As contemporary architects go, Frank Gehry is certainly more venerable than Danish designer Bjarke Ingels. Daniel Libeskind is more controversial, and Peter Zumthor more esoteric. But these days, nobody can rock the world of architecture quite like Mr. Ingels, 37.
When he appeared in Vancouver recently to unveil his first Canadian project – a dramatically twisting 49-storey residential tower complex, called Beach and Howe, to be dropped among the ramps and traffic decks of the Granville Street Bridge – Mr. Ingels drew a capacity crowd of 1,300 politicians, architects, students, reporters from around the world and citizens without portfolio, and, according to an eyewitness, left them cheering.
So why is Vancouver wild about Bjarke Ingels?
To find out, I talked with the architect’s most ardent local fan: real-estate developer Ian Gillespie, founder and president of Westbank Projects Corporation, the $10-billion company behind Mr. Ingels’ scheme.
“In the last dozen years,” Mr. Gillespie said, “you’ve had over a hundred high-rises built in Vancouver, and the vast majority of them have been background buildings at best. I think Vancouver is really getting tired of that. Why do all the buildings have to look like they were built in the eighties? The city is crying out for some creativity.”
Mr. Gillespie’s answer to that cry was his request to the young, prolific Dane – “probably the hottest architect in the world today,” according to the developer – to design a tall building for a dauntingly tight site. The property Westbank had to work with, at about 100,000 square feet, was not small. But once all the restrictions were factored in – off-ramps and on-ramps serving the downtown bridge, municipally mandated setbacks, and so on – the place suitable for the foot of a tower was a triangle only around 6,000 square feet in area.
“We’re trying to put a reasonable amount of density on the site,” Mr. Gillespie said. “And so the idea was to slowly increase the size [of the floor plates]as the tower went up, so that by the time you get to the top, it’s a 12,000-square-foot building. It rotates as it’s doing that in order to create this gateway to the city.” The developer likens the effect of the tower’s gradually expanding gesture to “pulling open a curtain in a theatre. That’s the way to imagine it.” The result of various forces – the severe constraints on what could be built, and Mr. Ingels’ artistic talent in dealing with a difficult assignment – “is a very beautiful object, and people have reacted to it in an emotional way.”
Mr. Ingels tends to stir strong emotions. In the six years since he founded the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in Copenhagen, he has become sought after by public and private clients throughout Europe, in the U.S. and now Canada. (A few weeks from now, Mr. Gillespie will unwrap a BIG development that he and his business partners intend to put up in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills.) He has earned renown as a superb communicator and a strong thinker about what makes cities successful, but also as a practical architect keenly attuned to the specific problems that come with each job.
“He is one of the smartest persons I’ve ever met, absolutely brilliant,” Mr. Gillespie remarked. “He is also a very authentic individual. There are a lot of architects out there who come up with a great, grandiose building, and then go find a site for it. That’s not how Bjarke designs. The shapes of the buildings come from the constraints of the project. They’re not designs looking for sites, they are designs that come out of the sites.”
But while he is and probably always will be the most famous figure in his expanding office – which recently opened a branch in New York City – Mr. Ingels hardly stands alone. Mr. Gillespie has high praise for BIG partner Thomas Christoffersen, who is working alongside Mr. Ingels on the design of Beach and Howe, and for project manager Agustin CORRECT Perez-Torres.
“The one thing that people underestimate about BIG is that there’s a lot of bench strength there. When people think of BIG, they think of Bjarke, but the reality is somewhat different. He has a very, very strong team, much stronger than people realize. That’s how he’s doing what he’s doing. Some of his people are as strong as I’ve ever seen – first class, at the top of their game. When you have multiple buildings going up, as we do, it’s nice to have an interjection of new, fresh ideas.”