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TEDGlobal 2009

Bjarke Ingels: 3 warp-speed architecture tales

July 23, 2009

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels rockets through photo/video-mingled stories of his eco-flashy designs. His buildings not only look like nature -- they act like nature: blocking the wind, collecting solar energy -- and creating stunning views.

Bjarke Ingels - Architect
Theory meets pragmatism meets optimism in Bjarke Ingels' architecture. His big-think approach is informed by a hands-on, ground-up understanding of the needs of a building's occupants and surroundings. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
The public debate about architecture
00:12
quite often just stays on contemplating the final result,
00:14
the architectural object.
00:18
Is the latest tower in London
00:20
a gherkin or a sausage
00:23
or a sex tool?
00:25
So recently, we asked ourselves
00:27
if we could invent a format
00:30
that could actually tell the stories behind the projects,
00:32
maybe combining images and drawings and words
00:35
to actually sort of tell stories about architecture.
00:38
And we discovered that we didn't have to invent it,
00:42
it already existed in the form of a comic book.
00:45
So we basically copied the format of the comic book
00:49
to actually tell the stories of behind the scenes,
00:52
how our projects actually evolve through adaptation
00:54
and improvisation.
00:57
Sort of through the turmoil and the opportunities
00:59
and the incidents of the real world.
01:01
We call this comic book "Yes is More,"
01:04
which is obviously a sort of evolution of the ideas of some of our heroes.
01:06
In this case it's Mies van der Rohe's Less is More.
01:10
He triggered the modernist revolution.
01:13
After him followed the post-modern counter-revolution,
01:15
Robert Venturi saying, "Less is a bore."
01:18
After him, Philip Johnson sort of introduced
01:21
(Laughter)
01:23
you could say promiscuity, or at least openness
01:24
to new ideas with, "I am a whore."
01:26
Recently, Obama has introduced optimism
01:28
at a sort of time of global financial crisis.
01:31
And what we'd like to say with "Yes is More"
01:34
is basically trying to question this idea
01:36
that the architectural avant-garde is almost always negatively defined,
01:39
as who or what we are against.
01:42
The cliche of the radical architect
01:44
is the sort of angry young man rebelling against the establishment.
01:46
Or this idea of the misunderstood genius,
01:50
frustrated that the world doesn't fit in with his or her ideas.
01:53
Rather than revolution, we're much more interested in evolution,
01:57
this idea that things gradually evolve
02:01
by adapting and improvising
02:03
to the changes of the world.
02:05
In fact, I actually think that Darwin is one of the people
02:07
who best explains our design process.
02:10
His famous evolutionary tree
02:13
could almost be a diagram of the way we work.
02:15
As you can see, a project evolves through
02:17
a series of generations of design meetings.
02:19
At each meeting, there's way too many ideas.
02:22
Only the best ones can survive.
02:25
And through a process of architectural selection,
02:27
we might choose a really beautiful model
02:29
or we might have a very functional model.
02:32
We mate them. They have sort of mutant offspring.
02:34
And through these sort of generations of design meetings
02:37
we arrive at a design.
02:40
A very literal way of showing it is a project we did
02:42
for a library and a hotel in Copenhagen.
02:44
The design process was really tough,
02:47
almost like a struggle for survival,
02:50
but gradually an idea evolved:
02:52
this sort of idea of a rational tower
02:55
that melts together with the surrounding city,
02:57
sort of expanding the public space onto what we refer to as
02:59
a Scandinavian version of the Spanish Steps in Rome,
03:02
but sort of public on the outside, as well as on the inside,
03:06
with the library.
03:09
But Darwin doesn't only explain the evolution of a single idea.
03:11
As you can see, sometimes a subspecies branches off.
03:14
And quite often we sit in a design meeting
03:18
and we discover that there is this great idea.
03:20
It doesn't really work in this context.
03:22
But for another client in another culture,
03:24
it could really be the right answer to a different question.
03:26
So as a result, we never throw anything out.
03:29
We keep our office almost like an archive
03:32
of architectural biodiversity.
03:34
You never know when you might need it.
03:37
And what I'd like to do now, in an act of
03:39
warp-speed storytelling,
03:41
is tell the story of how two projects evolved
03:43
by adapting and improvising
03:47
to the happenstance of the world.
03:49
The first story starts last year when we went to Shanghai
03:52
to do the competition for the Danish
03:54
National Pavilion for the World Expo in 2010.
03:56
And we saw this guy, Haibao.
03:59
He's the mascot of the expo,
04:02
and he looks strangely familiar.
04:04
In fact he looked like a building we had designed
04:07
for a hotel in the north of Sweden.
04:09
When we submitted it for the Swedish competition we thought
04:12
it was a really cool scheme, but it didn't exactly
04:14
look like something from the north of Sweden.
04:16
The Swedish jury didn't think so either. So we lost.
04:18
But then we had a meeting with a Chinese businessman
04:22
who saw our design and said,
04:24
"Wow, that's the Chinese character for the word 'people.'"
04:26
(Laughter)
04:29
So, apparently this is how you write "people,"
04:31
as in the People's Republic of China.
04:33
We even double checked.
04:35
And at the same time, we got invited to exhibit
04:37
at the Shanghai Creative Industry Week.
04:39
So we thought like, this is too much of an opportunity,
04:41
so we hired a feng shui master.
04:44
We scaled the building up three times to Chinese proportions,
04:46
and went to China.
04:49
(Laughter)
04:52
So the People's Building, as we called it.
04:55
This is our two interpreters, sort of reading the architecture.
04:57
It went on the cover of the Wen Wei Po newspaper,
05:01
which got Mr. Liangyu Chen, the mayor of Shanghai,
05:03
to visit the exhibition.
05:06
And we had the chance to explain the project.
05:08
And he said, "Shanghai is the city in the world
05:10
with most skyscrapers,"
05:13
but to him it was as if the connection to the roots had been cut over.
05:15
And with the People's Building, he saw an architecture
05:19
that could bridge the gap between the ancient wisdom of China
05:21
and the progressive future of China.
05:24
So we obviously profoundly agreed with him.
05:27
(Laughter)
05:30
(Applause)
05:34
Unfortunately, Mr. Chen is now in prison for corruption.
05:38
(Laughter)
05:41
But like I said, Haibao looked very familiar,
05:45
because he is actually the Chinese character for "people."
05:47
And they chose this mascot because
05:51
the theme of the expo is "Better City, Better Life."
05:53
Sustainability.
05:56
And we thought, sustainability has grown into being
05:58
this sort of neo-Protestant idea
06:00
that it has to hurt in order to do good.
06:02
You know, you're not supposed to take long, warm showers.
06:04
You're not supposed to fly on holidays because it's bad for the environment.
06:08
Gradually, you get this idea that sustainable life
06:12
is less fun than normal life.
06:15
So we thought that maybe it could be interesting to focus on examples
06:17
where a sustainable city
06:20
actually increases the quality of life.
06:22
We also asked ourselves, what could Denmark possibly show China
06:25
that would be relevant?
06:27
You know, it's one of the biggest countries in the world, one of the smallest.
06:29
China symbolized by the dragon.
06:32
Denmark, we have a national bird, the swan.
06:34
(Laughter)
06:37
China has many great poets,
06:39
but we discovered that in the People's Republic
06:41
public school curriculum,
06:43
they have three fairy tales by An Tu Sheng,
06:45
or Hans Christian Anderson, as we call him.
06:48
So that means that all 1.3 billion Chinese
06:50
have grown up with "The Emperor's New Clothes,"
06:53
"The Matchstick Girl" and "The Little Mermaid."
06:55
It's almost like a fragment of Danish culture
06:58
integrated into Chinese culture.
07:00
The biggest tourist attraction in China is the Great Wall.
07:02
The Great Wall is the only thing that can be seen from the moon.
07:05
The big tourist attraction in Denmark is The Little Mermaid.
07:07
That can actually hardly be seen from the canal tours.
07:10
(Laughter)
07:13
And it sort of shows the difference between these two cities.
07:15
Copenhagen, Shanghai,
07:17
modern, European.
07:19
But then we looked at recent urban development,
07:21
and we noticed that this is like a Shanghai street,
07:23
30 years ago. All bikes, no cars.
07:25
This is how it looks today; all traffic jam.
07:28
Bicycles have become forbidden many places.
07:30
Meanwhile, in Copenhagen we're actually expanding the bicycle lanes.
07:33
A third of all the people commute by bike.
07:36
We have a free system of bicycles called the City Bike
07:39
that you can borrow if you visit the city.
07:41
So we thought, why don't we reintroduce the bicycle in China?
07:43
We donate 1,000 bikes to Shanghai.
07:47
So if you come to the expo, go straight to the Danish pavilion,
07:50
get a Danish bike, and then continue on that to visit the other pavilions.
07:53
Like I said, Shanghai and Copenhagen are both port cities,
07:57
but in Copenhagen the water has gotten so clean
08:00
that you can actually swim in it.
08:02
One of the first projects we ever did
08:04
was the harbor bath in Copenhagen,
08:06
sort of continuing the public realm into the water.
08:08
So we thought that these expos quite often have a lot of
08:10
state financed propaganda,
08:14
images, statements, but no real experience.
08:16
So just like with a bike, we don't talk about it.
08:18
You can try it.
08:20
Like with the water, instead of talking about it,
08:22
we're going to sail a million liters of harbor water
08:24
from Copenhagen to Shanghai,
08:27
so the Chinese who have the courage can actually dive in
08:29
and feel how clean it is.
08:31
This is where people normally object that it doesn't sound very sustainable
08:33
to sail water from Copenhagen to China.
08:36
But in fact, the container ships go
08:39
full of goods from China to Denmark,
08:42
and then they sail empty back.
08:45
So quite often you load water for ballast.
08:47
So we can actually hitch a ride for free.
08:49
And in the middle of this sort of harbor bath,
08:51
we're actually going to put the actual Little Mermaid.
08:53
So the real Mermaid, the real water, and the real bikes.
08:56
And when she's gone, we're going to invite
08:59
a Chinese artist to reinterpret her.
09:01
The architecture of the pavilion is this sort of loop
09:03
of exhibition and bikes.
09:05
When you go to the exhibition, you'll see the Mermaid and the pool.
09:07
You'll walk around, start looking for a bicycle on the roof,
09:10
jump on your ride and then continue out into the rest of the expo.
09:13
So when we actually won the competition
09:18
we had to do an exhibition in China explaining the project.
09:20
And to our surprise we got one of our boards back
09:23
with corrections from the Chinese state censorship.
09:25
The first thing, the China map missed Taiwan.
09:30
It's a very serious political issue in China. We will add on.
09:33
The second thing, we had compared the swan to the dragon,
09:36
and then the Chinese state said,
09:39
"Suggest change to panda."
09:41
(Laughter)
09:43
(Applause)
09:45
So, when it came out in Denmark that we were actually going to
09:48
move our national monument,
09:50
the National People's Party sort of rebelled against it.
09:52
They tried to pass a law against moving the Mermaid.
09:57
So for the first time, I got invited to speak at the National Parliament.
10:00
It was kind of interesting because in the morning, from 9 to 11,
10:03
they were discussing the bailout package --
10:07
how many billions to invest in saving the Danish economy.
10:09
And then at 11 o'clock they stopped talking about these little issues.
10:12
And then from 11 to 1,
10:15
they were debating whether or not to send the Mermaid to China.
10:17
(Laughter)
10:19
(Applause)
10:21
But to conclude, if you want to see the Mermaid from May to December
10:26
next year, don't come to Copenhagen,
10:29
because she's going to be in Shanghai.
10:31
If you do come to Copenhagen,
10:33
you will probably see an installation by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist.
10:35
But if the Chinese government intervenes, it might even be a panda.
10:39
(Laughter)
10:43
So the second story that I'd like to tell
10:46
is, actually starts in my own house.
10:49
This is my apartment.
10:53
This is the view from my apartment,
10:55
over the sort of landscape of triangular balconies
10:57
that our client called the Leonardo DiCaprio balcony.
11:00
And they form this sort of vertical backyard
11:03
where, on a nice summer day, you'll actually get introduced to all your neighbors
11:09
in a vertical radius of 10 meters.
11:11
The house is sort of a distortion of a square block.
11:14
Trying to zigzag it to make sure
11:17
that all of the apartments look at the straight views,
11:19
instead of into each other.
11:21
Until recently, this was the view from my apartment,
11:23
onto this place where our client actually bought the neighbor site.
11:26
And he said that he was going to do an apartment block
11:30
next to a parking structure.
11:33
And we thought, rather than doing a traditional stack of apartments
11:35
looking straight into a big boring block of cars,
11:38
why don't we turn all the apartments into penthouses,
11:41
put them on a podium of cars.
11:44
And because Copenhagen is completely flat,
11:46
if you want to have a nice south-facing slope with a view,
11:48
you basically have to do it yourself.
11:50
Then we sort of cut up the volume,
11:52
so we wouldn't block the view from my apartment.
11:55
(Laughter)
11:57
And essentially the parking is sort of occupying the deep space
12:01
underneath the apartments.
12:04
And up in the sun, you have a single layer of apartments
12:06
that combine all the splendors of a suburban lifestyle,
12:09
like a house with a garden with a sort of metropolitan view,
12:12
and a sort of dense urban location.
12:16
This is our first architectural model.
12:19
This is an aerial photo taken last summer.
12:21
And essentially, the apartments cover the parking.
12:24
They are accessed through this diagonal elevator.
12:27
It's actually a stand-up product from Switzerland,
12:30
because in Switzerland they have a natural need for diagonal elevators.
12:32
(Laughter)
12:36
And the facade of the parking,
12:38
we wanted to make the parking naturally ventilated,
12:40
so we needed to perforate it.
12:43
And we discovered that by controlling the size of the holes,
12:45
we could actually turn the entire facade
12:47
into a gigantic, naturally ventilated,
12:49
rasterized image.
12:52
And since we always refer to the project as The Mountain,
12:54
we commissioned this Japanese Himalaya photographer
12:57
to give us this beautiful photo of Mount Everest,
12:59
making the entire building a 3,000 square meter artwork.
13:02
(Applause)
13:06
So if you go back into the parking, into the corridors,
13:12
it's almost like traveling into a parallel universe
13:15
from cars and colors,
13:17
into this sort of south-facing urban oasis.
13:19
The wood of your apartment continues outside becoming the facades.
13:22
If you go even further, it turns into this green garden.
13:26
And all the rainwater that drops on the Mountain
13:29
is actually accumulated.
13:31
And there is an automatic irrigation system
13:33
that makes sure that this sort of landscape of gardens,
13:36
in one or two years it will sort of transform
13:39
into a Cambodian temple ruin,
13:41
completely covered in green.
13:43
So, the Mountain is like our first built example
13:45
of what we like to refer to as architectural alchemy.
13:48
This idea that you can actually create, if not gold,
13:51
then at least added value by mixing
13:53
traditional ingredients, like normal apartments
13:55
and normal parking,
13:57
and in this case actually offer people
13:59
the chance that they don't have to choose between
14:01
a life with a garden or a life in the city.
14:03
They can actually have both.
14:05
As an architect, it's really hard to set the agenda.
14:09
You can't just say that now I'd like to do a sustainable city
14:13
in central Asia,
14:15
because that's not really how you get commissions.
14:17
You always have to sort of adapt and improvise
14:20
to the opportunities and accidents that happen,
14:24
and the sort of turmoil of the world.
14:26
One last example is that recently we,
14:30
like last summer, we won the competition
14:32
to design a Nordic national bank.
14:35
This was the director of the bank when he was still smiling.
14:38
(Laughter)
14:42
It was in the middle of the capital so we were really excited by this opportunity.
14:44
Unfortunately, it was the national bank of Iceland.
14:47
At the same time, we actually had a visitor --
14:52
a minister from Azerbaijan came to our office.
14:55
We took him to see the Mountain. And he got very excited
14:58
by this idea that you could actually make mountains
15:01
out of architecture,
15:03
because Azerbaijan is known as the Alps of Central Asia.
15:05
So he asked us if we could actually imagine
15:08
an urban master plan
15:10
on an island outside the capital
15:12
that would recreate the silhouette of the seven most significant mountains
15:14
of Azerbaijan.
15:17
So we took the commission.
15:19
And we made this small movie that I'd like to show.
15:21
We quite often make little movies.
15:24
We always argue a lot about the soundtrack,
15:26
but in this case it was really easy to choose the song.
15:28
So basically, Baku is this sort of crescent bay
15:37
overlooking the island of Zira, the island that we are planning --
15:39
almost like the diagram of their flag.
15:42
And our main idea was
15:45
to sort of sample the seven most significant mountains
15:47
of the topography of Azerbaijan
15:50
and reinterpret them into urban and architectural structures,
15:53
inhabitable of human life.
15:56
Then we place these mountains on the island,
15:59
surrounding this sort of central green valley,
16:02
almost like a central park.
16:04
And what makes it interesting is that the island right now
16:07
is just a piece of desert. It has no vegetation.
16:09
It has no water. It has no energy, no resources.
16:11
So we actually sort of designed the entire island as a single ecosystem,
16:15
exploiting wind energy to drive the desalination plants,
16:19
and to use the thermal properties of water
16:23
to heat and cool the buildings.
16:25
And all the sort of excess freshwater wastewater
16:27
is filtered organically into the landscape,
16:30
gradually transforming the desert island
16:33
into sort of a green, lush landscape.
16:35
So, you can say where an urban development
16:39
normally happens at the expense of nature,
16:42
in this case it's actually creating nature.
16:46
And the buildings, they don't only sort of
16:50
invoke the imagery of the mountains,
16:53
they also operate like mountains.
16:56
They create shelter from the wind.
16:58
They accumulate the solar energy.
17:00
They accumulate the water.
17:02
So they actually transform the entire island
17:04
into a single ecosystem.
17:06
So we recently presented the master plan,
17:11
and it has gotten approved.
17:14
And this summer we are starting the construction documents
17:16
of the two first mountains,
17:19
in what's going to be the first carbon-neutral island
17:21
in Central Asia.
17:25
(Applause)
17:28
Yes, maybe just to round off.
17:37
So in a way you can see how the Mountain in Copenhagen
17:39
sort of evolved into the Seven Peaks of Azerbaijan.
17:42
With a little luck and some more evolution,
17:45
maybe in 10 years it could be the Five Mountains on Mars.
17:48
Thank you.
17:52
(Applause)
17:54

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Bjarke Ingels - Architect
Theory meets pragmatism meets optimism in Bjarke Ingels' architecture. His big-think approach is informed by a hands-on, ground-up understanding of the needs of a building's occupants and surroundings.

Why you should listen

Bjarke Ingels is principal of BIG, based in Copenhagen. An alumnus of Rem Koolhaas' OMA practice, Ingels takes a similar approach: experimenting with pure space, but never losing sight of the building as a solution to a real-world problem. His manifesto "Yes Is More" takes the form of a giant cartoon strip, 130 meters long, that reminds people to keep thinking big -- to see all our modern problems as challenges that inspire us. (The manifesto is now available in comic-book form.)

His deeply-thought-out and often rather large works -- including several skyscrapers and mixed-use projects in a developing section of Copenhagen, plus a project for a new commercial harbor-island --  work to bring coherence to the urban fabric and to help their occupants and users lead better lives. His most famous works include: the Stavanger Concert House, Tallinn’s city hall and the VM Houses. He recently won a competition to design Copenhagen’s waste-to-energy plant with a design that will place a ski slope on top of the structure.

The original video is available on TED.com
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