WhATA Interviews Bjarke Ingels from BIG

by WhATA, 20.03.2009

Bjarke Ingels in BIG’s “Archicomic of Architectural Evolution”

Bjarke Ingels heads the Copenhagen-based architectural group BIG. He is OMA-bred, sports T-shirts with stamps and talks about architecture with remarkable confidence.

Though founded in 2006, nowadays BIG (and Bjarke) are everywhere to be found — win competitions, appear in magazines, blogs and the new Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. Their projects are bold, catchy and presented by witty comics, Lego models and interesting stories.

We like BIG a lot. We already reported about their current Yes is More exhibition in Copenhagen (though we didn’t manage to see it). And our reader Elena, who happened to be in Denmark, sent us pictures from the spot.

We, in our turn, asked Bjarke Ingels and he agreed to give us a chat-interview. We talked about his favourite comic books, about the Matrix, Darwin and the evolution, about natural selection of ideas and recession architecture. It was an honour. And fun. Thanks, Bjarke!


WhATA: Have you ever been asked for a chat interview?

Bjarke Ingels: No, only for an email interview. This is my virgin chat interview.

WhATA: Hope it won’t hurt. We haven’t been asked either :)
Do you read blogs? If yes, which ones?

Bjarke I: My favroite blog is failblog. I also read wired magazine’s blog and dezeen, designboom, archinect, iconographia and tons of others.

WhATA: Cool. You use a lot of comics elements in the presentations of your projects. Which is your favourite comic book?

Bjarke I: Probably Frank Millers “Return of the Dark Night” has been my biggest favorite — but definitely also Mouebius John Difool series, Letendre and Loisels Quest for the Time Bird, Manaras Indian Summer and the Monkey King.

I was excited when the Warzowski brothers (former cartoon writers) came out with the Matrix and had used pro graphic novel illustrators to make these incredible storyboards — composed more like cartoons than film scripts — and the movies are totally composed like graphic novels in terms of creating iconic images, using symmetries, euclidian shapes such as circles and spheres, and highly composed closeups with a careful mastery of foreground background information.

I think transferring knowledge and ideas and sensibilities from one media to another is a great source of innovation.

The so-called “Ren Building”, described in BIG’s Archicomic

WhATA: Do you do the same thing? Using comics style and iconography to make architectural ideas more accessible?

Bjarke I: To cheat I just copy in this passage from the Yes is More archimanga [Pastes]:

Bruce Mau once visited our office and we showed him a series of projects including a study on Danish harbour activities. He was fascinated by the study and asked us to mail him the power point as he was leaving the next day.

When he received it he replied: “No, no. I want the one you explained when we were there.” We assured him it was the same one. He said “It’s interesting. In most cases when you see architects work, it’s dead drawings and superficial images. But when you get a tour of the office or visit a building with the architect, you feel the energy and get all these little punch lines and invisible stories that make the whole work come to life! Too bad it’s so hard to capture in an exhibition, or even worse in a book!”

This is our ambition: to capture the experience of the personal visit the studio, the construction site or the building – and to transmit the energy of a face to face encounter with the architect.

Essentially we think that it is hard to transmit the energy and the often complex cluster of ideas that trigger an architectural idea and shape its design.

So we wanted — in the most blatant form imaginable — to combine images, drawings, models, statements of facts, and accounts of accidents and conflicts, opportunities and opportunism.

We do a lot of lectures where we use images and other illustrations, graphs, diagrams, drawings, maps, numbers, etc in abundant quantities — sometimes up to 1000 slides in one lecture — along with a steady flow of words and gestures to communicate how our ideas evolved.

They also contain films and music embedded in the flow of images. Our first intention was to simply transform this format into a book and an exhibition. We called it a bookture.

It got really long and it was difficult to regulate the speed. How fast you hold an image or how fast you slide through a sequence of diagrams. So lacking the element of time it got boring.

Then we realised that a comic book is all about communicating action, movement — development or even evolution — replacing composition and scale instead of time. A large detailed image inspires the reader to contemplate — study — explore — and a sequence of small diagrams makes your eyes roll over them faster.

Suddenly we didn’t have to invent something from scratch, but could tap into a well-known format very dear to us!

LEGO Towers project in the Yes is More exhibition

WhATA: You are so good in coining words — “bookture”, “ecolomy”…
We come under the impression that clash of opposites doesn’t bother you. On the contrary, you like to compromise them. E.g. BIG come from SMALL Denmark; you like both Gaudi and the famous orthogonal grid of Barcelona; ecology (according to you) is not a hippie-Greenpeace thing, but together with economy forms a new word and has new meaning as “ecolomy”. So, do you think architecture is one big compromise?

Bjarke I: We are interested in the opposite of compromise.
Our exhibition is called Yes is More — the idea that you don’t have to position yourselves against anybody else to be radical. You could actually turn pleasing into a radical agenda.

We were thinking about calling it BIGAMYYOU CAN HAVE BOTH (but my girlfriend wouldn’t allow it ;-) )

The idea is that rather than choosing between opposites, you can try to incorporate opposite extremes…

In front of the Yes is More posters

[Pastes another quote.]

The whole world insists on conflict. The media craves conflict, and the politicians craving media presence need to engage in conflict to get there [...]

What if design could be the opposite of politics? Not by ignoring conflict, but by feeding from it. […] An inclusive rather than exclusive architecture. An architecture unburdened by the conceptual monogamy of commitment to a single interest or idea. An architecture where you don’t have to choose between public or private, dense or open, urban or suburban, atheist or Muslim, affordable flats or football fields.

An architecture that allows you to say yes to all aspects of human life, no matter how contradicting! An architectural form of bigamy, where you don’t need to choose one over the other, but you get to have both.

A pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective.

Yes is More

Viva la Evolucion!

I should send you a copy of the comic book btw.

WhATA: That’ll be great :) So in case of architecture and ideas you are for having both (all of it) and nothing in between (compromising).
You often talk about the natural selection, the evolution and the theories of Darwin. How do you do the natural selection of ideas in your office of about 50 architects?

Bjarke I: Darwin’s Theory of evolution is based on excess and selection.

At each generation there is an excess of individuals (ideas). Only the successful ones manage to stay alive long enough to mate and pass on their genes to the next generation.

In nature it is a process of natural selection — predator/prey armsrace, adaptation to the environment, co-evolution, resistance to parasites etc… All the natural selection criteria are parameters — like the design paramaters of nature — that have generated all the diversity of forms and shapes, colours and sounds, smells and movements of the biosphere.

In the office the team produces an onslaught of ideas. Then we measure them against the design parameters that we have identified as key or crucial for this particular project. Perhaps we like the way one model performs with the program and the way another one adresses the context and then we try to couple them.

That coupling creates various mutant offsprings — some ugly, some beautiful, some succesful, some not.

And gradually, through the stages of the design, we produce new ideas, new models and gradually the design evolves through a process of creative excess and architectural selection.

The Ren Building’s model. See the comic version above

WhATA: Several years ago as young were considered architects in their 40-ies. You are one of those architects who suddenly dropped the age limit below thirty. Do you imagine yourself as a product of the construction boom or just as a bright guy with guts and luck?

Bjarke I: First of all (we are a we, not an I) we are a group of people from more than 20 nationalities and I’m happy to say that I have the privelege to collaborate with a BIG group of very smart, intelligent, passionate, talented, relentless people of all age groups, ethnic groups, religions, nationalities and genders (only 2 of the latter though…)

Secondly, when we started some years ago (I graduated in 1999 — 10 years ago!!) I was very jealous of all the 19-year old Internet enterpeneurs who became multimillionaires overnight when their Internet startup went public and got bought by Yahoo! I thought it was unfair that I was stuck in such a gentlemen’s business where you would have to wait until middle age before given the opportunity to build.

But it turned out to be a myth. And after 6 months of shooting competitions in all directions we had won 3 and had our first commission for a building.

In the end we never built the competition we won, but it got us started. And we got some other project on the way that did get built.

So of course a lot of luck — a lot of bad luck as well — and a firm commitment to make it happen.

But I’m actually mid-thirties now fyi.

The Mountain Dwelling

WhATA: We love your iconography (btw, the archicomic you’ve just sent us kicks asses :) )

Bjarke I: thx

WhATA: One last question. Do you see your buildings as icons? Do you agree with the prevailing opinion these days that the era of the icon buildings is over (due to financial crisis) and in what direction should recession architecture jump?

Bjarke I: We are interested in iconography (look at the interface of big.dk ;-) ) but to me iconic is not the same as spectacular — or loud — or overwhelming — it is rather a measure of compressing maximum expression into minimal form. To communicate as much with as few words as possible, to pack maximum performance with a minimum of gestures.

It is a form of economy of form — that you distill an idea in to its purest form.

In computergame design they use the term gameplay — that the best computergame is not the one with the most complext storyline, or the most beautiful graphics — or the most infinite environment — or the most monsters — but it is the one where you create the maximum amount of fun with a minimum of means (processing power, loading time etc…)

I’m tempted to say Less is More ;-)

In software programming complexity is defined as transmitting the maximum amount of information with a minimal amount of data.

Mies van der Rohe in the Archicomic

Essentially complexity is the highest form of simplicity. That’s where iconic is interesting to us — as the ultimate form of complexity.

And I think in the time of recession it is exactly that kind of architecture that is needed — architecture that creates maximum effect with a minimum of means. Maximum comfort with minimal energy consumption, maximum functionality with minimal area, maximum quality of life with a minimal expense of ressources.

WhATA: Thank you very much for your time and for this interview! It was a pleasure.

Bjarke I: Thank you too. It was a fun conversation.


  1. Radhika (16 януари)

    what a nice guy!

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