Reinventing the City Through Hedonistic Sustainability

English: Bjarke Ingels at Helsinki Design Week...

Architect Bjarke Ingels of Copenhagen-based practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has made his name with numerous extraordinary buildings that, in the hands of someone with less vision, might have ended up as something quite routine. He has imagined housing projects, mixed-use developments, civic buildings, a psychiatric hospital and a waste-to-energy plant in ways that enable us to see the prosaic in new, dynamic ways.

Ingels is also, to some degree, an iconoclast, choosing to publish a graphic novel Less Is More – not a coffee table monograph – that explains and demythologizes the architectural process. In a profession that thrives on obfuscation, he is a populist who thrives on offering guidance.

“By making [architecture] nonsensical and mysterious you can create the illusion that it’s complicated and difficult to understand,” he told me last year. “And therefore there’s some kind of mystery. Apparently architects can understand things nobody else can.”

While he has numerous projects in development, including his first commission in New York City – an apartment building on 57th Street at the West Side Highway – it is his work in Copenhagen, including the 8-House, a mixed-use project in the Ørsted neighbourhood, that currently best demonstrates his vision. The development feels like you’re at the very end of the city, indeed many of the apartments have views over flat, grazing land that extends lazily into the distance, yet it is only minutes from the city centre via the metro. Childcare, retail and leisure facilities are all available within the development that has large, communal spaces for residents who live in light-drenched, compact duplex apartments.

The development has won numerous environmental awards and offers a clear sense of Ingels’ notion of ‘hedonistic sustainability’: that the environmental challenges faced by urban planners and architects can offer the opportunity to improve, not limit quality of life.

In 2011, he was commissioned to build a new DKK3.5 billion (UKP413 million) waste-to-energy plant that BIG beat 36 other firms from Denmark and beyond to design. It’s a great example of one of Ingels’ favourite lines: “But what if you could have both.” The plant, which will replace 40-year-old furnaces nearby on Kraftsværksvej Street, will be the single biggest environmental initiative in Denmark.

The plant will burn the city’s solid waste in order to generate green energy, thereby reducing its reliance on landfills. Equally importantly, the 90 metre tall structure will have a 31,000 m2 ski slope with views all the way to southern Sweden. In the summer it will function as a park with facilities for running and biking.

Instead of something that is placed out of sight on the margins of the city, BIG altered the perception of what a municipal utility might be and how it might affect the quality of life of Copenhagen’s citizens. Rather than being marginalized, the energy plant has been imagined as a destination, a way of creating electricity that enriches the urban environment.

Bjarke Ingels’ talk at the WIRED conference, October 2011

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