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Interview with Bjarke Ingels

January 28, 2011



Fabrice Debatty Photography

People saying that Nemo Propheta in Patria should have a walk in Copenhagen and listen about Bjarke Ingels’ Pragmatic Utopia. At the age of 36 the danish genius (the definition is by Giorgio Santilli on  ilSole24ore) is managing the world leading architectural studio Bjarke Ingels Group BIG which is collecting publications and prizes at all latitudes. I met Bjarke in the European Parliament in Brussels – in occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the Architects’ Council of Europe – where he held an inspiring key note speech. Among other things he has described the danish pavilion at the Expo in Shanghai, more or less as follows.

Before Shanghai we went on a field trip to the World Expo 2008 in Zaragoza to research how to design national pavilions (or not to).  We spent a day walking around the different pavilions to see how others had approached the same subject before us.

We found that World Expos seem to be orgies of state financed propaganda, full of pretty pictures and catchy statements , but void of real experiences. Attracted by the queue in front of the German pavilion, we found that it was the result of bad logistics rather than attractive content. A “boat ride” on a flooded conveyor belt took visitors, like hams hung in a slaughterhouse, past various Tony Stone stock images of smiling corporate executives and cute kids or random installations of water fixtures: a wall of bathroom sinks (or was it toilet seats?) installed to celebrate the expo’s water theme. A stale hybrid between a tradeshow and a sustainability ad campaign.

After a full day of “sightseeing” the highlight by far had been the port wine and nate in the Portuguese café: also the only taste of reality so far.

We thought – what if we could turn the Danish pavilion in to a congested experience of real life in a Danish city. Not just the story about it – or the image of it – but the real deal?

So what was the Expo all about? Why had they chosen Hai Bao as their mascot? A blue guy with a friendly smile in the shape of the the Chinese character for “people”. He had been chosen to match the sustainability theme of the Expo under the motto: Better City – Better Life.

Sustainability is often misunderstood as a puritan concept where “it has to hurt in order to do good”. “You are not supposed to take long warm showers or take long-distance flights for holidays – because it’s not good for the environment”. So gradually we get the idea that sustainable life is less fun than “normal” life!

What if we could focus on examples where sustainability actually increases the quality of life? Where a sustainable lifestyle isn’t pain – but pleasure! We asked ourselves: What could Denmark possibly show that would be relevant to the Chinese? So we made a little comparison between the two countries.

One of the world’s biggest countries vs. one of the smallest.

A Socialist plan economy vs. a social democratic welfare state.

China’s national symbol is the Chinese Dragon – in Denmark we have a national bird: the swan (the bird formerly known as the ugly duckling).

China is known for its many poets, especially Li Po – but to our surprise we discovered that The People’s Republic’s school curriculum includes 3 fairytales by the poet An Tu Shung, aka Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish poet. So in fact all 1.3 billion Chinese have grown up on a literary diet of The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Match Girl and The Little Mermaid. A small part of Danish culture has been integrated into Chinese Culture.

The biggest tourist attraction in China is the Great Wall, the only manmade structure that can be seen from outer space. And the biggest tourist attraction in Denmark is The Little Mermaid, which can hardly be seen from the Canal Tours.

Both Shanghai and Copenhagen are port cities – but on radically different scales.

And the urban fabrics are equally different – skyscrapers among highways vs. European city blocks.

In fact the greatest Danish work of Architecture – the Sydney Opera by the late Jørn Utzon – is a Scandinavian interpretation of a Chinese typology: a pagoda on a plinth.

But we weren’t really finding an obvious hook for our pavilion until we started looking at the recent urban development of Shanghai and Copenhagen. 30 years ago Shanghai was characterized by broad boulevards jam-packed with bicycles. There were only 2 kinds of cars in Shanghai back then: Shanghai no. 1 and Shanghai no. 2.

With the massive economic boom and urban explosion everybody now wants a car, the streets are congested by traffic jams, and the bicycle has even been forbidden in some parts of town.

During the same period of time, Copenhagen has been creating more bicycle lanes and reduced car traffic. The bicycle has become a symbol of a sustainable city and a healthy lifestyle.

We have developed multiple types of bikes to move not only ourselves, but also our kids and our stuff around by bike.

We even have a so-called City Bike that visitors can borrow for free to move around town.

We thought: Why don’t we relaunch the bicycle as something attractive in Shanghai? We will donate 1001 City Bikes to Shanghai that they can keep after the Expo.

So when you arrive at the Expo you can go straight to the Danish Pavilion, get your city bike, and then you can ride to Sweden, Korea or Azerbaijan on your Danish bike. So we imagined the Danish Pavilion as an infrastructure for bicycles. Like a bicycle lane, looped around itself.

As was mentioned, both Shanghai and Copenhagen are port cities. But in Copenhagen, industries have been moved away or made clean. Former industrial sites have been turned into parks, and the water has become so clean that you can swim in it. In fact one of the first projects we ever did was the Islands Brygge Harbor Bath, which extends urban life from dry land into the wet element.

So we proposed to sail 1 million liters of harbor water from the Copenhagen harbor on a tank ship to Shanghai. In the heart of the pavilion we would create a harbor bath where all visitors with the courage to do so can borrow a pair of red and white swim shorts or a swimsuit and take a swim in real Copenhagen harbor water. And in the middle of this little piece of Copenhagen harbor life, just like in the real Copenhagen harbor, we proposed to stack a pile of rocks and place the actual Little Mermaid there. Not a copy, but the real deal. (China already has its share of copies).

H.C. Andersen’s motto was: “To travel is to live”. Now the Mermaid would finally come to life!

So whereas National Pavilions normally come across as full of state funded propaganda, empty words, and superficial images, we wanted to deliver something real. The Chinese would be able to ride a city bike, swim in the harbor water and see the actual Little Mermaid that they had known since elementary school.

To stand-in in the absence of the mermaid we would invite the Chinese Artist Ai Wei Wei to reinterpret The Little Mermaid on the spot where she normally sits. In Copenhagen, Danes rarely check out the mermaid – it’s mostly the domain of … well … Chinese tourists. So for 6 months Danes would actually have a new excuse to go there – and perhaps another one to see her come home.

The pavilion itself is a linear exhibition curled up in a double loop with the harbor bath in the center and the bicycles on the roof. People will arrive at the bath, move through the exhibition, and reach the roof where they can find a bike. Mounted, they ride through the last part of the exhibition and out into the Expo area. Structurally the pavilion is conceived as one giant self-supporting tubular truss – similar to the hull of a steel ship. The façade needs perforation for daylight and ventilation, but due to the structural performance of the truss, the degree of perforation varies with the structural stress. As a result the façade of the pavilion becomes an abstract pattern of light and darkness reflecting the flow of people and bicycles within the pavilion as well as the flow of forces inside the steel wall. shanghai expo danish pavilion

Right after we won the competition we were asked to exhibit the design for the Danish Pavilion at the Shanghai Urban Center. To our surprise the Chinese state returned one of our presentation panels with 3 acts of censorship:

1st: We had used dated photos of Chinese party members – they were replaced by current ones

2nd: We had shown the map of China without Taiwan – it was automatically added

3rd: The image of the fierce Chinese Dragon was suggested replaced with that of a bamboo-munching Panda!

Although notorious protagonists of liberty of speech we found it almost cute that the state would even care to intervene in the choice of national mascot!

PS. When we won the competition and the prospect of the mermaids voyage to China was announced it sent shockwaves through the tabloid press. How could we propose to send our national symbol to China!?

The Nationalist People’s Party attempted to invent a law specifically against it. As a result we were invited for the first time (yet) to speak at the national assembly. Moved by the Chinese affinity for H.C Andersen and aroused by the generosity of the gesture, all parties except two were in favour of sending her on the journey. The Rightwing Nationalists were against because they wanted to keep her for themselves, the Leftwing Unity Party because they preferred sending a wind turbine instead!

The final debate was held on the same day when parliament was discussing the bailout package for the global credit crunch!!

9.00 to 11.00: Global Financial Crisis: How many billions should we invest to save the national economy?

11.30 to 13.30: Whether or not to send the Little Mermaid to China?!?

For once I managed to consume the entire meeting minutes of 2 hours of political debate because some of the politicians had really put their hearts in it.  The chairman of the liberal party said: “The fairytale of ”The Little Mermaid” is a tale about leaving your home in order to meet another world, about uniting two cultures, and perhaps mostly it is a tale about the belief, that by giving up a part of yourself you will get so much more in return.”

We had found a way to turn politics in to poetry!

They finally decided to entrust us with her! So if you want to see the mermaid from May to December 2010,  don’t come to Copenhagen, cause she won’t be there! She’ll be sitting on her stone in Shanghai in a pool of paddling toddlers.

What is your general impression about the expo in Shanghai? Is such an event still actual? For which purposes? You can hardly imagine two locations as different as Shanghai and Milano. Nevertheless could it be possible to drive some suggestions from there for here?

As part of the homework for our work with the Expo I read the book The Devil in the White City that depicts the preparations for the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago – following the incredible success of the Paris Worlds Fair in 1889 featuring among other things the Eifel Tower. As I read it, it became evident that the main attraction and purpose of the worlds fair in those times was to provide people a chance to experience countries they would never be able to travel to or even experience on film or TV since those medias didn’t really exist yet. It was literally an exhibition of the world to people who would otherwise not be able to see it. That role is slightly somewhat passé – but Paris of course left a legacy in the form of the Eifel Tower that was a showcase in the potential of steel construction – and in that sense became an icon of the infrastructure and highrises of the 19th and 20th centuries. Chicago didn’t really leave the same legacy – but its impact might have been even greater. The Eifel tower of Chicago – didn’t remain – but has been repeated and copied and transformed in multiple renditions all across the planet to the extent that most cities incl. London, Wienna and Paris – now has one: namely the Ferris Wheel. A replicable invention of a new typology that combines a social program with a new technology.

Finally the white city became a test bed for an urban and architectural model that became influential for many American cities afterwards. And in these two last regards expos might still be actual. For the introduction and implementation of novel technologies to create new urban and architectural typologies for future implementation. And for testing new masterplans- new urban models ideally where the expo area itself is thought of with an afterlife. Like Bo01 in Malmø that is a quite interesting almost medieval urban neighbourhood on the waterfront of Malmø that was both an urban development and an urban expo – this is perhaps where Shanghai expo failed-  apart from the individual inventions and splendors of the pavilions – in terms of masterplan and legacy it leaves little behind. And this is where Milan might rather learn from Malmø than Shanghai in the way the monumental effort of the expo actually leaves a legacy not only in its inventions and ideas replicable elsewhere, but also in the urban fabric it initiates for further development post expo.

mountain dwellings

© Jens Passoth

Your most famous project, Mountain dwellings is a daring typological hybridation between parking and residential use. Do you think that we are ready to live over parking, between department stores and airports, in the so-called “non-places”?

Parking, department stores, spaces for working and living constitute most of our cities spaces. It would be a great mistake to consider them non-places. Even though they are often treated as leftovers next to the real architecture of old town and public monuments. The true challenge for architects is to observe the actions of people in their daily life- and find ways of facilitating the flow of people, their social and economical trnasactions in ways that maximise the quality of life. So rather than considering the parking as a conceptual deadzone – or an urban non-place – we turned the parking in to a manmade mountain – elevating the apartments in to the sun and the air – transforming the traditional stack of apartments into a hillside of homes with gardens.

Everytime we stumble upon something that is considered outside the realm of architecture – we know that we have a great potential to invent new qualities, new urban hybrids, to turn a non-place in to an attractive place.


© Julien Lanoo

The recently accomplished 8 House remind the grand ensembles of the 60es and 70es both for the big dimension and for the suburban localisation, but introducing substantial variations. What is the reason behind such a large block? How do you feel the reaction of the people that have moved in so far?

In fact the block isn’t that large compared to typical contemporary developmetns – it’s a mere 60.000m2. Also it isn’t in a suburban location – rather in the infant stage of an urban development that has been halted by the financial crisis – and is only picking up now. That is why it seems to be an aircraft carrier in an open sea of green meadows-  in 5-10 years it will be surrounded by urban blocks on all sides.

However – what we have attempted to do is to embrace the scale of the enterprise – rather than breaking it down in to seemingly smaller parts. That has allowed us to undo the traditional restriction of public life, spontaneous social encounters to occur on the groundfloor – and to allow a mixed neighbourhood of rowhouses, townhouses, terracehouses, apartments, shops, offices and institutions to occupy the three dimensional space of the city. When you visit the 8-house today – the absence of the future city that will soon surround it is compencated with an internal urban veriety where people are stimulated to interact with each other through out the three dimensional space of the perimeter block. Where architecture is typically designed as an architectural object to look good from a distance – in the case of the 8-house it is designed as an urban space to be explored from within.

The italian version of this interview is going to be printed soon on architectural magazine AL Architetti Lombardi.

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