“Formgiving” is the latest book by the Bjarke Ingels Group. It presents some 100 buildings and projects by the Danish architectural firm and takes us on a whistle-stop architectural tour spanning everything from the Big Bang to a future of planetary migration.
By Thomas Wagner.
A waste incineration plant with a climbing wall on its facade and a ski slope on its roof. A footbridge whose enclosure appears to have been twisted 90 degrees. A watchmaking museum that looks like it is spiralling up out of the ground. A skyscraper which seems to dissolve as it stretches higher into the sky and another where several storeys in the middle are deliberately out of line. The list could go on and on. After all, buildings designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group have a reputation for being refreshingly different. Modestly abbreviated as BIG, the firm established by Bjarke Ingels in 2006 clearly has the knack. Anyone who has ever experienced Bjarke presenting one of his projects will know just how eloquently this smart cookie unveils his concepts.
From BIG Bang to singularity
After “Yes is more. An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution” and “Hot to Cold. An Odyssey of Architectural Adaptation”, “Formgiving. An Architectural Future History” is the third book by BIG to be published by TASCHEN. In it, BIG links evolution, the present, the future and architecture in its usual self-assured style. Designed as a companion volume to the exhibition of the same name at the Danish Architecture Center (DAC) in Copenhagen, the publication is nothing less than a history of the future “from BIG Bang to singularity” spanning over 700 pages. Along the way, it presents some 100 buildings and projects designed and realised around the world by this go-getting firm – from homes to ecosystems that float on the ocean and habitats for the moon and Mars.
Superficial or visionary?
Whether you consider BIG’s buildings and proposals to be superficial or visionary, very few global celebrity architects have succeeded in maintaining a high profile for so long in an attention-based economy and its social media channels. Rem Koolhaas, whose Rotterdam-based firm OMA employed Bjarke Ingels for several years, believes that the latter embodies a completely new breed of architect which is perfectly suited to the current zeitgeist.
The principle sounds simple: “The Danish word for ‘design’ is ‘formgiving’, which literally means giving form to something which has not yet taken shape. In other words, giving form to the future.” It is not enough to act in the present: “To put it more precisely: giving the world a form which we would all like to inhabit one day. To feel that we have licence to imagine a future different from today, all we have to do is look back ten years, a hundred years, a thousand years, to realise how radically different things were then than they are today. Since we know from our past that our future is bound to be different from our present, rather than waiting for it to take shape on its own, we have the power to give it form.”
A high-speed journey into the future
For the dialecticians of BIG’s journey into a bright new BIG future, it all begins with the BIG Bang some 14 billion years ago and ends – for now, at least – on Mars. As this high-speed journey into the future centres on making and doing, material is shaped almost before it is created: “The evolution of making and doing starts with the creation of material and its manipulation by means of craftsmanship and industry and extends all the way to robotics.” From the beginning of time to the settlement of faraway planets, BIG’s desire to design accepts no limits. And so, as we whizz through the development of humankind at high speed, the architect is presented as the epitome of evolution and creation’s crowning glory. However, as it is not the done thing to talk about the licence to dominate these days, “we” are the subject with revealing regularity.
The projects are structured around six strands of evolution: “Making”, “Sensing”, “Sustaining”, “Thinking”, “Healing” and “Moving”. “Sensing”, for example, takes “us” from “the physical reality to augmented reality”. After the Web and social media, the internet of things (IoT) is now subjecting every single physical object to “the power of algorithms” at last. Once every object has a digital twin, it is clear that: “This platform – the mirror world – renews the relevance of architecture.” Any questions, doubts or hesitation are brushed aside as the pragmatic utopians forge ahead into what is yet to come.
A Janus-faced undertaking
In the book’s abstract passages, problematic assumptions are touted as facts while conventional wisdom is presented as a vision of the future. However, when it takes a more concrete turn by examining BIG buildings and projects in each of ten categories, the quality of the firm’s architecture shines through the showiness. In a section entitled “The Oxymoron”, the reader cannot help but be intrigued by the contradictory features or activities which have been brought together within a single building. The pluralism of BIG’s output is illustrated even more clearly in “The Response”, which shows how “responsive architecture” can give rise to shapes “by responding to climatic conditions – the otherwise invisible context of the sun’s rays and thermal currents”. If the bright sparks from BIG had described and explained their projects in greater detail, they would not have needed so many heavy-going speech bubbles to justify their own licence to build.
It is without doubt appealing that so many of these buildings respond to their users’ needs. Likewise, there is every reason to support BIG’s advocacy for sustainability and new cycles. However, “Formgiving” repeatedly also reveals paradoxes which are mixed up with a belief that the “power of design” should be transferred unreservedly from a property, building, neighbourhood, town or country and “applied to the standard and scope of our entire planet”. Was – and is – it not precisely this power which has played a part in the desire for mastery that is described at great length here? BIG sets out to gift mankind “the world-changing power of architecture” to design the world “how we want it”. What we want, however, is far more modest: less bang and more BIG.
BIG. Formgiving. An Architectural Future History
Softcover, 16,3 x 25 cm, 1,98 kg, 736 pages
Taschen, Cologne 2021
Read more about the BIG Copenhill project in our article Ecological transition right now: green construction projects with a future.
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