The man behind Dubai's proposed hyperloop system
On the 112th floor of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, a roomful of important-looking Emirati and American businessmen, eager journalists and people who attend any auspicious event, have gathered for the unveiling of Hyperloop One. By 2021, the plan is for the futuristic transport system to whizz passengers and freight between Dubai and Abu Dhabi through a vacuum-like tube at more than airline speed. Developed by Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor behind Tesla cars and SpaceX, it is a bold step towards making supersonic-speed mass travel a reality.
The location seems appropriate; Dubai’s very existence is down to largely thanks to the belief that impossibility can become normality. Why wouldn’t it be here?
It’s quiet and still, 112 floors above the earth. But looking down you can watch a live stream of high-speed Dubai in action. On the horizon, the sky bristles with cranes building the cities of tomorrow; in the foreground, yesterday’s cities already look old by comparison. So, although it’s barely four years since Musk proposed his vision of a high-speed transport system, the notion that the first full-scale version could be here by decade’s end seems less the stuff of fantasy than a marker of inevitable fact.
The last speaker at the launch is, perhaps, Hyperloop One’s trump card. Bjarke Ingels is a charismatic Dane who happens to be the architectural world’s hottest property. In the space of a decade, he has achieved extraordinary things. Time magazine recently voted him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, alongside Mark Zuckerberg, Vladimir Putin and Leonardo DiCaprio. His workload includes a series of landmark projects for Google in San Francisco, the Smithsonian in Washington, and Manhattan’s iconic World Trade Center site, among others. For most architects, those projects alone would be enough to define and sustain a career. But if Hyperloop becomes a successful reality, Bjarke Ingels has the opportunity to help shape an entire new layer of global infrastructure.
The audience listens politely as he explains how Hyperloop’s complex technology will be moulded into physical form. Behind him, lines of light flash seductively across a screen, showing Hyperloop One’s potential reach. First, Dubai to Abu Dhabi, in a journey time of an estimated 12 minutes (instead of the current 90). Then, onwards to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, followed by Singapore, Istanbul, Cairo, Madrid and London. “This is the beginning of a future that will completely transform our mental map,” Ingels concludes, “not just our city but also our region and eventually the entire world, as our habitual understandings of proximity and distance, of time and space, are warped by this virgin form of travel.”
They are stirring words from a man who grew up on Dr No lairs and Star Wars spacecraft, who dreamed of being a graphic novelist but fell into architecture instead, who cites Minecraft and Christopher Nolan’s reality-bending movies as regularly as he does any of architecture’s more conventional heroes. But there’s an undeniable realism beneath his flights of fanboy imagination; at the launch he moves between conversations, listening patiently as the audience try to grasp the scheme’s technology. As he reasons, the idea of high-speed travel via a low-pressure tube is only far-fetched because we’re not yet accustomed to the idea. Until very recently, he points out, the thought of watching TV using anything other than a pre-determined schedule would have seemed mad. Times change.
Many years ago, the cultural theorist Charles Jencks coined the expression “kings of infinite space”, to describe the boundless optimism (and, perhaps, boundless opportunism) of pioneering American modernists such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Michael Graves. Standing on the Burj’s loftiest terrace, surfing his iPhone while Esquire’s photographer attends to his cameras, Bjarke Ingels appears to be a plausible potential successor to these men.
Bjarke Ingels on the 122nd floor of Dubai's Burj Khalifa
Architects stay young until they’re fifty. They’re meant to start as acolytes to the profession’s grand eminences, spending their twenties on thankless detailing (doors, windows) and their middle years on minor projects (schools, libraries), to finally arrive as eminences themselves, in a mist of thinning-haired, dickie-bowed splendour and surrounded by acolytes of their own, at around the point in life when the rest of the workforce is racing towards retirement. That’s perhaps why so many go on for quite so long: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Richard Meier each produced significant (but small-scale) buildings in their thirties, but were in their fifties before any large-scale masterworks were realised. Brazilian legend Oscar Niemeyer worked up until his death in 2012, just days before his 105th birthday. And the great Zaha Hadid, who died last year aged 65, seemed to be barely hitting her stride.
In that context, Ingels — who turned 42 shortly before the Dubai launch — seems little short of a prodigy. Trained in Copenhagen and Barcelona, he worked for two years at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam under the influential Dutch theorist Rem Koolhaas. But instead of staying, he set up in partnership back in Denmark in 2001. After five years of respectable success, he went solo — and went big, quite literally. Big (the Bjarke Ingels Group) is now a multinational enterprise, employing hundreds of designers spread across its studios in Manhattan, Copenhagen and London. Ingels teaches and lectures around the world, and has become a fixture on shortlists for important international architectural competitions, squaring off against designers who are, for the most part, at least a generation or more his elder.
By any standards, it’s a remarkable success story. And the past 12 months have been perhaps the most remarkable of all. For starters, Big completed its debut New York project, Via 57 West, an off-kilter pyramid-cum-tower that rears up sharply from its site on the Hudson River waterfront. Overnight it became one of the city’s most talked about buildings, but if all goes to plan it will barely be remembered as a curtain-raiser for what’s to come. The studio has unleashed a raft of further skyscraper proposals for the city (including the aforementioned World Trade Center tower, where Big made headlines by replacing Sir Norman Foster). It has proposed an innovative stadium for the Washington Redskins, a vast, mixed-use development in Los Angeles’ up-and-coming arts district, and received the first round of federal funding for the Dryline, an ambitious rampart of flood defences and recreation spaces that will soon form a ring around the whole lower half of Manhattan.
And that’s just the US side of the business. Pick a country and chances are it has a Big project underway. Switzerland: a new museum and visitor centre for Audemars Piguet. France: a new Galeries Lafayette outpost on the Champs-Elysées. China: a low-energy skyscraper in Shenzhen. The UK: another Google HQ, this time at King’s Cross. And, for a Danish architect, what must surely be the ultimate dream project, an experience centre for Lego. Oh, and he’s also working on a rebrand of the entire Nordic region.
If there were any doubt about Big’s fast-track into the industry’s premier league, Ingels received one of the most prestigious commissions of his career last year — to design the annual Summer Pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery. In doing so, he joined a pantheon of architectural legends that includes Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Peter Zumthor and Toyo Ito. Their average age when they were commissioned was 61.
Architecture isn’t meant to be popular (or populist). “Architecture is not the satisfaction of the needs of the mediocre; is not an environment for the petty happiness of the masses,” wrote postmodernist guru Hans Hollein in a 1962 essay. “Architecture is made by those who stand at the highest level of culture and civilisation, at the peak of their epoch’s development. Architecture is an affair of the elite.” Fifty-five years on, Hollein’s mantra may have fallen out of fashion but the underlying principle still lingers. For architecture to be great, it must be difficult; be obscure, be allusive, be quietly complex. Instead, Ingels’ buildings are immediate, and disarmingly easy to understand. He’s a master of the eye-catching grand gesture; architecture as emoji. Look at the condominiums he’s just unveiled in Miami’s moneyed Coconut Grove enclave, a pair of towers rotating around each other like swirls of stacked Post-Its. Or the power station he’s about to complete in Copenhagen, a towering aluminium-wrapped slab topped off with a public ski slope. Or Via 57 West, which has already starred in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, its dramatically tilted planes reducing every other tower on the skyline to supporting-role status. (I asked Douglas Durst, the building’s developer, if he was surprised by its impact. “No,” he responded, instantly. “We knew we were onto something.”)
If Hadid was the closest thing architecture previously had to a mainstream star, Ingels has gone supernova. You can buy Ingels-designed lighting, furniture and homewares. He has written two best-selling books and his signings and lectures generate round-the-block queues. “You should see him in China,” his head of communications laughs. “Everyone’s all, ‘Rickyyy Martinnn!’” Online, Ingels’ every move is relayed to his 280,000-odd Instagram followers, who are treated to a heady mix of architecture, exotic holiday destinations and an eclectic celebrity supporting cast ranging from Lady Gaga and Martha Stewart to assorted Lannisters and Starks (Ingels is good friends with Game of Thrones star and fellow Dane Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
But why has Ingels gone mainstream in a way no one else — not even Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim in Bilbao won him a walk-on in The Simpsons — has managed? “I would say it’s his skill at communication,” architecture critic Alexandra Lange suggests, “because his aesthetic is not that different from OMA and other baby Rems [Koolhaas protégés]. But he is much better than most other architects at talking, at translating his schemes into shareable images and video, at giving them catchy names.”
Hanif Kara of London engineering firm Akt II, who first met the young architect in the early Noughties, agrees but suggests it’s as much about what Ingels embodies as what he says. “You saw immediately his skills to communicate, also his aspirations and ambition, seemed to be connecting with the next generation,” he remembers.
“More than anyone else I could see in the field. Somebody criticised him for being more like a cult than a practice. But I’ve taught alongside him, and I see the next generation all have the same fascination with him — which is to do with his ability to design, his ability to communicate, and the office culture he’s created, which are all the things people like Google talk about; serendipity, creativity. We play hard, we drink beer, we climb mountains, but we also do architecture. I think you see that in his office and you feel it,” Kara says.
To young designers, Ingels is an inspiration.
He’s articulate, accessible and living proof that success doesn’t automatically come at the expense of unpredictable ideas. He’s serious about what he does even if his Instagram page can look like a particularly well-funded gap year, and his methods can seem more informed by pop culture than academic discipline. “The reason that, like, in The Wire,” he explains, “they build these big maps [‘crazy walls’, on which investigators pin up and plot out clues], is because it’s not, like, a linear deduction. It’s more like laying out the facts, and then jumping at hypotheses that are easier to make when you display all the information equally. That’s also why, if you come to our offices, you’ll see that we pin up [stuff] all the time.
“We have big boards we can lay out, so we can see all the picture. Sometimes form follows function, sometimes form follows climate, sometimes it follows context or preservation or history, heritage, density, whatever,” Ingels says. “You can never really say what the biggest problem is, or the biggest potential, until you’ve done your homework. But once you really nail what it is that’s fundamentally different here, what’s the big question, then all you have to do is answer it.”
And much of Big’s success lies in Ingels’ startling answers.
“I mean, that power station!” Kara laughs. “When he first came up with the idea, I remember us getting a fax, and we thought, ‘Are you kidding? A ski slope?’ But then you think, ‘Why wouldn’t you? Why has nobody ever asked this question?’ It’s a building, in the city, a public space. And that’s the largest space you get. Such an obvious move.”
Great visuals rarely translate into great buildings. The glossier the image, the blander the reality often turns out. Shimmering fantasies give way to leaks and builders’ blunders, and crumble in the unforgiving light of day. It’s especially true in the commercial sphere, often populated by maximum-density boxes dolled up with hot-right-now facades. Ingels has managed to invade that world, making projects that work for the developers who now clamour to hire him, yet he makes those projects work on their own terms, too.
He first registered on Lange’s radar in 2010 when she visited one of his early housing developments. “I was perplexed about the unalloyed good press it was getting,” she says. “It was a very cool shape, I thought, but I didn’t like how it sat in the landscape or how I thought domestic life would operate there. It seemed designed as an image to go around the world, a critique I still have of many of his projects.”
In reality, though, much of Big’s work is exciting, even delightful. That’s true most of all at the Serpentine, a brief that many of his predecessors overcomplicated. Ingels’ proposal was compellingly simple: a wall of hollow fibreglass tubes, bolted together with aluminium brackets, which gradually unzipped into a welcoming, rippling swirl. It did what, at heart, a pavilion is meant to do — be beautiful, ephemeral and impractical. (And it let the rain in. Which, in fairness, a British pavilion should probably also do.)
But Ingels is also aiming towards a very different kind of architecture. The classic approach, as embodied by someone like Peter Zumthor (the cult Swiss architect whose sparingly beautiful, deeply considered work and low-key approach have cast him as the anti-Ingels), is to create spaces whose every detail contributes to an overall harmony. Instead, Ingels is excited by serendipity and energy, and by the notion of an architecture that’s open-ended and hackable. It’s an approach that generates powerful, challenging, fluid forms but which leaves the ultimate success of each project in the hands of its users, as much as it does its designers.
The night before we meet, he was awarded the Aga Khan Award for the remarkable Superkilen, a park in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district, which has become a beacon project for inclusivity. Produced with a collective of artists and designers, it is a landscape of swirling athletic track lines and rainbow-coloured tarmac, studded with Moroccan fountains, Iraqi swings, Brazilian benches and British litter bins; a space where the area’s 60-odd nationalities can all find a glimpse of home.
Ingels acknowledges his approach hasn’t always worked to his advantage, particularly as it has set him up for criticism. His first book, Yes is More, was a graphic novel ride through Big’s early projects; it opens with a sequence of aphorisms that range from Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” to Philip Johnson’s cheery “I am a w****”. He’s even labelled his freewheeling, have-your-cake-and-eat-it working style ‘Big-amy’ (it’s no fun, in Ingels’ world, if you can’t pun it). “I think on one hand it worked really well,” he muses, “because I think it actually does really communicate what architecture is about, and how architecture relates to aspects outside the narrow field of building. But then I think it also did us a certain disservice.
It becomes so easy for any sceptic to call our work cartoonish.”
If you freeze-frame, it’s true there is plenty of cartoon repetition across Big’s portfolio. The firm makes no secret of it: old models are kept for inspiration on future schemes, and the same aesthetic moves (swirl, spiral, tilt, rotate, repeat) surface again and again. He doesn’t think outside the box, so much as he thinks with it and through it — each project is shaped by its own constraints and limitations as much as it is by opportunities. But the end result, actually, is a body of work that has accrued familiarity and resonance, of a kind we’re more used to seeing in the work of fashion houses. And that, in itself, says a lot about where architecture may be heading in the future. Big may be constructing an unholy quantity of buildings but it’s also, perhaps as importantly, reinforcing its own powerful brand.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director, worked with Ingels on the pavilion project last year and has known him since the start of his career. Visiting Rem Koolhaas in the Nineties, he asked if there were any interesting new designers worth meeting. “Rem introduced me to a number of people, including Bjarke. And he really struck me. Ever since, we always kept in touch. And I saw how he was thinking. Big will, big ambition.” He pauses and corrects himself. “No, a determination. It wasn’t an ambition.”
Architecture means different things to different people. “I love the words ‘architecture’ and ‘architect’,” Ingels says. It’s an hour after the Hyperloop One launch and he’s slumped into the corner of a cab en route to the airport. “I definitely think what we do is form giving, this idea of giving form to the future, which is a lovely place to be.
“The cool thing about being at the frontier of something is that there is this frontier where new possibilities occur. And then as a designer you have the capacity to give form to those possibilities that have never been given forms before. That’s a very exciting place to be,” he says. “What I love about the future, what’s amazing about it, is the second that technology has arrived it’s already taken for granted.
“Louis CK has a perfect way of talking about this; how everything’s amazing and everyone is ungrateful. Have you heard this? So, he’s sitting on a plane, and they go, ‘You know, we have Wi-Fi when you’re in the air.’ He’s like, ‘Wow, amazing!’ Then they go up, they get online, and suddenly, duh-duh, ‘We’ve just lost the internet connection.’ And the guy’s like, ‘F***ing typical!’ And suddenly the world owes you something that you didn’t even know existed 10 minutes ago!
“But the amazing thing about it, there is this world-changing aspect to architecture; my children, that are still unborn — and unconceived!” he hastily adds, shooting me a concerned look — “will not know of a world where you couldn’t ski on the roof of a power plant in Copenhagen. It’s a bit like in Fahrenheit 451, they say, ‘Look, there’s fire trucks, there’s going to be a fire.’ And then they say, ‘It used to be that fire trucks would put out fires, not start them.’ My children, you’ll have to tell them that, once, power plants were a dangerous place to be. So, project by project, you are really transforming what the world is.
“And my entire reason for starting on my own — apart from the fact that I felt like I had [things] to do — was really also that you could create your dream job. Because my favourite thing is to, you know, design. To come up with brilliant stuff, and then see it happen.”
There’s no question Bjarke Ingels is the architect of the moment. It took several months to arrange this interview, during which time he’d ricocheted around the world: Iceland, Mexico, France, California, Italy, Canada, Denmark (where he designed a bouncy-castle-cum-bar for the Roskilde music festival) and Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the Burning Man festival. But moments don’t last. Despite the planet’s uncertain financial climate, architecture (at least, the “starchitecture end” of the business) is booming. The Far East and the UAE are awash with ambitious new projects.
In New York, now Ingels’ adopted home, the skyline will soon feature additions from Hadid, Foster, David Adjaye, Thomas Heatherwick and Tadao Ando. Plenty of other contenders are jostling for Ingels’ title: Norway’s Snøhetta, Dutch firm MVRDV, America’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro. None of Ingels’ contemporaries, though, have yet come anywhere near his reach and success.
“People have said, ‘It’s all performance,’” Kara says. “I say, ‘Well, who isn’t?’ Everyone has to perform to some extent and create an act. But with Bjarke, because I tracked him from the beginning, I don’t think he’s been any different, even to this day. He’s just met bigger challenges and gone through them. This is the old guard, not looking at what it is the world wants from an architect today; I think he’s figured out the world is different, and it wants something different.”
What’s different about Ingels is his knack for getting things done: like persuading the Danish government to transplant the Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen harbour to China for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, where it sat at the core of the country’s pavilion. (For comparison, imagine Italy subletting the Pantheon. Or France sending the Mona Lisa on a round-the-world cruise.) When the power station budget in Copenhagen couldn’t stretch to adding a stack that blew out a steam ring every time it burned a ton of CO2 waste, Ingels simply launched a Kickstarter project to fund it himself.
“In essence, I still think there aren’t many like Bjarke right now,” Kara continues. “I’ve worked with Zaha, with Chipperfield, all these people doing wonderful stuff. Herzog & de Meuron are one of my favourite architecture firms in the world, because of the buildings they produce, the processes they create. But I still believe if you continue down that line, when they disappear, the discipline disappears. I think Bjarke has found that space. You don’t have to copy his architecture, or his way of working. But you have to try and imitate his confidence, his ability to get through to the community, to the mayors and politicians. As architects, if you don’t engage with that, you don’t have a future as a discipline.”
Mid-conversation, Ingels mentions Stanford White, the supreme architect of New York’s Gilded Age, famous as much for his hectic love life and shocking murder as for his sumptuous buildings. As it happens, one of White’s lesser-known works, a monumental Renaissance Revival power station, stands quietly next to (and, quite literally, in the shadow of) Via 57 West’s jagged edge. It’s a sobering collision of eras. Some of the most influential designers of all time, from Archigram to Peter Salter (and even Koolhaas and Hadid, for much of their careers) built little or nothing, just as some of the most prolific have vanished from view. In the end, what will remain of Ingels, or any other architect — whether it’s their ideas, or scandals, or aesthetics, or simply ruins — is out of our hands.
“The funny thing is, once in a while somebody will say, ‘What next, now that you’ve achieved everything?’” Ingels sighs. “And I’m like, ‘we haven’t achieved anything!’ You know? We’re not even close to what I feel we can do. I think we haven’t really shown the world yet what we’re capable of.” And with that, he’s off, racing towards the next stops on his schedule: Copenhagen, Marrakech, Art Basel in Miami, back to Manhattan. It’s hard not to think, as he goes, that it’s not simply a question of whether Ingels’ Big architecture can change the world. It’s whether anyone else, right now, can catch him.