In an Instagram post from last fall, Bjarke Ingels holds a crystal orb as he goofily smirks at the camera, seemingly mesmerized by the object. The caption reads “Planet in my palm.” It’s a coy statement, given the colossal success of the Danish-born architect’s firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), but it’s funny, too. Which is one of Ingels’s charms: Though serious, intellectual, and among the leading practitioners in the field today, he is also humorous, enjoys a pun, and is not necessarily one for subtleties (the domain name of his firm is, after all, big.dk). Contrary to the often stiff and rigid profession, he does not take himself too seriously. And, as a whole, his Instagram feed reflects this, serving as a snapshot of how his peripatetic, high-flying lifestyle—which begins to look like one big vacation—fuels his childlike curiosity, or vice versa. His personal account, not surprisingly, has drawn in more than 400,000 followers to date. That single video alone, captured in Dubai, was watched more than 100,000 times.
Only 43 years old, Ingels has built an extensive empire—and a risk-taker reputation—in hyper-speed. His 13-year-old firm has 12 partners and roughly 500 employees, with offices in Copenhagen, New York City, and London. BIG currently has 50 projects in development, with 20 of them under construction, among them highly adaptable headquarters for Google in California and London (in collaboration with the British designer Thomas Heatherwick); a modular school for WeWork’s new educational enterprise, WeGrow; a boundary-pushing high-speed transportation system for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop One; and a sprawling, $2 billion campus master plan for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Some of BIG’s latest efforts, such as chef René Redzepi’s newly relocated and reopened Noma restaurant—an unusually subtle, sophisticated, detail-oriented project for BIG—and the beastly, brawny Amager Resource Center (or ARC) waste-to-energy plant, exemplify the firm’s vast and efficient operation today.
While several architects of similar notoriety have gained recognition largely through a signature touch (see: Frank Gehry’s sculptural sweeps, or Zaha Hadid’s sinuous curves), Ingels has constantly evolved from project to project, finding solutions to the varying demands of particular clients and sites without imposing his own aesthetic dogma. BIG has no single architectural “move” it repeats, though each of its buildings plays with strong, and sometimes even sensational, architectural statements. Most of BIG’s buildings are fetching, practically made to be photographed. The firm’s unorthodox work—an intermingling of utopian visions and pragmatic solutions—is decidedly of and for the 21st century. Now in the world-leading territory of architectural juggernauts like OMA, Herzog & de Meuron, and Foster + Partners, BIG creates buildings that come with surprises, and that, more often than not, capture the imagination.
Ingels has built a fawning global audience, one that reaches far beyond the ivory tower of architecture. Both his splashy clients and the public—not to mention the media—have become entranced by his straight-to-the-point communication style, his good-naturedness and charisma, and his highly imaginative (and decidedly unfussy) approach to architecture. His ability to clearly explain his dreams has drawn in some of the wealthiest, most powerful people and companies on the planet to help him turn them into reality. And though his ideas may indeed be big and difficult to build, he has the tenaciousness, suaveness, and drive to see them through to the finish line. All of which helps illustrate his adroit skills in an area too often ignored by architects: seductive storytelling.
“If there were a movie star within architecture,” the Danish designer Johannes Torpe says, “it would be Bjarke.” Torpe, who is a close friend of Ingels, goes on to describe him as a mix between the Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin and the American actor and musician Jack Black. “Number one,” he says, “he looks like a movie star. Number two, he acts like one—he’s extremely quick to understand what’s going on around him. And three, he’s also incredibly entertaining.”
It’s early March, and Torpe and I had just had lunch at Noma, where we ate things like trout roe with lightly cured egg yolks and pumpkin-seed oil, all arranged into a starfish shape, while looking out at a frozen pond and, beyond it, the near-finished, smoke-billowing ARC power station. BIG seems to be omnipresent here, even though Ingels has completed only six projects in the city—four of them while running the firm PLOT with the architect Julien De Smedt. Scheduled to open this fall, ARC (or “Copenhill,” as the locals call it) is no ordinary facility: A tree-filled ski slope and hiking area, to be open year-round, will zag down its facade; one side of the building will feature a 278-foot-high artificial climbing wall. The design concept, as if pulled out of a sci-fi fantasy film, is the kind of thing that pretty much only Ingels could conceive of, and in turn convince a client to pay for. It’s also practically the opposite of Noma, a village-like cluster of single-story buildings, eight of them connected under a glass canopy—the result a sort of shrunken-down Danish version of Renzo Piano’s Morgan Library atrium in New York. While contemporary in materials and approach, Noma is quiet and intimate, and references traditional local architecture inside and out; ARC is something else entirely, and unlike any other structure on the planet.
Torpe goes on to stress that perhaps the key attribute to Ingels’s success—beyond his good looks, charming personality, and design know-how—is his forward-thinking fearlessness. “Every fifteen years or so,” he says, “a country will get one great artist who will elevate it for decades, or maybe the next century. And Bjarke is one of those. He has taken a fearless approach to whatever he’s doing, and just done it, despite criticism about what’s right and wrong. [But] he doesn’t really care about that, because he only cares about his vision. And his vision is to make something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. This approach takes a lot of balls—brass balls,” Torpe says, referencing the famous Alec Baldwin monologue in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross. “That’s Bjarke. He has brass balls, and that’s rare. Even though he’s a Dane, I don’t think he sees the limitation of being Danish. Honestly speaking, either you can be the king of the hill, if you’re in Denmark—and I’m not talking about the [ARC] skiing hill—or you can be a knight of the world. He’s a knight of the world. Fuck the hill!”
“I think the world has a hard time understanding that you can be both well-spoken and a good designer,” Ingels tells me in late January over breakfast at the restaurant Al Mar, near both his home and BIG’s new studio in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. “In architecture, there’s this myth, or misunderstanding, that if what you’re saying makes no sense, or if nobody can understand it, then it must be really profound, and that if what you’re saying is crystal clear, then it can’t be very deep.”
Ingels, of course, falls into the clarity camp. His overflowing excitement about not just BIG’s work but architecture’s possibilities is contagious and has helped him succeed, too. Matthias Hollwich, a partner of the New York–based firm Hollwich Kushner, goes so far as to tell me that he believes Ingels is “revolutionizing how architecture is communicated, and also experienced.” Hollwich continues, “He creates an enthusiasm, not just for all the nerds in architecture, but also for his high-power clients and the general population.” Christian Andresen, the head of design at the Danish furniture brand Fritz Hansen, who worked with Ingels on the company’s VIA57 lounge chair, feels similarly. “He’s good at simplifying things and talking passionately about design,” Andresen says, “no matter if it’s life or buildings or furniture pieces. I think that’s part of his success.”
Ingels’s communication style has also proven to be a boon for his internal practice and company culture. At BIG, he runs a hyper-collaborative, groupthink operation—one he calls “narrative design”—that allows various parties (and partners) to be a part of the process through clearly outlining step-by-step diagrams and plans, as well as through streamlined dialogue. The concepts, proposals, and buildings that result are often unexpected, and occasionally even groundbreaking. “This ‘narrative design’ method allows many to contribute to a single project, whereas if it wasn’t verbalized in this way, then everybody would have to wait for the silent master to conjure some kind of divine intervention,” Ingels says. “By making [a design] explicit, and by elaborating and refining it, the DNA of the design actually ends up empowering every individual, and not only the architects, but the clients, the consultants, the engineers, and the city planners, because everybody has access to the source code.” Without this approach, says BIG partner Finn Nørkjær, 54, who works in the Copenhagen studio, “you’d have to be inside the head of the leader,” and thus BIG’s scaling up would have been impossible.
When I ask Cat Huang, a 37-year-old architect in BIG’s Copenhagen office who is one of five being named a partner later this year (she started at the firm as an intern in 2007), how the perpetually traveling Ingels can push this vision forward and stay involved in every project—BIG can have upwards of 100 going at any given time—she mentions that the firm uses a simple PDF system. “Every Friday—and sometimes on Wednesday and Friday, if he’s really into it—each project team sends Bjarke an update that’s [typically] between fifteen and a hundred pages,” she says. “And generally, he manages to answer every single one.”
Growing up in the suburbs north of Copenhagen—his mother was a dentist, his father a fiber-optic cable engineer—Ingels was infatuated with drawing from an early age. “I was drawing all the time,” he says, recalling illustrations of things like “a treasure island full of rocks and palm trees and lagoons, with a mountain in the middle, or a huge medieval castle—not a symmetrical one—with drawbridges.” In time, he discovered a joy of graphic novels. “While my mom was getting the groceries,” he says, “I would run into the nearby bookstore. I would flick through the graphic novels. I never read them—I was visually consuming them.” Occasionally, Ingels says, when he did have the allowance, he would actually buy one, only to be disappointed. “I would find that the actual story never got anywhere close to the one I had created in my head.”
Then, at around age 15, Ingels discovered the work of the science fiction writer William Gibson—for him, an incredibly formative experience. “Until then,” he says, “I had kind of avoided science fiction, because it felt a little too made-up. But through William Gibson’s work I could really see that the future was somehow an extension of the now.”
In 1993, largely because there wasn’t a cartoon school in Denmark, Ingels began a six-year architecture program at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In his fourth year of studies, he left Copenhagen for Barcelona, where he attended the Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura. While a largely positive experience, Ingels’s time in Spain also presented moments of great frustration. Studying under the architect Enric Miralles, who was heavy on theory but not so much on practicality, “drove me nuts,” he says.
A refuge for Ingels became the Spanish architecture magazine El Croquis, which he scoured. “I would get the books they were referring to, and study the architects they were referring to,” he says. “In a way, the footnotes of El Croquis became my curriculum.” The research was a bit like a game of connecting the dots: Ben van Berkel, who had worked for Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid, led Ingels to Calatrava and Catalan architecture; Hadid led him to Koolhaas; from there, he discovered interviews between Koolhaas and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, which led him to tectonics and the work of Alvar Aalto and Jørn Utzon.
In particular, the progressive designs of Koolhaas, a journalist turned architect, and his Rotterdam-based firm, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), resonated with Ingels. He felt he absolutely had to work there. So, in early January of 1998, he went on “a pilgrimage over Christmas break” and confidently strolled into OMA’s office without a scheduled appointment. Remembering the credits of an OMA project in El Croquis, he asked for one of the listed architects, Gary Bates. (Bates in now a partner of the Oslo-based firm Spacegroup.) “In comes in this tall black man who’s quite young—he was younger than I am now—and at least a head and a half taller than me,” Ingels says. “He was like a demigod, and he was really annoyed. He was saying, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t recall ever having spoken with you.’” After some smooth-talking and a quick review of his portfolio, though, Ingels says he left OMA’s office that day with a six-month internship, which he started just a few weeks later. “It’s the only job I ever applied for,” he says.
Shortly after graduating, in 1999, Ingels got a call from OMA, which had just won a competition to design the Seattle Public Library. They asked Ingels if he would return to be a lead designer on the project. He accepted and stayed at the firm for a year, helping create one of the most groundbreaking buildings in recent U.S. history. Matthias Hollwich, who was working at OMA at the time, describes the firm then as “a crazy, inspiring sweatshop.” A surprising number of other leading architects today were there then, too, among them Joshua Prince-Ramus, founding principal of REX; Amale Andraos, a partner of the firm WorkAC and the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; and Shohei Shigematsu, who is now an OMA partner running the firm’s New York office. Hollwich remembers Ingels as “already the big personality,” he says. “Besides the storytelling and the architecture, there was also just him as a persona, with the crazy hair and very charming demeanor. You could see he had this intensity, a real genius brewing.”
In 2001, Ingels went back again to Copenhagen, this time with an OMA colleague, Julien De Smedt, and together they established the firm PLOT—a name, Ingels says, that was intentionally rooted in the theme of cinema. Early in PLOT’s formation, Ingels and De Smedt met a local developer, Per Høpfner, who was acquiring property for development in Ørestad. It was a chance connection that gave them the necessary client—and leeway—to not only actually construct something in real life, but also to experiment and grow their reputation as architects doing outside-the-box, narrative-driven designs that engage the public. Soon, PLOT got to working on its first Høpfner commission, the VM Houses, a pair of sleek glass-and-steel residential buildings that were completed in 2004; the V building, with its pointy, iceberg-like balconies, was particularly eye-catching.
In late 2005, during the construction of the second Høpfner job, called the Mountain, Ingels and De Smedt decided to part ways. (Both had already started separate respective firms.) Asked why things didn’t work out between De Smedt and him, Ingels says, “There were a lot of different things, but maybe one aspect of it that was significant was the idea of creating a partnership, and elevating some of our best people to become partners. Julien was much more skeptical of that.” De Smedt disagrees with Ingels’s assessment. “We never discussed a partnership beyond ourselves,” he says, “although I doubt I would have seen this as problematic. I was always concerned about producing the best quality of work and having control of that process, and that’s something that can get lost in a sea of voices.”
As PLOT dissolved, Ingels, together with Nørkjær and four of the firm’s other architects—Thomas Christoffersen, Jakob Lange, Andreas Klok Pedersen, and David Zahle—founded BIG. (Four years later, in 2009, Nørkjær, Zahle, Christoffersen, Lange, and Pedersen, along with Sheela Maini Søgaard and Kai-Uwe Bergmann, both of whom had not been a part of PLOT, were named BIG partners.) With BIG, Ingels felt that he was at last able to build an operation under his vision, with a team rowing in the same direction around him. “It was new to me,” Ingels says, “that to take the next step you have to get away from the bottleneck of a single creative genius and somehow empower the many.”
Upon its completion in 2010, the 8 House, Ingels’s third project for Høpfner, brought waves of attention, both for Ingels and for BIG’s architecture. (This followed the release of Yes Is More, an architectural manifesto by Ingels in the form of a comic book, and his first TED Talk, both in 2009, and the 2008 opening of the Mountain.) The 10-story, roughly 765,000-square-foot mixed-use building, which is dramatically shaped in a figure 8 and features far-reaching views of the surrounding landscape, in a roundabout way, helped lead BIG to receive its first U.S. commission, VIA, and in turn to the opening of its New York office. Named the best housing complex at the 2011 World Architecture Festival, 8 House—in addition to VIA and the early Ørestad work—also spurred tremendous media coverage, including, in 2012, an 11,000-word profile of Ingels by the writer Ian Parker in The New Yorker. Following the publication of Parker’s feature, the website Architizer hyperbolically declared in a headline “The New Yorker’s Bjarke Ingels Profile Just Might Save Architecture.” When I mention this headline to Ingels, he says, with a smile, “Ian ended up becoming a good friend. We hang out every once in a while.” Then he adds matter of factly, “There were a few things that I didn’t like about the story.”
For its debut in 2011, the magazine CLOG, which focuses each issue around a single subject, chose to dedicate the entire edition to BIG. (Subsequent issues have focused on, among other things, Apple, Miami, prisons, Rem Koolhaas, and guns.) When I ask its co-founder and co-editor, the architect Kyle May, why CLOG chose Ingels and BIG as its inaugural focus, he says, “Because, even at that point, he was the frontrunner in using online media to his benefit and adapting the way that the firm communicates to really be consumed online. Take the firm’s diagrams, which show step-by-step transformations that make the design seem almost inevitable. These have now become ubiquitous, especially in universities.” May adds that, because Ingels’s career was still nascent then, with only a few projects in Copenhagen under his belt, many in architecture were “questioning how the work was going to be executed,” and this made for ripe debate. “A lot of his firm’s work centers around large-scale gestures,” May says, “so there were some questions about how that would actually translate into built form.”
During this time, Ingels’s celebrity took off, and through his easy-to-grasp metaphors and architectural analogies, he was bringing both his work and architecture at large to a new global stage. A video of him on Nowness, captured during the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennial, shows him lounging nonchalantly in sunglasses on the back of a wood-paneled boat as it motors through the Italian city’s canals. In it, he likens the role of an architect to a midwife (“We’re not actually giving birth to our ideas, [but rather] assisting the city” and “helping facilitate change”); describes a mixed-typology design theory he calls “‘BIG’-amy” (“You don’t need one or the other; you can actually have both!”); and declares, “I think architecture is way too important to just leave to the architects.”
In 2015, with the near-completion of VIA, another surge of press arrived, this time more pronounced than any that had surrounded 8 House, an indication of VIA’s high-profile location, its rather unusual design, and Ingels’s rising stardom. Ingels describes the prominence of the Durst project this way: “VIA was not a refurbishment. It was not some small gallery in the Meatpacking District. It was a ground-up city block. Even though I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t going to be a skyscraper—now that we were finally building in New York—at least it had some elevation. We ended up with a typology that was completely different, and was well-received. It was quite clear that we were trying to create this oasis in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen.”
That year, Ingels went on a media blitz, receiving plenty of attention in kind. He released the book Hot to Cold and presented an exhibition of the same name at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum; appeared on a episode of Charlie Rose; was interviewed on stage by critic Michael Kimmelman at The New York Times’s “City for Tomorrow” conference; was highlighted by Derek Blasberg in a dumbed-down CNN Style segment; was described by the Times as “the most important architect you have never heard of”; and was, in this magazine’s pages, referred to as “architecture’s swinging bachelor-prince.”
In 2016, Time put him on its Time 100 list. In a tenderly composed bit of text, Rem Koolhaas wrote of his former employee, “Bjarke is the first major architect who 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.”
Of course, not all of the press along the way has been positive, and both BIG and Ingels have faced their fair share of criticism. In 2011, the critic Mark Lamster described Ingels, in a biting, backhanded sort of compliment, as “the golden retriever of contemporary architecture,” writing on the website Design Observer that “he always seems to be pushing up against your leg, begging you to toss his stick so he can show you what he can do.” And Alexandra Lange, a prominent design critic, wrote on the design website Dezeen in 2014, “It’s easy to make fun of Bjarke Ingels on Instagram. Selfie, LEGO selfie, girlfriend (I hope), Gaga, monograph, fog, fox socks. His Instagram has a lot to do with the architecture of self-promotion, but little to do with actual building.”
Last year, in a Vogue profile, the writer Rob Haskell pointed out that Ingels “has indeed been accused of all kinds of things—of shameless self-promotion (through social media, mainly), of saying yes to every commission that comes his way, of hewing to a limited formal vocabulary,” adding that, because BIG has managed to successfully win and complete so much work in such a short period of time, Ingels “has drawn the widespread envy of his peers.” In 2016, nearly 1,400 people signed a petition opposing BIG’s original Smithsonian plan in D.C., which included a proposal to demolish a portion of the campus; when the firm presented a revised scheme this January, a commissioner, the landscape architect Elizabeth Meyer, remained unimpressed, saying simply, “It’s not good design.” (BIG’s director of communications, Daria Pahhota, stresses that the new Smithsonian design “manages to both keep the treasured [Enid A.] Haupt Garden nearly as it is while providing the necessary seismic reinforcements and improvements to the campus,” adding, “The critics won’t even bother to look at our proposal.”) When BIG unveiled renderings for a new Washington Redskins stadium, also in 2016, many in the public pilloried the plans, with one Twitter user comparing the scheme to “jellyfish barf”; Fast Company’s Co.Design website ran the headline “Is Bjarke Ingels Just Trolling Us Now?”
Another common criticism of BIG’s architecture has been that, while the buildings typically look great on Instagram, in renderings, or when captured from far away, up close they don’t pass muster, their detailing apparently an afterthought. But that’s an observation that—especially as BIG has continued to professionalize—appears to be, with some exceptions, turning into less a reality and more a reflection of the practice’s gutsy, get-it-done nature in its nascent years. (Early projects like 8 House showed a scrappy, ambitious startup at play, pushing forms and architectural ideas as far as it could within limited bandwidths and budgets. More recent commissions, such as the jutting Maritime Museum of Denmark, in Helsingør, or the hyperbolic-paraboloid VIA West 57th “courtscraper” in Midtown Manhattan, have put the firm’s increasingly mature, though still decidedly rough-around-the-edges, approach on full display.) In a blog post in 2009, the designer and critic Michael Abrahamson captured this dichotomy succinctly, noting that the details of the Mountain “aren’t often what one might call tectonic but instead laissez faire” and that they “have the appearance not of carelessness but ease, as if designed to be ignored.” In my interview with Nørkjær, when I mention the aspect of detailing and finishing within BIG’s buildings, he says, “Now we’re getting better at details. We want to explore more about materials and texture, and we’re more into what you touch and feel.” (The new Noma is a case in point.) He adds, “When we did the 8 House, it was so fucking complicated. I’m not saying that it was bad detail, but I’m saying that now we’re just more skilled.”
BIG has also been ridiculed for its seemingly macho-man culture and lack of diversity. Last year, Ingels posted a photo to his Instagram of the firm’s partners—all of them white and only one of them female—in the VIA courtyard, with the caption “BIG BOYS&GIRL.” A robust pile-on of comments ensued. In response, Sheela Maini Søgaard, BIG’s CEO and the woman partner in the photo, defended the company’s gender balance, telling Dezeen that 50 percent of BIG’s managers, 60 percent of its directors, and 40 percent of its staff are women. And Ingels wrote on his feed, “This is a photo of me and my dear friends and partners who I love, admire, and respect, and who I have collaborated with to create our company over the last 16 years. To my surprise this photo has turned out to be deeply offensive to a lot of people who appear to believe that we have chosen each other based on factors as utterly indifferent as gender and race, rather than our shared passion, talent, skill, intelligence, heart, and soul. Seriously?” One user, Alejandro Rico (@_alejrico), replied, “So in all this time you haven’t found women and people of color who share that same passion, talent, skill, intelligence, heart, and soul? How’s that possible?”
Regardless, the media machine around BIG and Ingels continues apace. One of the most recent standouts is Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s documentary film on Ingels, Big Time, which made its U.S. debut in late 2017 to mixed reviews. (The screening took place at a theater inside VIA, with many top architects, artists, and designers in the room.) Though it was nearly seven years in the making, the film doesn’t manage to capture the richness of BIG’s work or the true complexity of Ingels, painting him instead as a hardworking party-boy globetrotter who throws office raves. Throughout, BIG’s cutting-edge architecture and swift growth appears to be a far second to Ingels’s alluring, affable personality. (The film also has notable overlap with an exaggerated episode on Ingels from Netflix’s Abstract series, also released last year, that likens BIG’s buildings to the mind-bending world of the sci-fi thriller Inception.) I asked a few architects and designers who saw the film if they would speak to me on the record about it. They all declined.
Behind the curtain of this broad press-making machine, Johannes Torpe points out to me, is a shrewd operator and BIG’s in-house communications maven, Daria Pahhota. “She might be one of the most skilled, strategic, and beautiful politicians within PR,” he says. “She understands how to put him in the spotlight in the right way, and how to tease—to open the door when there’s the most people outside.” When Ingels appears in the media, Torpe says, “it’s never another boring interview about a student-housing project, blah blah blah. It’s always talking about the philosophy. It’s always talking about the vision. It’s always talking about the mission.”
Kent Martinussen, an architect and the CEO of the Danish Architecture Centre, has known Ingels for years, and has been following BIG’s designs, which he admires, from the start. In his mind, the connection between media and BIG’s work is set up as a factory-like feedback loop. “You could not have imagined the leap that Bjarke has done without him taking so much advantage of the media,” he says. “On the other hand, if you really go a little deeper into it, the way BIG conceives architecture is also totally influenced back from the media, so it’s a vice-versa situation.”
One night last winter, over a couple of glasses of white wine at his clean-lined, Bang & Olufsen–filled penthouse in Brooklyn—on top of which he was in the process of building anaddition—Ingels tells me he recently bought another penthouse, several blocks away, in Brooklyn Heights. He shows me a few pictures on his iPhone of it, a raw, unfinished space atop a historic building with views across the East River, Lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Bridge. “It’s the coolest apartment in New York,” he says of the new purchase. “Or it’s definitely in the top ten.” (Ingels also owns a 57-year-old passenger ship in Copenhagen, called the Bukken-Bruse, which he’s renovating into a house, and he has been spending a lot of time in Barcelona lately with his fiancée, the Spanish architect Ruth Otero.)
Much as Ingels built his name in Copenhagen a decade ago, he’s now become one of the most prominent architects in New York City. While his firm is at work on commissions around the world—such as an under-construction museum and hotel for the watchmaker Audemars Piguet in Le Brassus, Switzerland, and a bottling factory for San Pellegrino in Bergamo, Italy, which breaks ground this fall—BIG is putting a significant focus on New York, where its U.S. office has a staff of 230 and several major projects underway, including a tough-looking station for the NYPD’s 40th Precinct in the Bronx, a curvy residential building called the Smile in Harlem, two twisting towers for HFZ Capital Group in Chelsea, and a provocative skyscraper for Tishman Speyer at Hudson Yards. There’s also the proposal for Two World Trade Center, which has long been in the works but is still waiting for its developer, Larry Silverstein, to land an anchor tenant (in 2016, 21st Century Fox and News Corp. pulled out of plans to occupy the building; Ingels is confident another company will come along soon).
The largest-scale of the firm’s New York projects underway is called the Big U, which BIG is executing with more than $800 million in reported funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and New York City. Aiming to protect Lower Manhattan—“LoMa,” Ingels calls it—from floodwaters, storms, and other climate change–related issues, the concept is not only yet another new typology for the firm, but also a vast departure from anything BIG has ever done before. More engineering and landscape design than architecture, the Big U will stretch 10 miles and include berms along the East River Park and Battery Park, as well as deployable walls underneath an elevated highway. “It’s a big-scope grab,” Ingels says. “It’s going to be quite wild.”
The firm is also working with the shared-workspace company WeWork, designing the company’s first elementary school, to be located at its Manhattan headquarters. When we land on the subject, Ingels gets noticeably excited. “In a way,” he says,“WeWork is almost like an accelerator. It can be a scaling device for great ideas, for great companies. It’s a physical amplifier of great human content.” (BIG is purportedly working with the company on several other projects, but neither Ingels nor WeWork were able to elaborate at press time.) In WeWork, he has found an ideal client: an entity with big ambitions, big ideas, big properties, and a big cash pile. “I think they’re just realizing that what they’re doing,” he says.
Ingels continues, “WeWork has incredible confidence, and so far, they’ve been able to pull it off.” Then, almost out of nowhere, he references a recent Wired article about entrepreneurship. “It says that what has tended to define success in innovation has been people who take calculated risks—not reckless risks, but calculated risks.”
This idea gets me thinking about Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and how they built one of the world’s largest, fastest-growing technology companies with this ethos in mind. To find architectural solutions for accommodating its gargantuan scale and staff, Google has found a fit in BIG (and Heatherwick). I ask Ingels if he sees a parallel between Google and WeWork. He answers immediately. “Google’s purpose is this idea of organizing the world’s information,” he says. “WeWork’s is organizing the world’s space. If Google’s going to take care of all the information—all the virtual stuff—WeWork will enable all the virtual stuff to actually be accommodated in the physical world.” And there Ingels will be, the maestro in the middle, conducting his world-dominating architectural orchestra, and sharing snapshots of the experience on his Instagram for all of us to see.