Pragmatism & Placemaking

Bringing both together through architecture

When recently discussing ‘rock star architects’, a name that frequently cropped up was Bjarke Ingels, head architect at BIG. Visually Bjarke stands out from the crowd with his casual dress sense and his playful, showman-like approach to presenting BIG’s work. He certainly talks a good game too, with buzzwords and phrases such as 'hedonistic sustainability', 'ecolomy' (ecology + economy), and 'architectural alchemy'. Publishing his ideas and philosophy in an ‘archi-comic’ (Yes Is More) rather than something a little more traditional may also seem a little new-school to some!

But perhaps ‘rock star’ is unfair... Rock star implies rebelliousness, non-conformity, and attitude. All traits that Bjarke may possess, but which are channelled into socially and environmentally responsible architecture. Some of his work may appear a little brash too; twisted towers and Lego-like blocks almost suggest immaturity, but no more so than established architects such as Gehry or Koolhaas.

This rock star's commitment to socio-environmental responsibility is evident in BIG's impressive portfolio, with Bjarke and his team winning awards for their flagship residential developments in the city of Ørestad, a new district of Copenhagen. As a city very much in development, Ørestad raised the question - how do you develop a sense of ‘place’ when you barely have a neighbourhood?

It’s a challenge that BIG haven’t shirked. And despite the VM Houses, Mountain Dwellings, and 8 House of Ørestad being wildly different from each other in aesthetic and form, they all importantly put people and place at the heart of their design. These aren’t the identikit structures one expects of new residential developments. That's not to say there is anything wrong with prefab, but with a simple re-arrangement of components you can get far more out of a building than you put in. 'Architectural Alchemy' as Bjarke would say.

“Since the people living here are the pioneers of a new town, surrounded by construction sites and tumbleweed, living on the 10th floor could get lonely. But on a sunny afternoon, the wall of balconies form a vertical backyard community, creating connections to neighbours in a vertical radius of 10 metres”

- Bjarke Ingels

However, ‘place’ goes beyond the social connections we make; to some it’s also about a sense of belonging, satisfaction with our surroundings, comfort, and control: to have a home, not just a house. To address this need, 80 of the 225 apartments at the VM Houses are unique, forming a Tetris-like composition of duplexes and triplexes, so the residents don’t just have the perception of a bespoke space, it is also an actuality. It may sound chaotic, but the end result is a triumph of pragmatism.

The 'VM' shape of the scheme opens up the view from every apartment to the surrounding landscape. The claustrophobia of suburban mid-rise dwelling is all but removed, and consequently exposes all areas of the building to more natural light. It’s a process that is replicated in Mountain Dwellings, a development that blurs the lines between traditional terraced-house living, and contemporary inner-city life. Here the sense of ‘place’ is visual with the stacked arrangement of the apartments creating a ‘mountain’; a visual metaphor enforced by the huge Mount Everest massif that wraps around its base.

If the arrangement of the balconies on the VM house potentially makes social interaction a little ‘forced’, the same can’t be said of Mountain Dwellings. The apartments sit upon a multi-coloured car park that also serves as an atrium, a space so inspirational that it hosted the closing night of the Distortion Music Festival. Perhaps showing that whilst architects provide the canvas, it is people that define a place.

The jewel in Ørestad's crown is the 8 House, where pragmatism and placemaking go hand in hand. The building is a ‘figure of eight’ shaped layer-cake of residential, commercial, and office spaces, all of which are linked by an infinite loop of cycle paths and walkways. The elements are arranged as such to let courtyards bask in the sun (rather than in the shadow of the offices), and the natural shape of the building creates courtyards, plazas, and gardens. The undulating terrain created by this unique configuration evokes comparisons with the hill towns of Tuscany. It’s a magical balance of inspiring architectural formulae, without being formulaic.

“Architecture is most appealing with simple lines and clear ideas. A city, on the other hand, becomes alive when it is rich with experiences and surprises”

- Bjarke Ingels

We all have our own ideas on what defines ‘place’; be it a space that is governed by its physical properties, or a mental state of mind (see A Placemaking Philosophy). “Yes is more” is BIG's doctrine, and their evolutionary yet pragmatic approach to housing and living provides us with greater satisfaction with our own ‘place’, even if we’re not quite sure what it is.


Alex Farrell

Date published

20 February 2014