We meet Bjarke Ingels in his headquarters in Copenhagen, a formidable industrial archaeology building once a deposit for beer bottle tops in the Valby district.
The Danish architect, heart and soul of the highly successful BIG studio, (currently with almost 400 architects between the Copenhagen and New York branches) instantly lights up when he starts to tell us about "his" Lego House made of 21 irregularly-stacked white blocks that look like gigantic toy bricks.
"Designing is a game, playing is a project": this was the motto of one of the masters of Italian design, Bruno Munari. Do you agree? Do you too think it is impossible for us to live a life without play?
Certainly. I think play is one of the fundamental aspects of life. If you have read the book Thus Spoke Zarathrusta, you will remember the pages where Nietzsche describes the three metamorphoses of the spirit's development. After the camel - the man who carries the weight of tradition - comes the lion-man, able to rebel and defeat the "great dragon", symbol of the current morals.
But we are still a far cry from true freedom, which is not just freedom "from" but also freedom "to"… In the end it will be the child, with his spontaneity, to build a new world, through play and experimentation. Play, therefore, is a metaphor for true, complete freedom. Lego demonstrates this particularly well. We know that most toys are created with a preconceived idea, with a precise function: the doll, the tractor, the train…
Well, Lego is something else: it's a not a preconceived system, it is not defined by shape or function, it rather offers you the tools to create a world close to the one you desire. And the magic thing about Lego is that once you've imagined that world you can make it come true, you can build it. Basically I think this is what architecture is precisely about: having tools at our disposal to create the world we would like to inhabit. And then live in. And enjoy.
Play for you then becomes an excuse for designing…
That's right. As architects, we create a sort of frame around people's lives. We help define the borders. I'll give you an example: let's imagine we have to design a carpark. The most "limited" way of carrying out this request would be to create a space where people can park their cars.
We, however, want to take it further and say that this is not only a car park, but also a place where people spend some of their time. And if this space were to become something else? If it were to offer other opportunities? We don't limit ourselves to resolving just one problem: if we concentrate on a limited need, life becomes impoverished. This is why our studio tries to expand "the realm of possibility", the catalogue of solutions, even in a joyous and playful sense.
Like the "8 House" in Copenhagen (the 2010 iconic residential design, editor's note.) where people live and work, but where they can also go for a walk, up to the tenth floor, and then walk back down again. No one has to walk (or cycle), there is a lift of course. But this project provides the opportunity of doing something more exciting, something different…
The Lego House too, revolves around this same idea of inviting people to try more thrilling and stimulating experiences.
Here architecture aims to transmit a stimulating experience but also a sense of identity, in keeping with the slogan of the last Copenhagen Architectural Festival (April 2017), where you played a key role. How did you resolve the question of relations between "your Lego House", the brand, and the town of Billund and its inhabitants?
The initial input, when we started the project, was rather broad: to build Lego's "house". So we started to study. The first thing we thought was that the architecture had to reflect the company's image, that is to say that Lego produces construction games. Then there was the "problem" of the location: the town of Billund is smaller than the actual Lego factory and offices!
It was very important for the managers of Lego House that the building should not be built only for tourists but also for the inhabitants of Billund. So we thought of concentrating all the, let's say, public functions - bars, restaurants, Lego shop and spaces for events - on the ground floor, creating a sort of central covered square, Lego Square, free and open to all.
Then we organized the exhibition spaces like a sort of weightless cloud with a number of rooms, or blocks, connected by glass galleries, suspended above Lego Square. The use of glass surfaces allowed us to trace a light border between the square and the exhibition blocks: transparency encourages people to look, it stimulates curiosity, it shows us other "worlds" to explore.
That's not all: the various blocks also face onto internal exhibition spaces, arranged as large terraces. Access here is free too, play areas have been created, conceived like Lego constructions, that lead to the top of the building (the reproduction of a large scale real Lego brick), from where a beautiful view of the town of Billund and the surrounding woods can be enjoyed.
A truly fantastic world: I should think the Lego House is one of your favourite projects.
You should never ask a mother to choose between her children. Of course, I am always very involved in all the studio projects, but there is one that touches me particularly…
This project too, offers the community an enormous play space for children and grownups.
And it's not the only one. Just think that in 2018 families in Copenhagen will be able to ski on the roof of an incinerator plant… The purpose of this project? To make the world cleaner and more fun in one fell swoop!
Project by BIG - Bjarke Ingels Group - Photos David Zanardi