I should confess, first of all, that I'm not much of a fan of modern "starchitecture." All those dramatic swooping forms and sculptural designs, all your monumental Gehrys and Libeskinds -- they just look like outsized vanity projects to me. And they are, in the main, openly hostile to the public space around them. (Frank Gehry's starmaking Guggenheim Bilbao, for example, is surrounded by an asphalt jungle that has become a notorious haven for muggers; Gehry himself has said, "I don't do context.")
Which is why I find the work of Danish wunderkind Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG so refreshing. This is a rising starchitect who actually seems to get sustainability, actually cares about efficiency and green design and context and public space.
Here's Ingels in his eye-opening, jawdropping TED talk, explaining the "architectural alchemy" by which he is attempting to bridge the gap between street-level sustainability and postmodern sculptural whimsy:
The portfolio for his 2010 European Prize for Architecture is an excellent primer on Ingels' work and it includes a stunning slideshow of his best work. Take note in particular of the amazing People's Building in Shanghai, as well as the less eye-catching but ultimately more powerful Mountain Dwellings apartment complex in Copenhagen, which buries the parking garage in an alpine-shaped mass of residences to maximize southfacing views, improve efficiency, and intergrate better with the surrounding public spaces.
All of which brings us to Ingels' latest big idea (and maybe his most striking eye candy to date): the entry made by his firm, BIG, in the Audi Urban Future Award competition, which will be on display along with the other finalists and the eventual winner at the Festival of Ideas in New York from May 4 to 8.
I strongly advise taking the time to flip through all 96 slides, which provide not only a movable feast for the eyes but some seriously rich food for thought. Failing that, there's a good summary at Architecture Daily, including a short video:
Ingels uses a line by Google CEO Eric Schmidt about the ridiculousness of human-piloted cars and the inevitable carnage that has resulted from allowing so much potential for human error into the system. "It's a bug," Schmidt said, "that cars were invented before computers." So Ingels reimagines city streets and highways crowded with tight-packed, auto-piloted cars, taking up one-quarter of the road space and allowing for precision guidance alongside people and other vehicles -- all of which would together reboot the city's streets as vibrant public spaces. A smart transport grid, in essence, in parallel with the rise of smart energy grids.
With smart pavement and GPS providing data to on-board computers in vehicles, traffic could be programmed to move in elegant swoops following safety algorithms that guarantee the safety of people, cyclists and green spaces. Ingels compares it to the way schools of fish move as one, never bumping into each other or anything else as they speed along a reef. "Mess is more," he cheekily concludes, turning architect Mies van der Rohe's austere modernist axiom on its head. And bringing sustainability to architecture and bringing fun to sustainability in the process.
Who knows how much of Ingels' vision will ever move from sci-fi slideshow to everyday reality. More than anything, though, I like his twist on the whole sustainability conversation. Let's stop talking about how virtuous we can be, how pious, how great our altruistic sacrifices. Let's talk about how much fun it is to reimagine the whole system from the ground up. Let's set pulses racing.
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