Copenhagen Harbour Bath, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Casper Dalhoff

At the core of Bjarke Ingels Group’s vision and work is both hedonism and sustainability—terms generally thought to be diametrically opposed. This juxtaposition inspires questions: “What exactly do you mean? Why put these two concepts together?” What does this mean for the built environment and your work?” For this issue of ARCADE, we went to BIG and asked.—Ed.

Increasing the Quality of Life

At the center of our culture’s general perception of sustainability is the idea of a moral code: How much of our existing quality of life are we prepared to sacrifice in order to afford being sustainable? It is the protestant perception that it has to hurt to be good and that living a sustainable life means doing less than we normally would. At BIG, we are looking at how sustainable cities and buildings can increase our quality of life. We want to find ways of designing cities and buildings as double ecosystems that are both ecologically and economically profitable and don’t force people to alter their lifestyles in order to clear their consciences. We want people to be able to live exactly the way they want, or even better, because their world and cities are designed in such a way that they can actually do so. It is to approach the question of sustainability not as a moral dilemma but as a design challenge.

I have two favorite examples from Copenhagen in which sustainability brings an upgrade in experience rather than a downgrade:

First, thirty-seven percent of Copenhageners today commute by bike; they never experience unenjoyable traffic jams because they have the convenience of going from point A to point B on a bicycle. For them, the joy of riding their bikes has replaced being stuck in traffic or looking aimlessly for parking.

Secondly, Copenhagen’s port has become so clean people can swim in it. Copenhageners don’t have to commute to the Danish equivalent of the Hamptons in order to have clean water. The first project that BIG did was the Copenhagen Harbour Bath, which extends public life into the water in the middle of the city.

West 57th Residences, New York, NY. Photo: BIG

Economy and Ecology

With the double global crisis of finance and climate change, architects can’t resort to being crazy, expensive artists creating spectacularly irrational forms to attract attention. A sustainable idea that is too expensive will never be applied on a large scale, which is what we need, and a business model that is based on exhausting our natural resources won’t provide longterm growth. We have to pursue approaches that are both ecologically and economically successful. In one of our most current projects, the Waste-To-Energy power plant in Copenhagen, the mass of the building serves as a ski slope. It is economically profitable because it turns waste into heat and energy. It is environmentally profitable because it disposes of a landfill.

In Denmark, only 4% of waste ends up in landfills, as opposed to 99% in the US, and the rest is either turned into energy or recycled. In addition, the project is socially profitable because it creates a social activity – skiing – which would otherwise be impossible. With this project, Copenhagen will get its first ski mountain.

Engineering Without Engines

Under the headline of “Engineering Without Engines,” BIG is trying to find new ways of eliminating superfluous machinery through our contemporary capacity for calculation, computation and simulation. At the advent of Modernism, functional analysis led to the design of different machines to deliver different qualities in buildings; for example, people needed to be able to see in the dark depths of buildings, so electric lights were designed. People needed comfortable indoor temperatures, so central heating and AC were invented. In the end, the architecture was rendered an empty box void of certain functional characteristics, plugged into a stack of machines that made it inhabitable. These additions were perceived as providing freedom but at the cost of exploding energy consumption.

In a way, we at BIG are attempting to reinvent the term “vernacular architecture”—the form of architecture without architects that has emerged over centuries, in which peoples have found ways to build houses and cities to optimize living conditions in given climates. In pursuing this new vernacular architecture, we create buildings in which the qualities of the design come from the architecture and not from the machines we plug into it. Our current interests revolve around architecture that performs rather than appears—that looks different because it works differently.

Right now everybody needs to have an attitude toward sustainability. Perhaps we are raising a battle cry for architects and designers to stop whining and start designing. Our current lifestyle has a negative impact on the environment simply because when we conceived it, we weren’t aware of the side effects. It’s not that our manufacturing process or our transport systems need to have these side effects—it’s that they weren’t factored into the original equation. The question of pollution isn’t a political or a moral question, it’s a design challenge—one that every designer has the ability to change.