Big Time1 is a documentary that I’d been looking forward to since it was released late last year.2 Local theatres haven’t been enthusiastic about picking up the title, and early screenings were exclusively in NYC and Vancouver, so some patience was required until it came out on iTunes, which it finally did this week.
The quintessential scene in the film is when Bjarke Ingels is forced to “choose” between two simultaneous projects for his firm to compete on,3 one the Samsung Pavilion in the Rio Olympics and the other a Cruise Ship Terminal in Miami, and he gently4 but firmly decrees “I think we should do both.” This “And More” philosophy,5 or “Yes Is More” in the man’s own vernacular, defines his designs more than a signature flourish of fractalism defines Libeskind, a titanium tapestry defines Gehry, a rectilinear discipline defines Mies, an alien layering of form and function defines Le Corbusier, or an impossible drame blanche defines Zaha.
While never lacking for style, Bjarke’s work always seems to coalesce around the client and their community. It’s almost as if Bjarke’s the only one amongst the architectural elite who hasn’t read Rand’s The Foundatainhead, even though he surely has.6 He lacks the prototypical architect’s super-powered ego, even going so far as to call his approach “radical pleasing of the establishment.” He’s masterfully subservient and has an uncanny ability to tell the story that his client, their supporters, and even their detractors want to hear. His vision is so clear, his laser-like method of communicating so powerful, that the most crotchety old farts (like Larry Silverstein) can’t help but beg for another drink of his “creative juices,” as Silverstein put it. It’s the Bjarkool-Aid. And it’s good shit. Maybe the best.
The result is an explicitly unpinpointable style7 that’s endlessly adaptable to its environment. And this adaptation is his pitch. Unstoppably charming, affable, and endlessly positive, Bjarke’s talking points are as powerful and precise as Obama‘s 2008 election campaign while being infinitely more deliverable and executable (as Bjarke’s proven over the first decade of his hopefully long career). Such is the power of his cartoonist’s8 mind to simplify, distill, clarify, convey, and then deliver on his ideas.
As the 90-minute documentary draws to a close, and although the timelines in the film are never less than perfectly muddied, we see that Bjarke’s lately fallen in love. He still wants to change the world, he still needs to change the world…
But it’d be all a bit empty alone.9
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- 2017. Documentary starring Bjarke Ingels of BIG, by Kaspar Astrup Schroder. [↩]
- Having been jazzed up by my visit to the Vancouver House construction site last Fall, I’ve since plowed through his two books – Yes Is More (2009) and Hot To Cold (2016) – as well as every article, interview, and presentation I could find online. I even reached out to a long-lost childhood acquaintance who now works at BIG’s NYC office and negotiated an open invitation to tour their offices next time I’m in town. Shadowing Bjarke’s own self-proclaimed architectural research style of “serial monogamy,” I’ve not yet found another worthy of falling into a rabbit hole for. The search continues! [↩]
- Although BIG’s door is certainly being knocked down with new non-compete jobs at the moment, most architectural work in Europe is awarded through architecture proposals. Architecture proprosals entail schematic design (~20% complete) and an initial plan for the project, so each firm essentially visualises what the project could be before they’re awarded the contract. In exchange for their vision, they’re granted a small stipend that covers perhaps half or a quarter of the real work involved, but it’s something. The client then selects from the visions submitted. Contrariwise, the approach in North America is typically design-bid or design-bid-build. In the former approach, the general contractor and architect team up from the get-go and submit a joint proposal, which when awarded, means that design and construction begin almost simultaneously. In the latter, the architect is awarded the contract first, works with the client to realise their vision, and then the general contractors compete for the work based on the 99% complete designs. In both approaches, however, the architect is awarded a contract based on a tailored proposal that involves no design work and includes only past relevant work and a fee quote. That the colonies are fonder of design-build and design-bid-build (and increadingly integrated project delivery), whereas the Old Countries prefer architecture proposals, is very much mirrored in the ONLY TWO TERMS limits on the Presidency and other formalistic voodooism. Clients ultimately hire architects to imagine, and seeing what they come up with before handing them the contract makes all kinds of sense for businesses not beholden to voters who “demand” “fairness.” [↩]
- The gentle, deft touch wasn’t only because Bjarke’s a masterful negotiator but also because he was suffering from the after-effects of a concussion, a health scare that plays prominently in the documentary that spans no less than seven years of his career (2009-2016). Throughout, Bjarke displays a wonderful sense of his own mortality
Trust me, turning 40 sounds like an unlikely thing to happen to you, but it will happen, and you can rest assured that the alternative is even worse.
- “And More” was the call to action instilled in our class by my inimitable Grade 6 teacher, Mrs. Inie Graham. The edge that teachers of her calibre give their students is incalculable and no doubt insurmountable. [↩]
- Having watched several of his interviews and lectures, there seems little that Bjarke hasn’t read, though given the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in both his family home in Denmark and his apartment in NYC, the value he places on the written word should be obvious. Your home says a lot about you. [↩]
- If Bjarke’s “style” is anything, it’s dimensionality. The X, Y, and Z axes are all his puppets and he’s the master puppeteer, if also a villain for building scientists (yes, this is a real discipline of engineering – it deals specifically with building envelopes and the heat, air, and water permeability at that layer). [↩]
- In the film we find out that his father filled out his son’s architecture school application and put it in front of him to sign, not taking no for an answer. Call it parental micro-managing but instead of another cartoonist, which is what Bjarke wanted to be rather than an architect, we have the most incredible buildings dotting our skylines and revitalising our communities. [↩]
- If you come from a good family, it’s hard not to want to carry on the legacy and tradition. Come to think of it, this is probably the definition of coming from a good family, and of being a good son or daughter. It’s not like you can repay your parents monetarily (unless you sign the papers and happen to live in Taiwan).
Bjarke, like all architects, desires collaboration and a sharing of experience. This is why architects typically get married, even if they don’t always have children. [↩]