LM Since the beginning BIG has worked with communities. It’s kind of the common thread that runs through all your experiences, from the beginnings in Copenhagen to the 57 West in New York and finally to the series of headquarters that you are designing in different parts of the world from S. Pellegrino to Google and Lego. It’s such a strong issue, so what does it mean for you as a designer, working with communities today that are living a continuous, changing scenario?
BI I think that life and work are always evolving and the way of living in cities is always changing, that actually it means that there is a real trigger for architects. I’m a big proponent of the value of studying architecture and how buildings and people lived it before, so when we begin the projects we try to look at something that has been done before and try to learn from it, but also we sort of identify how the world has changed since this was done or how this city or country is different from the one where we can find references. Because somehow it is that change or the change of mission that opens up the possibilities for architecture to give form to something different. In that sense I think you can say if you haven’t identified a change or a transformation then it becomes very difficult for architecture to do anything new because there is no reason, but the second you have identified some kind of a transformation, you suddenly know exactly what to do, what conflict to resolve and what possibilities to open up.
LM The work of your office is really keen on transformations. You use architecture as a kind of reaction to changes and in the last few years your office has been very good at keeping up with the temperature of life changing around us. People reacts positively to something they did not expect and works by BIG are able to generate a form of attention which is often unpredictable. Successful architecture is related to the fact that it meets the desires of people and sometimes desires are unconscious and suddenly something happens and then people said “ Wow! This is what I was looking for! It’s very challenging to be able to listen to people’s hidden desires and transform them into space.
BI I think it’s a very interesting statement, because I do actually think it’s like that. It’s very true what you’re saying! People may have a longing, but they don’t know yet what it is! It’s a bit like falling in love. You can’t describe your dream-girl until you meet her, and then suddenly it’s very obvious that of course it was her all the time, and I think in that sense in a way this is what we try to do. In Danish the word for design is “form giving” which means literally to give form to something and I think it’s the best description for this giving form to something that is not yet been imagined. What you have to do is to identify the things that have changed, the problems that have arrived and the need to resolve the potential that needs to be unlocked, then you can try to give form to that new condition or to re-organize those new activities and then once you get there, once you nail it, you will, as the architect, see something for the first time because it has never before been shaped and I think sometimes when we are lucky or whether we are successful it’s almost like you see for the first time but it seems at the same time like what you see has always been there.
LM I understand what you mean, for example what was the unexpected vision for the people in the housing project you designed in Copenhagen? This element is also the one that you brought to 57 West, which can be seen as the evolution from Copenhagen to Manhattan of the same idea of collective environment. In both cases a mega-structure that harks back to the memory of the ‘60s but at the same time has a very strong human scale.
BI It’s funny because now when you see Via 57, of course you know how striking and sort of iconic it looks from the exterior and you suspect it has been designed very much from the outside-in, more like a sculptural form. When you get inside, you see the courtyard and you sort of get hit by these spectacular spaces in the middle of the building, and you see the courtyard more as a secret surprise, the courtyard-effect is actually in reverse. The iconic nature of the form is a direct result of trying to realize the idea of having a European courtyard in an American city but I think in that sense the form that resulted from this experiment had a different appeal compared to most of the things we have done, it is somehow or it responds to a collective desire for something different to the typical sort of place in NY.
LM Every time your work is explained with the idea of wonder, which is something I’m always very fascinated by. Even if it is the white fog coming out from the chimney of the Copenhagen power plant or from the size of the triangle in the middle of a New York skyscraper. Every time you play with the wow-effect, which is never rhetorical and always plays with the idea that people also still need a sense of wonder.
BI I think it’s important to remember that more than physical beings, human beings are, let’s say, intellectual, it’s natural and you can analyse that and then you have to face it; if you are a painter, a musician or an architect when you communicate you also have to speak not only to people’s ears but also to their minds and their hearts and that’s quite important and I think that those elements are always a manifestation of something there that is quite rhetorical or quite intellectual, something enjoyable like skiing on the roof of a power plant could be something radically different from the typical way of living those spaces and it changes the perception. Also when you think about a successful city, the urban space, as much as it is a space where people get from A to B and where they go to buy the stuff they eat, get to work and home again efficiently, it’s also a space for celebration and enjoyment. An efficient city may not be the most successful city.
LM Just lately, your office has been working on a new generation of infrastructures. I’m thinking of the Hyperloop in Dubai and the Pipeline. In recent years you have been considering infrastructures as a part of your design environment. What does it mean for you working in such different scales of architecture?
BI In architecture there is a tendency to focus maniacally on little things and completely forget about 99.9 % of the city. Architects battle to get the beautiful, little museum but there is no interest in the multi-billion dollar highway. In that sense of course with the Hyper-Loop or the Power Plant in Copenhagen we try to sort of take control of the public utility domain that has typically been the domain of engineers, and therefore they have almost like a single service tool, thinking all about how to provide power, or how to stop the city from floating but with the result that the city is full of unconsidered spaces, where you have a giant piece of public utility that is very unsuccessfully integrated with the city and even though these structures are actually built with billions of dollars of public funds they have absolutely no consideration for the public life around them. I think that we can contribute to showing how the same resources and the same utilities can be delivered in a way which is based on realistic thinking, and how much more value can be generated with a greater impact on our city than if we only focus on making beautiful architecture.
LM My last question comes from personal curiosity. Have you ever designed a villa for a single family? Your office usually designs collective places; is it something that you are fascinated by or is it, let’s say, out of your range?
BI We are actually designing four houses and we are finishing our first one in Mexico City. I think, when you design a private house then it becomes really personal. It’s like designing or painting a portrait of someone. Of course you have to express yourself as an artist or an architect, but I think more interestingly, you have to understand the essence of the personality, the soul of the subject and for this process to be really successful you need to capture not only the current personality but also the future one, the potential one. The house in Mexico is actually shaped by the fact that the client really wanted an Olympic pool, 50 metres long but only 2 metres wide, it had a big impact on the site, we had to put it in diagonally!