Please bear with me for an experiment tonight, as I attempt to live blog Scott Cohen's discussion with Bjarke Ingels. Even this late in the semester, the house is packed and the mood is buoyant. Not, the consensus seems to be, because Bjarke is that important of an architect, but because he's that entertaining, and watching him spar with Scott just might be the best show of the semester.
We want a K.O., Scott! No winning on a technical, okay? Okay, go!
PSC: We have tonight Bjarke, who agreed to... [PSC chuckles]...subject himself...to what will hopefully be another critical discussion.
BI: I actually always hated Philip Johnson, I don't think he's a good architect. But I appreciate his willingness to embrace anything--
PSC: You really don't think he's a good architect?
BI: I went...with Barry Bergdoll on a visit to the Glass House, and the detailing was horrible. Once, Mies was there and was pointing out all the faults. He refused to sleep in the guest house and had to be driven to a hotel.
PSC is asking BI why he included Darwin in his book: "What is this about the survival of the fittest, because I want to ask you something about that?"
BI: ...Only those specimens that have enough desirable attributes to survive long enough to mate, only they make it. And it's like that in our office: we make models and we literally try to mate them. And some of the offspring are hopeless misfits or abortions, but others-- well, instead of taking things and separate them into different boxes, I like to deal with the overlap, to find a whole fertile territory there--to not keep things in different camps.
PSC: But this whole idea of having camps. You don't have them [in Denmark]. You're inventing your own opposites and then resolving them.
BI: But in my mind, a compromise is a situation where everyone is unhappy. So instead of forcing everyone to be unhappy...because when you add so much program, there's so much going on that a standard solution won't work. It's like an architectural game of twister. You know, that social game where you have to put your head between your--
PSC: But do you want the author to be-- [BI checks his iPhone] --present or absent?
BI: We don't want to force preconceived notions on the world, because the world is already happening, so we have to find a way to channel these energies of the world within the form of the world. And we are...the midwives.
PSC: Yes, that's what I had in mind. I thought you were interested in midwifery. But if that [the slide shows the People's Building in Shanghai, which looks like the Chinese character for "people"] is not willful--I mean, you can't say that's just the result of forces.
[People's Building in Shanghai]
BI: ...So you know, the giraffe has a long neck and the turtle has a shell... And there's sexual selection too. Take the peacock. There's nothing more inefficient than dragging this giant tail around, but you know, the girls like it. And it works. And the girls think he must be a very strong and healthy individual to drag that tail around.
PSC: OK, but this is the old model of the architect, the singular heroic architect who [enacts existing power structures]. And to do that in China, where power is centralized... what does that mean? This is China. I mean, what do you think I'm doing there? I know what it's like. And you're there too.
BI [I'm not sure if Bjarke tried to answer this question, but he segued quickly into the following]: ...So one of the other main aspects of evolution is migration. So there was a fish, and then it had flippers, and then it had legs. And in this project, at one point we had the promenade going through the legs... but it [didn't work] and we refined it later.
PSC: You have said before that at first you were uncomfortable with the literalness of this building as a character, but that later you embraced it. Is that right? [...] And you continue with this idea of the enormous form. And I'm curious about the lineage here, and it doesn't have so much to do with [mating one thing with another] but with this: Ledoux' idea of architecture parlante, the idea that architecture speaks. And then the next step literally makes architecture into text [the slide is Johann David Steingruber, an 18th century German architect who made plans in the form of letters]. And the next step is this: [a slide of a contemporary project in the form of letters].
[Johann David Steingruber]
And you're making the next step after that. [...] It [isn't language], it isn't a logo. I would argue it's just a representation of a logo, because it isn't performing as a logo does. So what does it mean to you for architecture to be literally figured as symbols? I mean, you are invested in this. It's a pure semiotic--
BI: Well [...] we simply couldn't resist. Instead of having these respond purely to developer needs...
PSC: But what if these weren't legible? What if they were inscrutable? Like Steingruber, he hides the letter in the plan. You don't see it. You could have done that--like Koolhaas does--and made the shape lose its legibility. They're still interesting shapes. You can't say Koolhaas' shapes aren't interesting. Why are yours so literal? And the way they all look like cartoons, it's part of the...gestalt...
BI: I mean, you start with a masterplan, and you try to imbue it with a symbolic force...
PSC: But where there is a need to represent power, frankly, especially in the Chinese context, you make it into a figure.
BI: But the mountain itself leads to iconography. [Explaining something about a perimeter block.]
PSC: But there's a big difference between a perimeter block and a building that looks like a mountain, Bjarke.
BI: What is the difference? A building that looks like a mountain is a type.
PSC: That's where we disagree. [audience laughter] You make a building in a turkey shape, and you fill it up with architecture. Type is what fills up cities; it's the gray goo that you're talking about. How can you say that they're the same thing? Come on. Let's look at Steingruber. There is nothing here that is outside of its type; it's beautiful. But this [turning towards a Robert Somol diagram] is you: you take a shape, and then adapt to it. I don't think you can claim that your shapes are the result of forces.
[One of Bjarke's videos]
Having taken that line of inquiry as far as it was going to go (and probably a bit farther), Scott is letting Bjarke present his work for a few minutes. Bjarke is now back in his element, and immediately shows a striking video showing a sequence of some 92 different forms plugged into a site model. He is talking about iterating (or in his words, "mating"...). He's making a case for how his forms aren't willful from the beginning, even though the end result looks so willful, but rather, that the forms evolve as they work through the needs of the project.
[Part of the series of diagrams for the Copenhagen project]
Turning to another project, Bjarke is explaining how in Copenhagen, instead of expressing diversity by creating "a kind of faux streetscape of townhouses," they thought about the programmatic diversity, and stacked apartments on top of commercial spaces at the ground level, but allowed for a setback and green space, and then stacked other things on top of that, etc. And he goes through a series of operations on this figure-eight perimeter block diagram, which becomes a building accessed through a winding street that wraps up along the entire figure eight. I'm not sure if this still acts exactly like a street (in its publicness, its diversity, its degree of animation), but it's a pretty incredible project. Or maybe I'm just wowed by the cheerful diagrams and the video.
Bjarke wants to show us one last thing: a drive- and fly-by video of a new project for which he's just applied for excavation permits. He describes it as a mating between a European type (of the courtyard apartment) and an American type (of the tower). The soundtrack is Jay-Z's 'Empire State of Mind'! The whole presentation has been over the top, but this takes it.
Scott is turning it over to questions now.
Student question: I love comics books, and when I read Tintin as a kid, I'd always turn to the back to find out what the next title is. So what's next?
BI: It's the evil twin of the first book.
PSC: More is Less?
BI: I can't say. I signed a non-disclosure agreement.
The tone just got a bit serious: In response to another student question, BI is describing the influence of Douglas Coupland on him. He's saying that Coupland monitors aspects of life, pays attention to culture, and somehow gives it back to us. And Bjarke is making the case that architecture is that which mobilizes certain aspects of daily life in a way that, once you've seen it, you can't shake it off.
Another audience question: This is in reference to your figure-eight building [in Copenhagen]. You've only talked about the evolution of your buildings before they're built. But what about after?
BI: In a way, the architect's job is over when you hand over the keys. But we're very interested in what happens when social life takes over our projects. That's just not where our commissions come from.
PSC: Bjarke, I think we're getting close to a...concluding condition here. But do you have any last comments? If you have any thoughts about the future--
BI: I think the bottom line of our explorations so far is that...you have the demand to come up with stuff constantly. As an architect, you get called, and you have to pull something out of your...rear end, or wherever it comes from. But there's a constant process--and you don't have to look for something mystical to arrive at something interesting. If you look and listen carefully, the world is full of interesting things. If you can relegate yourself to the role of the midwife and be conceptually promiscuous enough to embrace different things, then it is limitless.
Show's over! Scott definitely won on technical (i.e. the theory), but with his diagrams, slick videos, and enthusiastic language, Bjarke held his own, on his own terms. A good time was had by both the Bjarke-lovers and the Bjarke-haters and now, now... I must get back to studio.
We have a pin-up tomorrow; it's "just an internal pin-up" but the internal critic is Dean Mostafavi.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. For a taste of Bjarke: http://vimeo.com/3499612
[Addendum as of 11/11/10: I should add that since I was blogging this live, the deviations in my text, from the actual words spoken, are probably a bit greater than usual. I don't check my texts against audio recordings, so it's a bit imprecise, but I always do my best to represent both the overall sense and the specific language whenever possible.]
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