AIA Philadelphia Honors a Fantastic Architect

Bjarke Ingels, winner of this year's Louis Kahn Award, may design fanciful buildings that shout "Look at me!," but when you look at them, you discover they're grounded in reality and fill actual human needs.

1200 Intrepid Avenue at the Navy Yard, the first Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) building in Philadelphia | Rendering: BIG

1200 Intrepid Avenue at the Navy Yard, the first Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) building in Philadelphia | Rendering: BIG

After hearing Bjarke Ingels give a tour of his career and the principles that animate his design philosophy on Monday evening at the Penn Museum, one question immediately sprang to mind when I got a minute to interview him privately:

“Did you read comic books as a kid?”

“Yes, I did read graphic novels growing up,” was his reply.

The celebrated Danish architect and winner of this year’s Louis I. Kahn Memorial Award from the Center for Architecture and Design has amassed an extensive portfolio of buildings that seem to be rooted in fantasy in one way or another. From a LEGO museum that can be replicated to exact scale with the plastic building blocks to a waste-to-energy plant that will double as Denmark’s first and only ski slope, Ingels’ projects all incorporate elements that make you laugh, say “Wow!”, smile in admiration and scratch your head in wonder at how he gets away with it all.

Yet all of them are equally practical and are designed to meet real human needs. Rather than show off for the sake of showing off, Ingels’ fantastic designs all offer unique, and uniquely tailored, responses to multiple challenges and their sites.

Ingels displays an image of 1200 Intrepid's "periscope" at his Kahn Award talk | Photo: Sandy Smith

Ingels displays an image of 1200 Intrepid’s “periscope” at his Kahn Award talk | Photo: Sandy Smith

That’s true even for more modest designs like his one Philadelphia commission to date, 1200 Intrepid Avenue, a speculative office building now nearly complete in the Navy Yard. Located on a street that faces the new Central Green public park, the building contains two notable bits of whimsy. One is its main entrance, nestled in a dent in the building’s park-facing facade. That dent, Ingels explained in his talk, is a response to the “shock wave” produced by the circular park’s intrusion on the office park’s rectangular street grid, an intrusion that also causes 12th Street to bend in front of the building. Inside is an even more whimsical element that connects the Navy Yard’s future, as represented by the building itself, to its past: a light well that rises from the center of the lobby that also serves as a periscope which, when its lid is raised, reflects a view of the mothballed Navy ships docked in the yard’s lagoon down into the lobby.

“At its core, architecture is the art and science of turning fiction into fact,” Ingels told the audience that filled the museum’s Harrison Auditorium for his talk.

Ingels has described his architectural philosophy as “pragmatic utopianism,” and his work is filled with places and designs that would literally have been impossible to conceive as recently as a decade ago, not because materials couldn’t do the things he makes them do but because neither architects nor clients had bothered to think the way he does now.

Louis Kahn, the trailblazing Philadelphia architect for whom the award Ingels received Monday is named, also broke the mold of architectural thought prevalent in his day. Ingels gave Kahn his due at the start of his talk, saying he “rediscovered the symbolism of monumentality for modernism.” (He also noted that the architect “had an amazing personal life,” which Ingels learned about from viewing his illegitimate son Nathaniel’s autobiographical film “My Architect.”)

Some of Ingels’ own projects display a similar “symbolism of monumentality,” though not in the weighty way Kahn’s do. One of the more notable such projects currently under way is Two World Trade Center in New York. Ingels’ skyscraper connects the sunken memorial to the original Twin Towers with the (slightly) Daniel Liebskind-inspired, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) through the form of a series of stacked blocks rising from the ground. Saying the building was also an effort to tie together Tribeca to the site’s north and the financial district to its east, he said he “took seven different kinds of buildings and put them together to form a single tower.”

In doing so, he discovered again that just as novels have two authors — the writer and the reader — buildings have two designers, the architect and the people who view and use the building. “It doesn’t matter what you intend it to be, others will interpret it,” he said. “A firefighter wrote me to say that Two World Trade Center was ‘a giant staircase to Heaven,’ recalling both the heroic struggle of the firefighters and the souls [of the victims] ascending. I wrote back, “We didn’t see the building that way,” but now that he wrote that, it’s hard not to see it like that.”

This sort of “practical poetry,” as Ingels called it, shows up again and again in his designs. A multipurpose hall he designed as an addition to the Gammel Hellerup High School gym in Denmark, for instance, has a roof that takes its shape from the arc of a thrown handball. The gently parabolic roof of the underground hall also serves as a casual outdoor gathering spot that has proved wildly popular with students: “The janitor believes he can quantify the increased use of the courtyard because he had to put in three times as many trash cans,” he said.

“When we get a commission, we dig deep into the questions of ‘what is the problem we need to solve?'” he said. What almost always happens is that the resulting building solves multiple problems. Such is the case with the Dryline, a project that will provide storm surge protection for lower Manhattan while at the same time adding to the island’s supply of parkland, brightening the territory under an elevated freeway and offering residents new and better ways to view both their surroundings and the waterways and land masses beyond.

Ingels’ sense of the whimsical also serves serious purposes. Consider another feature of that Copenhagen waste-to-energy plant: a smokestack that blows a “smoke ring” of steam every time the plant keeps a ton of carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere. He hopes that in the future, people will see things like this as nothing out of the ordinary: “In Venice, they travel on streets filled with water. In Denmark, they ski on their power plants and their chimneys blow smoke rings. That’s just how it is in Denmark.”

While the companion exhibit “Impossible Possibilities” on the work of his firm, the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), has now closed, the BIG website has information on all of the firm’s commissions. I for one can’t wait to see what his next Philadelphia commission will be.

Postscript: The day after his Kahn Award talk, Ingels was in the news again, this time as part of one of the biggest futuristic projects now in the works: BIG was named the architectural partner for the Hyperloop One project, an effort to build an evacuated-tube transportation system that would propel capsule-like vehicles between cities at speeds of 700 miles an hour. A test tube is currently under construction in North Las Vegas, Nev.