS HAS BEEN WORKING ON—IT'S NOW ON hold because oil prices have dropped—is the Seven Peaks of Azerbaijan, a master plan for an island just off the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea. The design has apartments, hotels, retail, and it mirrors the country’s seven peaks. (Ingels remarked that unlike The Mountain, which looks like a mountain as a result of its functions, the minister from Azerbaijan who went to the BIG offices wanted the reverse: Buildings shaped like mountains that had things inside them.)
What struck me about this project is its size, and ambition, and also that it was to be built in a place that is not on most traveler’s itineraries. If, or when, it is built, it will be a draw in itself, sort of like Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, which gave birth to the possibly overused phrase “the Bilbao effect.”
It presents almost precisely the opposite challenge Ingels seemed to suggest New York did: What can you build for a city that has it all? Or, What can you build that will put a city on the map?
“I think the Bilbao effect was beneficial for architecture, because it made a lot of people that were uninterested in architecture very excited about architecture and the power of architecture to arouse the popular imagination,” Ingels said.
“The side effect was that architecture also became synonymous with, you know—you would call an architect if you had a lot of money, and you needed a lot of attention to make, like, a really spectacular, and difficult, and expensive building, but you wouldn’t call an architect to solve a problem. And I think it’s doesn’t have to be either-or. It doesn’t have to be like beautiful and stupid, or rational and boring; it can really be both."
“I’m much more interested, as an architect, in discovering projects, than in coming up with them. Because as an architect you can get so tired...’ugh we have to, ugh make a new sketch’...whereas it’s more like, OK, what could this really be? And you try to sort of...almost like outsourcing influence to the different decision-makers of a different criteria,” he said.
“I think a lot of the times, when the—like the standard solution quite often serves only a single parameter, and it overlooks some of the specifics of the specific context, the specific programs, the specific climate, the specific economy, culture, whatever. And what I think we really spend our energy on is—each and every time—we start to try to map out what are the key criteria in this case, and then as a result even though we are as rational—and sometimes even more rational—than some of our colleagues who would resort instantly to some kind of cookie-cutter, standard response—we’re actually sort of honoring the same parameters; we might even take in a few more parameters into account, and that actually means that the same concerns, the same demands actually create a different response. So we ask a lot of the same questions, and maybe a few more, but we come up with new answers.”
For example, W57 “looks different because it tries to combine the density and views of a skyscraper—the efficiency—with the idea of a courtyard.
“The site is quite asymmetrical—you have, like, public transportation on one side,” he said, “and the waterfront on the other side, where people want to look out. Somehow the asymmetry of the building is a child of the asymmetry of the context.”
“There’s a certain nostalgia for this idea of the architect as the mysterious genius that only knows [the secret], and there’s maybe a fear of losing influence by making it clear what it is we do," Ingels said of his tendency to attribute design to the specific limitations of the context. "But I think on the contrary architects—architects have maybe lost influence because it has been so unclear what architects actually have been doing.
Diagrams provided to press during the ribbon-cutting on the model included a very simple set of diagrams showing how the height restrictions, the site plan, the need to maximize views, and the need to create both public and private outdoor spaces for most of the apartments were enough principles to limit him to a massing that looks like this shape that critics are alternately raving or complaining about.
“And I don’t think we are going to lose the magic by actually being very open about it,” he said.
“Two of the most popular magicians in Las Vegas, Penn and Teller, and what they do is, first they show you an amazing trick, and then afterwards they show you exactly how they did it. And then they show you the same trick again so you can see how they’re doing it, and instead of like reducing the magic—like at first you’re wowed by the fact that they’re doing it—like you know, wow, that’s a crazy trick—and then afterwards you’re wowed by, like, how simple, and brilliant, and ingenious it is to get there—it totally makes sense. And then in the end you get like both, so ahh, it’s still magic, and it’s very clear."
More by this author:
- How 'The New York Times' controls architecture criticism in America, whoever its critic may be
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