Friday, April 1, 2011


Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has recently opened a New York office in order to complete their first North American project: a housing development at West 57th Street in New York, due to be completed in 2015.

The project, commissioned by Durst Fetner Residential (and in collaboration with SLCE Architects, Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects, Thornton Tomasetti, Dagher Engineering, Langan Engineering, Hunter Roberts Construction Group, and Glessner Group) has been the subject of some controversy, in most part due to its striking asymmetrical pyramidal form  (pictured left).

The mixed use building (600 or so apartments with some commercial and retail space) is reminiscent of an iceberg, rising from the Hudson river side to a peak of 450 ft at the north east corner of the block.  Bjarke Ingels, Founder of BIG describes it as a reinvention of the apartment building, via a melding of typologies--the New York skyscraper crossed with the European courtyard block.  The design takes takes the best of each and rejects the rest.

“Yes is more” is the title of the archicomic-manifesto published by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in 2009.  While the title of this manifesto fits neatly into a lineage of architectural slogans (Mies van der Rohe's 'Less is more', Robert Venturi's 'Less is a bore' and so on), it is also an apt description of Bjarke Ingels himself; the 36 year old Danish architect is a man who appears relentlessly optimistic about the challenges presented to him.

"Yes is more" (which has been mocked by some as the project of a large ego, with Ingels in the role of an architectural superhero), is a deceptively simple solution to a difficult problem–clearly communicating the multiple, complex and contradictory ideas that shape BIG's often visually startling designs.

Ingels calls his design philosophy "pragmatic utopia"–which is described as the intersection of reality and idealism, where economically, socially and environmentally ideal places are created.  He is a persuasive and charming speaker, revealing his command of the myriad of topics which inform his designs. It would seem that he thinks big, but not at the expense of the details–and importantly not at the expense of the people who will inhabit his buildings. 

The West 57th St project builds on the success of previous BIG projects, including the Mountain Apartments in Copenhagen (pictured right). This award winning project took a brief for a parking and apartment building on a flat site, and used the parking component to create a typography, so that each apartment receives sunshine, a garden, and spectacular views.

The same logic is at work here--designing a building which allows all of the apartments to have views, sun, balconies or bay windows, and including a semi-private courtyard green-space for its residents.  The dramatic form also politely allows the building behind to retain its river view.

Criticisms of this project have been centered around its form: that this visually startling building is an inappropriate response to the gridded, vertical New York context, referring to Ingels as an attention seeking new kid on the block.  It has also been labelled an inefficient use of the site–surely a more traditional apartment form would allow for a higher density of apartments?

However, regardless of your opinion on the buildings aesthetic, there is no question that the apartments will be more comfortable to live in than your average New York apartment: there are the sustainable credentials of the building--a planned LEED Gold certification, and the 20% of apartments which will be retained as affordable housing.

The design was also completed without compromising the floor area requested by the developer.  And not only does the building turn the inhabitants towards the waterfront, (a typically neglected area of the Manhattan landscape) it successfully negotiates the shift in scale between the Hudson river and the adjacent tower blocks.

Bjarke Ingels at TED in 2009

Ingels often references Darwinisms–the theory that the ability to adapt is the defining characteristic of a survivor. His project at West 57th Street is certainly the type of architecture that strives to adapt to the realities and constraints of our time and place. Whether or not it will survive remains to be seen.

Sally Ogle is a Guest Contributor from New Zealand.  Her background is in architecture and design.  All renderings in this article are by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).

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