Bjarke Ingels talks about how he was destined to be a graphic novelist, designing his own curriculum, get-rich-quick schemes, the importance of partnerships and why 150 is a magic number.

When I was in school there was a teaching assistant who would spend all of his time drawing, narrating stories as he went. Doing this he could pacify a group of ten young children for hours. I ended up spending the better part of a year watching him and then producing drawings for him. I think that acted as a trigger. My parents raved about the fact that, from a very early age, I was able to produce drawings with perspective, as if it was some mark of genius. I just assumed that was my trajectory, that I would grow up to be a graphic novelist.

For me, what is fascinating about any story, before getting captured by the narrative and the characters, is the world. It’s the idea of spending time in that world that draws you to science fiction or fantasy. I didn’t really have the purchase power to get my hands on many graphic novels, so when my mum went shopping, I would go to the bookstore and start flicking through them in order to get more of a visceral sense of what they were all about. That kind of world creation or worldcraft has always been what’s most universally important to me. It was just originally rooted in fiction rather than fact.

When Ingels couldn’t find the right sofa for his home, KiBiSi – the design group he cofounded with Lars Larsen and Jens Martin Skibsted – created the Brick series.

You can say that as an architect, you create the framework for people’s lives, use some form of structure to orchestrate the unfolding of their daily experience. I think that is also what a graphic novel does. As fate would have it, when we had to do our first monograph, Yes Is More, it ended up coming out in the form of a graphic novel.

When I finally graduated from high school, I found there was a complete absence of academies in Denmark where I could study cartoons. I didn’t know how to pursue this passion. Some representatives from the architecture school had come to my school to discuss their course. Even by the standards of the day, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture was extremely old-fashioned, with the first two years based on technical drawing tasks. I thought ‘OK’, it couldn’t hurt to spend two years honing my skills drawing landscapes and buildings to form backdrops for my future novels.

Because it was an art school, The Royal Danish Academy was extremely relaxed, bordering almost on apathy. There was no curriculum. If you wanted to hide from the teachers you could, nobody would notice. Because I came to it without any kind of prerequisite, I was frustrated by that void of academic and intellectual offerings. So I ended up using my library card, and because I didn’t know anything about anything I just started pulling books down at random. It was a kind of serial monogamy, as I would fall in love with one architect, then dig deeper into their oeuvre. I kept reaching a moment of finding the fundamental underpinnings of each architect, at which point the tower would crumble and I would move on. In this way I slowly began a kind of reverse engineering, creating my own curriculum.

World creation or worldcraft has always been what’s most universally important to me

I spent a year out in Barcelona, where I was lucky enough to stumble upon some talks that Rem Koolhaas had given at the architecture school there. I ended up digging up everything I could that he had ever published. I found in Rem a more conceptually contextual approach. That each project is its own thing: even though there is an overarching agenda, it doesn’t have to display the typical ideological or fundamentalist underpinnings that most architects suffer from. Each project becomes an exploration of a certain set of criteria or conditions, almost in a journalistic sense. Rather than seeing some kind of autonomous art form disassociated from a society, it suddenly became an interesting tool in the creation and accommodation of society.

In the end I did an internship with him at OMA and was lucky enough to be brought back after graduation because they had just secured the commission for the Seattle Public Library. It was an intense year, full blast, travelling back and forth to Seattle and just experiencing that kind of incredible non-stop grind that it takes to make something interesting happen. Every aspect of that project was constantly under attack. There was like a massive public outcry. A local politician wrote an essay comparing the design to a giant fist coming out of the ground with the index finger raised in an absurd, obscene gesture. I had pretty comprehensive responsibilities. I was running all these battles to try and save elements like the continuously sloping ramp as the main archive for the books, trying to save the mixing chamber as an idea for bringing the librarians out of the stacks and into this kind of information exchange. Exciting, but exhausting.

Ingels resides in a 450-tonne car ferry moored in the Port of Copenhagen.

From a personal point of view, navigating the internal politics of an office became just one additional obstacle. I was fighting all these battles, of course for myself, but ultimately for someone else. That’s how my first office, Plot, materialized. I thought, why not just do it on my own? At that time it was just before the first NASDAQ crash. My friends and I were reading about people becoming internet millionaires in their twenties and we were stuck in a profession where you often don’t even get to build before you’re 40. We had a fantasy to get involved and came up with a couple of ideas, such as selling stock design plans on an online marketplace, and another called Nomad that was like an early version of Airbnb. I’m not saying ‘we got there first’, we were just messing around, but we did get as far as an identity in the form of a Dymaxion map and a font inspired by Buckminster Fuller. Then the crash happened and we won our first building competition, so our flirtation with becoming IT gazillionaires suddenly ended and we were back in the saddle as architects.

Plot lasted five years; it felt like a lifetime. One of the things I was keen to do was to take on more partners. The only way you can grow and become capable of taking on bigger challenges is by committing to some of the talent around you, in a way that makes it desirable for them to remain part of the team. But at Plot we couldn’t agree on how to make it a more open partnership. So I took some of my colleagues and established BIG. Starting a company for a second time, I had a clearer picture of what I wanted to create: a professionally run architecture practice that would free myself up to be the kind of ‘chief visionary’. It had to be the sort of company that could take on the task of designing and building a skyscraper, the sort of large, complicated projects that you wouldn’t entrust to a young, struggling boutique office.

Ingels has observed that some of the architecture practices that have succeeded in becoming large organizations while retaining artistic integrity tend to be highly centralized. ‘We missed that boat.’

Looking back at those early years, I would say 8 House, the first building designed by BIG, stands out. There was a level of existential angst to the project. The project was so fucking complex: 60,000 sq-m, 300 m long, 100 m wide, 500 units, and mixed use. It was also in the middle of nowhere, so there was no context to respond to. And then halfway through the project, the global financial and real estate markets collapsed, so we had to cut as many costs as we could. But by that point it was only on the final finishes that we could make any savings because all the concrete elements had already been purchased and manufactured.

Somehow it came through, and the people living there now are kind of patriots of the building. During lockdown, they would meet around sunset on their balconies and in the gardens, where they would sing with each other and watch the sun go down before saying goodnight. Can you imagine, 1,000 people saying goodnight? Those front lawns and the big balconies allow a manifestation of individuality within the collective that gives residents the best of both worlds. All of the things that architecture claims it somehow has the power to do, I think we partially succeeding in achieving there. So sure, the finishes are little bit raw, but it’s also kind of beautiful.

The only way you can grow to become capable of taking on bigger challenges is by committing to some of the talent around you

Opening our first overseas office was very rejuvenating. That was the end of a ten-year period, with five years at Plot and five at BIG. I’d finally figured out the form I wanted the partnership to take, announcing a total of seven partners plus myself. By then I had built up a relationship with American real estate developer Douglas Durst, having met him around the time Joseph Grima curated a show of our work at Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan in 2007. We struck up a friendship, but never really with the intention of doing a project for him because he was pursuing a very different style of work.

Then came the idea to do what would become Via 57 West. Initially we tried to make it work long distance. I flew across the Atlantic a few times and we also held some meetings via conference calls. But they’re such a professional client, there’s always about 15 people in the room: lawyers and builders and maintenance people and rental people. It became impossible to steer those conversations remotely. I realized that if we wanted this project to succeed in any meaningful way, I’d have to be there myself. And I thought, well, I just handed over the keys to the car to seven new partners . . . what better way to make them feel that they have a new level of autonomy than by getting out of there? In September 2010 I left the Venice Architecture Biennale and took a Delta flight to New York. I had a visa from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the intention to open a new outpost. There’s something empowering about starting something from scratch; it was like a renaissance for me.

Of course, because of COVID-19, remote collaboration has now become extremely important and it’s working surprisingly well for us. A few years ago we started the London office, where some 60 people now work. And we have a small Barcelona office now, too. When you look at some of the great architecture practices that have succeeded in becoming large organizations while retaining that artistic integrity, they tend to be highly centralized. We missed that boat as we were already a bit bi-polar once we started the New York to Copenhagen relay.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Dunbar number, a concept proposed by sociologist Robin Dunbar that states that we can only maintain stable relationships with a maximum of 150 people. Once an organization becomes bigger than that you need a different kind of structure, a different kind of hierarchy and a different kind of leadership. So we’ve been discussing whether our destiny is to be, rather than a single behemoth of 1,500 people, ten smaller offices with a maximum of 150 staff. I think there’s a unique energy to that.

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This interview was originally featured in our current issue Frame 136. Get your copy here.

Hero image: Best known as the name behind architectural practice BIG, Ingels also has a hand in furniture and other industrial design objects as a partner of KiBiSi.