RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Just shy of his 40th birthday, Bjarke Ingels is already a big player in the architectural world. The Danish architect, now in New York, has designed museums, apartment buildings and parks all around the globe. His buildings defy conventional shapes and now, he's taking on New York City - where NPR's Dan Bobkoff spoke with him.
DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: In a business that's often poorly paid and anonymous, Bjarke Ingels has become something rare, especially at his age - a starchitect, in demand.
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BJARKE INGELS: That wall really needs to be an homage to efficiency, right? Pack everything into it.
BOBKOFF: Models fill his firm's New York office, a design for a public pier in Brooklyn that looks like a sea creature.
INGELS: This is the manta ray that - we've called it. But essentially, it's the corner of Pier 6 and the Brooklyn Bridge Park. So basically, we just took the corner of the park, lifted it up and pulled it out to the edge of the pier, so it creates a covered space.
BOBKOFF: Ingels has unique descriptions for most of his buildings. There's an apartment building going up in Vancouver next to a highway interchange. Its base is triangular, and twists into a rectangle at the top.
INGELS: So it's essentially, almost like a weed that starts growing through the cracks in the asphalt, and sort of blossoms when it escapes the turmoil of the city around it.
BOBKOFF: Ingels' work has a few trademarks: sloping lines, and designs that are shaped to their surroundings. But you won't necessarily know a building is his just by looking at it, the way you would, say, a Frank Gehry design.
INGELS: You know, some people use only the color white, or some people use only 90 degrees. What defines their style is the sum of all their inhibitions. And I think we try to put ourselves in a situation where we can be free to choose, you know, any weapon of choice in each and every case; to match the context, the culture, the climate in the best possible way.
BOBKOFF: Ingels is nothing if not confident. And if trademark design elements don't bind his projects, it may be an idea - that a building should be built to its environment, not dropped from outer space; that being green can be fun and desirable, an idea he calls hedonistic sustainability. And if there's one design that embodies all that is Bjarke Ingels, it is this one.
INGELS: We're doing a power plant in Copenhagen.
BOBKOFF: A power plant that converts household trash into energy, uses the excess heat to warm nearby homes, and emits nontoxic fumes. It's also not far from the city center.
INGELS: So we thought like, what if we could turn this into, not a gray area on the city map, but a green area. What could you do here that would make sense?
BOBKOFF: He knew it would be a manmade mountain of sorts, in a city with few hills. And that gave him an idea. Copenhagen has snow but no ski slopes, so he'd give them one.
INGELS: We proposed it in a brainstorm as a joke. But then, you know, it wasn't so silly; and we started like, why would this not be a good idea?
BOBKOFF: It's already under construction. Soon, Danes will be able to take an elevator to the top of the power plant, and ski to the bottom. Right now, Ingels is figuring out how to make the smokestack blow perfect smoke rings because - why not? But actually, each ring will represent a certain amount of carbon dioxide emissions. If all this seems a little cartoonish, it might be because cartooning was his passion as a kid.
INGELS: In the absence of a cartoon academy, I enrolled in the Royal Danish Art Academy School of Architecture, with this plan of potentially becoming better at drawing backgrounds because - I mean, obviously, when you draw - especially as a kid - you're more obsessed with drawing people in action. You don't really draw buildings.
BOBKOFF: Somewhere along the way, the background became the foreground, and his drawings of buildings started winning architecture competitions. Renderings of his designs were passed around online. Sarah Goldhagen is architecture critic at the New Republic.
SARAH GOLDHAGEN: He's been very effective at using social media, and using the media and using digital technology in smart ways. He's devoted an enormous amount of energy to getting his stuff out there.
BOBKOFF: Goldhagen says marketing isn't a bad thing, but it doesn't necessarily translate into good buildings. But people with deep pockets are taking note.
GOLDHAGEN: Part of the reason that people are paying a lot of attention to him is that he's getting these very large-scale projects, very young, from developers.
DOUGLAS DURST: He was a very brash young man.
BOBKOFF: Douglas Durst presides over one of New York City's biggest real estate companies, even redeveloping part of the World Trade Center site. Durst met Ingels years ago at a conference in Copenhagen. After Durst gave a speech, Ingels had a question for him: Why do your buildings look like buildings?
DURST: I said because they are buildings. It was a little - it was more than veiled criticism, yes.
INGELS: At least he got sort of sufficiently annoyed to remember me.
BOBKOFF: Remembered him enough to hire Ingels to design the Durst Pyramid.
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BOBKOFF: Ingels is standing on a pile of dirt, plywood and rebar that will someday become a giant, twisted wedge of an apartment building.
INGELS: If you can imagine, on one end it's going to be the height of a handrail; and all the way to the left, we're going to be looking up 470 feet to the peak of a giant, saddle-shaped, pyramid building.
BOBKOFF: It will look sort of like someone knocked it on its side, and carved out a giant courtyard in the middle that Ingels calls a Bonsai Central Park.
INGELS: It has the - it has the same proportions, but it's 13,000 times smaller.
BOBKOFF: Ingels is wearing a hardhat with his firm's initials that spell BIG - for Bjarke Ingels Group, a bit of cheeky immodesty.
INGELS: There's a giant piece of wood coming our way. Maybe we should - (Laughter) - we just don't want this episode to turn into a splatter house.
BOBKOFF: It will be Ingels' first major building in New York City. It's the reason he moved to New York from Denmark and set up an office here. He links the two with Skype, displayed on big-screen TVs. He's hoping it sows trans-Atlantic romance between two of his 200 employees.
INGELS: A girl in Denmark and a guy in New York see each other and end up like, speaking so much that they fall in love and get engaged. So we haven't reached that level of breaking down physical barriers, but we're working on it.
BOBKOFF: Ingels can be charming - and modest - at times, but it's his confidence that has helped catapult him to the big leagues. Another interviewer once asked him his greatest weakness, and he had trouble thinking of one. So I gave him another chance.
BOBKOFF: Again, he was stumped.
INGELS: Uh - let me find an intelligent way of answering that question.
BOBKOFF: It's really hard for him. His confidence has led to other recent projects announced for Harlem and Miami. The question is whether this 39-year-old will be an architect for a moment or an era.
Dan Bobkoff, NPR News, New York.
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