It’s his moment: Bjarke Ingels is reinventing our ways of living. After the ‘big sail,’ a residential pyramid that appeared a few months ago in New York, reshaping the skyline, the talented 40-year-old Danish designer presents Urban Rigger, a floating eco-city at the port of Copenhagen, where the BIG studio was founded in 2005.

When and how did the Urban Rigger adventure get started?
My former downstairs neighbor told me he had a friend that I had to meet. He turned out to be a maverick entrepreneur, who now wanted to help the thousands of students migrating to the big cities every year with no way to find a decent place to live.
The idea itself was simple. Most major cities are port cities. The ports are turning from industry to living and working. Water is, in principle, free. The regulations on water are faster and simpler than on land. We were to design a system of concrete pontoons to carry small stacks of containers that will become the floating homes of the next generation of Copenhagen academics: and then go global.

What was the reason that prompted you to take part in this project? The desire to get involved, social emergencies that needed solving, the desire to produce ‘good architecture’ for all…?
If you don’t take the needs of the students seriously, you don’t take the future seriously! In the case of Urban Rigger, there were many needs or opportunities that were presented and made available to address. For example, most major postindustrial cities in the world are experiencing some sort of a transformation and decline of their port industries.
You’re seeing cities all over the world where you actually have increasingly available port areas that can be transformed and could be the home for alternative forms of urbanization. To further that condition, we are seeing the shipping and container industry in Western Europe giving way to more economically competitive shipyards and manufacturing plants in Asia. You have a declining industry that makes and moves containers—in a way, Urban Rigger is a means to keep an endangered industry alive for another purpose. What we’re suggesting is to inject new life into it. We might be in a situation where the goodwill of addressing an issue that is important to the government means that we’d get some access to the key waterfront sites under their control, since typically, waterfront properties with views are more expensive.
In terms of the architecture of Urban Rigger, a sort of new process was introduced. With big buildings, it’s always a prototype, and it’s always the first and the last one you’re going to do. You can take everything you learn from that experience to the next time you’re doing a project, but it will always be a new project in a new situation for a new client with a new program. In this case, we’re going more into the realm of manufacturing.
With the first iPhone, Apple learned a lot and in the next generation and the next generation, it keeps becoming a more awesome product. That’s something we can never do with architecture, but we can do it with Urban Rigger. The first Urban Rigger that arrived is a proof of concept. Based on the experience with this one, we’re going to make a 1.1, a 1.2, and eventually a 2.0.

In your view, what is the strong point of the project?
The education of our youth is one of the best investments any society can make; to make it possible to find someplace to live that is enjoyable and will enable them to become better students. Trying to cut corners in this sense would be a very big mistake. Urban Rigger directly addresses that need by providing low-cost, conveniently located student housing that keeps the future generation comfortable and safe.

Thinking about the city of the future, do you believe Urban Rigger can be a valid alternative to more traditional approaches to urban planning? If so, why?
As a complement to traditional urban planning, absolutely. There’s one key reason for this, namely the glaring challenge any waterside city or community faces. In terms of sea level rise, this is the most resilient form of housing because it moves with the water. It’s the only building type that will never flood. What we tried to do with this first Urban Rigger was to use a lot of very well-known, established, sustainable technologies, and even though we’re trying to make very affordable super-efficient units, we can also include some of these elements that are more high-end.
It means harnessing the efficiencies of the container industry, which is indeed super-efficient. We thought that maybe this could be an intelligent way to relieve stressful housing situations, not just putting up tents but really creating completely safe, completely secure high-standard living spaces. In the past, through this traditional urban planning we speak about, the waterfront was really a logistical space, whereas now it can be turned into an enjoyable space.

Do you like to design for your city, Copenhagen: how important for your work is your background as an architect born and raised in Denmark?
It’s interesting with Copenhagen. The last few decades have seen manufacturing and light industry relocated to other cities, and these peripheral areas now have many emptied buildings and underused spaces. It is time for a new plan to redensify and reconnect Copenhagen! The role of the architect must address more than just the design of two-dimensional facades or three-dimensional architectural objects. We have to become designers of ecosystems, systems of both ecology and economy, that channel not only the flow of people through our cities and buildings, but also the flow of resources, heat, energy, waste and water, into perpetual motion engines.
We need to stop viewing human presence on the planet as something fundamentally detrimental to the natural environment, and instead reframe it as a design challenge to incorporate our natural byproducts into a living machine fully integrated into the natural environment. The basic definition of waste is something that is a byproduct of a system that no longer has any use. But it is clear that waste is not the problem; it is the system, improperly designed, which generates the waste.
Getting to incorporate these principles into a project like the Amager Resource Center, a waste-to-energy plant under construction in Copenhagen, is simply incredible. To be able to tell the people of Copenhagen that you want to give them, on top of what is essentially a garbage incinerator, a ski slope, and a climbing wall, for the whole community to use, and to have them actually say “yes, we would love that,” certainly makes me proud to be Danish.

Though you are young, you have already completed important projects and gained many awards and honors. In your view, what are the reasons behind this success?
Typically, people tend to attribute architects’ success to a faster-paced climate for architecture in general, but I’m not sure that things are actually moving faster for us in the younger generation – both Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had very prolific careers quite early in their lives, as did Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright.
I think there are many paths an architect can take. I can’t claim that it has happened according to any pre-meditated plan, but I will say that as the practice has evolved, so have I and so has our leadership. And we do spend quite a bit of energy on learning from the careers and experiences of the architects we admire – to see how they have organized themselves and how they have dealt with growth and the challenges that come with escalating responsibilities.

To organize the international projects of your studio, you have opened an office in New York, where you spend much of the year. Which do you prefer: Copenhagen or New York?
Well, surely, New York and Copenhagen are quite different, in terms of both work environments and architectural climates. I think it’s quite clear that when you look at engineering, the United States has very sophisticated structural engineers. They’ve been building huge highway bridges and skyscrapers and all kinds of complex structures, whereas Denmark is a country built out of prefabricated concrete elements and everything is very simple. American engineering definitely has an edge that we appreciate, and a faster-paced architectural arena that was considered prior to our expansion there.
But when it comes to environmental performance like energy efficiency, noise reduction, resource extraction – and here I mean things like extracting waste products and turning them into resources – it’s still relatively inefficient, in comparison to Denmark. I think it’s because there’s been an abundance of relatively inexpensive energy; there has maybe not been enough focus on the energy value that you actually find in waste-to-energy. So a few things contribute to one another, but there is room for the integration of both regions’ strengths, which is something we value being able to do from our office in a global hub like New York City.

Text by Laura Ragazzola – Photos by courtesy BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group