Sunday, December 20, 2009

Big Nasty- Bjarke Ingels stops by the Architecture League

Well, it's the Christmas season in New York City, and we know what that means- it's time for visits from energetic rosy-cheeked cherubs from the north. This past Tuesday Bjarke Ingels stopped by to give a talk and present his recent work at the Architecture League. In addition, he was being introduced by Amale Andraos of Work AC whose work I've admired since their PS 1 installation way back in 2008.

After work I hurried down to the lecture hall and excitedly took my seat behind one of the giant columns in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. For those of you who haven't experienced a lecture there let me try to describe it: you get your ticket and descend what appears to be a maintenance stair to a side entrance into a long hallway that ends in a wall. To your left are entry doors to the auditorium in the basement of the building. The space is cavernous, befitting a major lecture hall in New York City, but being as it is also the basement there are huge columns on a 30 foot grid. These do a fantastic job of obstructing the view from all sorts of different angles and so Cooper Union has been forced to put up additional screens so that the people who were not there in time to sit in the center can lean awkwardly in their seats to catch glimpses of any one of three projector screens. I was one of those people.

The lecture was scheduled to start at 7; I knew that the hour was nigh when I saw Bjarke put on the black hoodie. He was introduced by Amale at 7:09. Now, normally when designers are asked to speak at the Architecture League they cling to the lectern and lecture loquaciously with a surly sneer. Granted, even for well-spoken professionals it would be difficult to face an entire auditorium, none of whom you can see because all of the halogen lamps in the place are trained directly on your forehead. By 7:12, Bjarke had already left the lectern, mounted the stage, and was pacing excitingly across the stage explaining his projects.

For a good idea of what the talk was like (right down to the projects presented and the jokes told) one should just refer to the TED talks video and the commentary provided by the good folks at mammoth a few months ago. Suffice it to say that he was as exuberant and self-effacing as ever, with his charmingly goofy accent and propensity to stutter almost even disarming the icy New York crowd.

One thing struck me: Bjarke is completely unapologetic. Sure he wears a hoodie to give his presentation; why not? Sure, he leapt up on to the stage and is now gesticulating wildly. Sure his firm's defining publication is a comic book; why not? Well, of course there are very good reasons why you wouldn't do these things. Most of these have to do with decorum and respectability, which he seems to care nothing about. He's a confounding, captivating blend of punk rock and shameless opportunist. And he is up front about this- Yes Is More.

This attitude is wonderfully, ominously reminiscent of the life affirming world view of some ancient cultures discussed by Joseph Campbell in his comparative mythology ramblings. To quote Campbell, "The only way to affirm life is to affirm it to the root, to the rotten, horrendous base... Through the bitterness and pain, the primary experience at the core of life is a sweet wonderful thing. This affirmative view comes pouring in on one through these terrific rites and myths." And BIG affirms everything, be it traceurs using his exterior spaces for a little fun or literally building cheesy mountain-buildings in Asia. He does it in a visionary and sophisticated way, but it is also crass and flippant and it tends to offend architects' delicate sensibilities. I would liken him to Del tha Funky Homosapien more than any contemporary architect.

After his lecture he calmed down and came down from the stage, sweating and still a bit excited. And Amale was waiting for him with pursed lips. Now these were both coworkers at OMA just a few short years ago and are now heading up excellent studios. As is customary at these things they sat together for a little Q and A for the benefit of the plebeians sitting out amongst the basement columns. Amale immediately launched into a five minute diatribe disguised as question that essentially said- "you take whatever work comes your way. Why don't you ever set the agenda?" His answer, which could be seen as humble or a cop out- architects are just part of a larger system, we don't set the agenda and we have to go where the work is, that we are no different from the plumber or the banker or the pediatrician.  It was utterly Koolhaasian). It was also an honest appraisal and while I think BIG has been very opportunistic early on, focusing on high-profile glamorous competitions and commissions, there is no reason this anti-ethos couldn't be applied to other types of projects that were smaller in scale or for more ambiguous in origin. Though they would probably draw less ire from the pious powers if they jumped on the public urban farm wagon.

While that is debatable, one of the most compelling anti-Bjarke (or anti-OMA) arguments I've heard is that we don't need more 200 million dollar luxury development projects and decadent new public entertainment parks when schools and scientific research are grossly underfunded, and infrastructure is failing and that by going after those commissions an architect is validating the perverse vision of the capitalist mastermind. But I reckon we don't want to hear that; we need the scraps from the table to publish in the awards issues each year.


  1. LOL, times at least 5. Thanks for a creative and insightful post. Your description of the Great Hall is perfect, bringing back memories of almost losing balance trying to see the full panel. And I hadn't heard the name Del tha Funky Homosapien for way too long.

    Anyway, yes. Considering the role of trained architects in setting the agenda is so important. It's tough when there has to be some kind of funding. I understand the tendency to embrace the world as it is, but it would be good to find some way to do work that isn't driven by commercial interests. There is Architecture for Humanity and Architects Without Borders, and while I really admire their orientation towards helping people, I'm not sure they're setting a viable agenda.

    Besides projects funded by trained architects, which seem kind of rare, maybe the architecture that most directly shapes an agenda can be found in the informal sector -- the shanties that are built wherever they can be, changing the local geography and taking strong, if not necessarily intentional, political stands.

    I don't mean to celebrate poverty or call for architects to give up their jobs and start building houses out of leftover materials along the train tracks. This is just a thought on what it means to set or shape the agenda, rather than supporting other agendas that don't do much good in the world. Architects are amazingly creative, they must be able to find a way.

  2. yes, it's a tough question, one i'm trying to explore a bit (from the comfort of my glassed-in manhattan studio). on that topic I've come across supersudaca, who i think is wonderful. There are also these guys out in the bay area-

    And there is the "office for unsolicited architecture". from their publications, the work seems as pretentious and half-baked as you might fear, but still, I think there is something to that idea.

    you are right about afh, at least in new york. ive worked with them a bit and it is a rudderless organization.

    but i also don't buy Koolhaas' form of architectural determinism. you are right to point out the favelas/villas miseries. they suck in many ways, but they are amazing.

  3. Thanks for the introduction to Supersudaca! Although my Spanish is a little rusty, it looks like a great organization. I'm glad you've brought up this topic. It seems to apply to almost any profession.

    With regard to architecture, I've been reading about the Russian Constructivists recently, and this reminds me to find out more about the role they played leading up to the revolution. They were very politically active in the period that followed, but they had the support of the state until Stalin came to power.

    I wouldn't say architects should have to set the agenda or dedicate themselves to saving the world. Doing inspiring work is great in itself. But for those who want to, I hope they can find real ways of making it happen. I love to see inspiring work applied towards solving social/ecological problems.

    On a different note, this is my last memory of tha Funky Homosapien before finding your article: Mr Bob Doblina :)