From Google to Mars with Bjarke Ingels

The Danish Architect on an Inevitable Mars Colony, Elon Musk, and the Radical Impact of LEGO

  • Interview: Gianluigi Ricuperati
  • Photography: Courtesy of B.I.G.

The architect Bjarke Ingels is not even in his mid-40s, but if he retired today and moved to the country to follow his teenage dream of drawing cartoons, he would still have a place in the history of the medium. Ingels’ bold visions and hypertonic edifices have left a major mark on many crucial landscapes in these dark, exciting times. With B.I.G.—Bjarke Ingels Group, the architectural firm he founded in in 2006—Ingels has completed projects both public and private across the globe at a dizzying pace that innovate functionally as well as aesthetically. One of the most representative B.I.G. projects is the open, collaborative, cross-disciplinary design of Superkilen, an urban park in Copenhagen that earned accolades for its capacity to attract and condense the diversity and playfulness of city living. In New York City, B.I.G.’s Via 57 West “courtscraper” commands attention with its daring, triangular shape. Recently, it’s made news because of a lottery that will award apartments in the building to prospective tenants for under $1500 per month.

Right now, B.I.G. is designing Google’s new headquarters in Mountain View, California—the first of what could be an ongoing collaboration—and it recently completed the just-opened LEGO House in Billund, Denmark, a 12,000-square-meter manifestation of the LEGO universe. Now, Ingels is working on developing the architecture that will make human life on Mars possible.

I spoke with Ingels in early October over three days and three different time zones.

Gianluigi Ricuperati

Bjarke Ingels

I’d like to start this conversation about asking you which books really impressed you this year, that fed your vision as a person and an architect.

I’ve been reading a lot of books about Mars because we’ve been getting involved in a serious way with designing things for Mars. We’ve being doing simulations that actually involve building a prototype at this facility in the Dubai desert with the intention of—quite quickly—commencing a future adventure. There’s this guy called Robert Zubrin who wrote a book called The Case for Mars. I’ve been learning also from Amundsen, the first guy who went to the South Pole. Before that he traversed the Northwest passage—something quite radical, because he didn’t bring a whole fleet of ships, and garments, and horses, food, and people. He travelled very light, learning from the Inuit. This approach has inspired how, when we go to Mars, we should become Martians, and try to live off the land. It’s all about understanding the geology and the atmosphere of Mars, and finding ways to get as much as we can out of the resources that are right there without bringing everything from Earth.

So, it’s not just about gravity.

No, no, it’s really about the chemicals, the composition of the atmosphere. It’s about the metals that are available on the surface and underground, so we can come up with a much lighter, faster way to go to Mars.

From Learning from Las Vegas, the seminal Scott Brown/Venturi/Izenour research of the early 70s, to Learning from Mars, the schoolbook for designers of 21st century.

Exactly. There’s also another author that I’d like to mention, we met few times and became friends: Kim Stanley Robinson. He wrote The Mars Trilogy, and also wrote a climate novel called New York 2140, set in a New York that has been seriously flooded. It references a project we’re doing right now called The DryLine.

“The journey to Mars is not much longer and it’s not much more dangerous than it was to go to Australia back in the day. I think it’s definitely happening.”

Are these kind of sci-fi projects more challenging compared to more day-to-day architectural projects, like residential buildings?

Of course there’s some kind of childish component to it—when you’re a kid, you don’t dream of becoming an architect, you dream of becoming an astronaut. But I also like this idea that architecture is an invention to make the planet more habitable for human life. We don’t just have to climb a tree or find a cave—we can make our own tree, our own cave. So, which kind of tree would we like to climb?

Another book I’ve been reading lately is Sapiens by Harari, and of course, as soon as we started venturing beyond east Africa, we had to develop more and more ways of dealing with environments that we had not evolved to inhabit. So, Scandinavia, for instance, would be uninhabitable without some form of architecture. When we go really far, like to Mars, where it’s much colder, we can’t even breathe the air, and we don’t have running water available so we have to find it and store it, then architecture becomes incredibly crucial. So, the thing I think is fundamental is to find the environment and make it habitable for humans in a sustainable way. Designing man-made ecosystems becomes incredibly relevant as we venture on.

Are your architectural dreams more satisfied by these projects that may look bold now but might soon become reality? Like perhaps with Martian colonization at the end of this century?

I mean, when western Europe started colonizing Australia, it took, like, half a year to get there. So, the journey to Mars is not much longer and it’s not much more dangerous than it was to go to Australia back in the day. I think it’s definitely happening.

The Danish word for designer is formgiver—to give form to something that has not yet been given form. So, to me, design and architecture is at its most interesting when you’re not just making another version of something that has already being designed one hundred times, like yet another chair with four legs. When there’s a transformation happening in society, whether by technological evolution, by demographic change, by migration, by cultural change, by environmental or climatic change—whatever change it is, if you observe it and identify that it reveals a unique opportunity to give form to a future we have not yet seen but that we’ll soon inhabit, these are the moments that it’s most exciting to be an architect. I’m thinking of the power plant we are finishing in Copenhagen—what happens if a power plant is actually so clean that you have clean air on the roof of it? Then it can become a park.

What’s your opinion on SpaceX and Elon Musk ?

We normally describe our own work as “pragmatic utopian.” It’s the idea of creating a better world in pragmatic and practical ways—so, not a universally-implemented fantasy, but more of a very specific, local, concrete manifestation of something that is more utopian. It’s almost inspired by William Gibson, when he says, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Transformations can happen very gradually. When I think about the ski slope that will open in Copenhagen next year, that part of Copenhagen is gonna be much further into the future than other parts of Copenhagen, but the fact that it’s there will enable thinking about possibilities that are sort of imaginary now. To me, Elon Musk has been a pragmatic utopian. He’s focusing not on creating some kind of huge system of electric cars to begin with, he just focused on making an electric car that is so desirable that people are gonna buy it instead of a Porsche. Then they make one that is super nice that people would buy instead of an Audi, so it’s more accessible. And finally, once you have that in motion, once you have that distribution, then you bring out the car for the masses. Their practical, pragmatic approach to electric cars and self-driving cars eventually becomes world-changing.

“The only way to change the world is to imagine a version that is even better and more compelling and more desirable than the one we live in.”

It’s really intriguing thinking of utopianists as the most pragmatic people, because they have to make utopias desirable. Desire is really powerful, and that’s something you really seem to do very well in terms of creating desirable forms with architecture. This leads me to talk about the LEGO building B.I.G. designed, because play is another version of desire, for children and adults. Were you a LEGO player?

I think all the kids of my generation grew up playing with LEGO, myself included. When I think of holidays with my parents, we used to drive to Italy or Yugoslavia, and it would take three days to drive all the way down through Europe. When we came home after spending all that time in the car watching things passing by, I would sit at the table playing with LEGO, trying to express what I processed.

LEGO was a sort of 3D storytelling for you.

Exactly. Storytelling in architecture is crucial. The working process is so collaborative on a team of up to 20 people, and then you have clients, you have users, you have neighbors, and you really have to communicate what the project is all about. We have to establish a narrative, a set of values, a set of insights that everyone agrees on. Only once we’ve done that can we empower every single team member to be able to speak critically on what the project is about.

If the LEGO Building was a short story, what would that be?

[Laughs] I think it’s an attempt, in the real world, to express the real potential of LEGO, which is that LEGO is not a toy but a tool that empowers the child to create their own world of adventure and inhabit that world and play. By playing with LEGO the child is empowered to not just accept things the way they are, but actually create the word they want to play with. It’s a pretty good attitude to approach the world with. And what we tried to do with the LEGO House was to create the kind of house where you are allowed to do the things that you think you can’t. So, the LEGO House has a square on the ground that makes it accessible from all corners—you can cross through and hang out in the square even if you’re not entering the place. At the opening it suddenly started raining and everybody started hanging out inside the square even if they had ticket to the exhibition. They started to climb the roof that connects the playgrounds. Even the exhibition itself, you could actually touch everything. In most museums, you’re not supposed to hang out in the lobby, you’re not supposed to touch anything, while at the LEGO House you are actually welcome to do all those things. It expresses this ideal of radical interactive activity. LEGO is understood as a building system or play system where bricks have been designed with the purpose of creating certain worlds. But the master resource of LEGO is that it can be used to do things it was never supposed to do. LEGO players are more like hackers. A hacker uses coding languages that have been scripted with the purpose of doing one thing to write programs doing things that they were never supposed to do.

Hackers and hacking represent a type of modern anxiety, so I’d like to ask you to comment on what Rem Koolhaas wrote about you, that you are totally free of anxiety. Is that true?

Oh, yes. [Laughs] Strangely, you are the first one to ever ask that question. He said I was the first architect to keep professional anxiety out of my head.

From Time Magazine in April 2016: “The first major architect who has disconnected the profession completely from angst. He threw out the ballast and soared. With that, he is completely in tune with the thinkers of Silicon Valley, who want to make the world a better place without the existential hand-wringing that previous generations felt was crucial to earn utopianist credibility.”

Koolhaas is one of the masters of optimism and Appleism. He’s so good at convincing and leading, motivating in very short sentences. Actually, that’s also what we do. I’m not sure where Rem stands, because I’ve never had the feeling that he appreciates our work, actually, but I think his comment is very true—I have always had great confidence in the profession of architecture, and I’ve always felt that there’s something to be gained by being much more blatant about what you are trying to achieve. I think a lot of artists have a hard time being blatant. They are much more sophisticated in expressing their aims, whereas in my mind, clarity both in art and in literature is a virtue. I’m interested in architecture as a vehicle for advancing our way of life. It’s typical discourse for the intellectuals of the avant-garde to be negatively divisive, and I’ve always been more interested in a positive discourse, in a form of criticism that emphasizes what you would like to see in the world rather than spending all your energy on what you don’t want. I think that positivity is associated with our practice.

Have you ever felt skepticism towards your work? Do you feel like you’ve been let into the circle, or do you feel like an outsider?

I think we’ve always been more like outsiders. There has been almost an instinctual reaction against our work from certain parts of the traditional avant-garde. It’s based on this suspicion that if something is positive, and pragmatic, and utopian in its ambition, with an emphasis on playfulness, then it must be superficial. It’s almost like saying, “You can’t be happy and smart at the same time.” At the end of the day it’s the action that matters, the inventions. It’s the Tesla battery that powers the Tesla car. The only way to change the world is to imagine a version that is even better and more compelling and more desirable than the one we live in.

Was this attitude a solid ground to start a conversation with Google for the Mountain View project?

It was interesting because I’m used to working with professionals that have a more empirical and sometimes a more conservative approach. I’m used to being the one who pushes people to see that within the variety of possibilities, there’s actually a different way where you can go beyond. But with this project, we would always somehow tend towards the future. I found myself to be sometimes overly practical and pragmatic, talking more about the reasons why something wouldn’t be possible. For awhile, I had to digest my limit of not being the chief visionary, but somehow a more practical chief executive. It was quite fun to be collaborating with someone who was even more optimistic about what’s possible than I am. Google comes from the virtual world, but it really looks like they are getting the hang of products and manufacturing and design now. For me, having a client with wild ambition and the actual resources to pursue it is a quite unique opportunity. It was also interesting to have a client who is constantly growing, that you can actually engage in a long-term collaboration with where it’s not only about this project, but the next project, and what we will learn from that project to inform the next, and the next, and the next.

It’s a LEGO attitude, in a way. One last thing I would like to ask you: what do you think is the most dangerous aspect of the contemporary life today for humankind?

Let me put it in this way: I’m very optimistic about climate change. I’m very optimistic about our capacity to push forward a holistic vision for a sustainable urban society. I think the values of people, the things that they desire in general are shifting towards all of the benefits of an absolutely sustainable urbanism. I’m also incredibly fascinated by the advance of smart objects, like driverless cars, the arrival of things bringing intelligence to the built environment. So, basically: I’m optimistic about man-made microsystems and optimistic about visions of smart environments.

Gianluigi Ricuperati is a writer and producer based in Milan. His most recent novel, Mind Game, has been published in multiple languages. He has directed Domus Academy for four years and will soon launch Faust, a new school for cross-disciplinary education.

  • Interview: Gianluigi Ricuperati
  • Photography: Courtesy of B.I.G.