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The Prince: Bjarke Ingels's Social Conspiracy

A version of this essay was originally published in Thresholds 40: “Socio-” (2012)

Few architects working today attract as much public acclaim and disciplinary head-scratching as Bjarke Ingels. Having recently arrived in New York, this self-proclaimed futurist is undertaking his own form of Manifest Destiny, reminding American architects how to act in their own country.

While his practice is often branded by the architectural establishment as naïve and opportunistic, such criticism is too quick to conflate Ingels’s outwardly optimistic persona with the brash formal agenda it enables. In the current economic climate, there are any number of gifted purveyors of form languishing in New York City. Despite this, Ingels has somehow managed to get away with proposing a pyramidal perimeter block in midtown New York, a looped pier in St. Petersburg Florida, and an art center in Park City, Utah massed as torqued log cabin while maintaining a straight face. Why, then, is his mode of operation considered unsophisticated by so many within the discipline?

Clearly, Ingels has figured something out about harnessing and transforming “the social” that American architects would do well to identify. So, in the manner of any good conspiracy theorist in search for the hidden method, let’s go to the chalkboard, or rather, the diagram...

Part of the answer may lie with Ingels’s brand of populism, which is as much about being social as it is about the social.

“Our world could be much more accommodating, ecological and enjoyable than it is; our cities could be more fit for human life, more adaptive to the specific climates where they are located. The reason they’re not is that there are interests that are unconcerned with the common good, and not invested in creating the best world possible. By claiming that these interests have formed an unholy alliance and are systematically killing architecture’s protagonists, perhaps it’s possible to get a bigger audience interested in understanding the challenges faced by architects. There’s nothing like a good old fashion conspiracy theory to get people’s attention; whining architects do not exactly make a bestseller.”—Bjarke Ingels [1]

“Sudden and relentless reform never sits well with entrenched interests and power brokers. That’s why true reform is so hard to achieve. But with the support of the citizens of Alaska, we shook things up. And in short order we put the government of our state back on the side of the people.”— Sarah Palin [2]

“A wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others; he must endeavour only to avoid hatred, as is noted.”— Niccolo Machiavelli [3]

From his “archicomic” monograph (now published for the iPad) to his recent appearance in a number of glossy, culture magazines, Ingels is cutting out the middleman and bringing his message directly to the people. Bred as an insider (first at OMA, and then at Columbia and Harvard), he has since “gone rogue” by positioning himself outside of the elitist currents that make up avant-garde practice. The message is that Ingels is of the people and therefore his work has the people’s best interest at heart.

St. Petersburg Pier. Image by BIG and MIR, courtesy of BIG
St. Petersburg Pier. Image by BIG and MIR, courtesy of BIG

This Palin-esque sleight of hand is not only powerful as a means of attracting clients, but also provides him with tactical agility. Architects have always tried to slip design elements past their clients through flattery, but Ingels goes beyond the timid hide-the-medicine-in-the-applesauce approach. His is one of radical transparency, quite literally telling the client everything in order to free his forms from political oversight and its requisite headaches.

Ingels’s mentor, Rem Koolhaas, remains a critical darling because, despite his corporatist rhetoric, architectural insiders consider him a fashionably sinister figure, dangerous rather than accommodating. While the most straightforward reading would suggest that Ingels has jettisoned the schizophrenic attitude of the latter in favor of a singular, wide-eyed deliriousness, one might also view his project as being far more complex in its coupling of populism and Machiavellian exceptionalism—the two seemingly opposite poles of American political thought.

Ingels’s paean to optimism, Yes is More, opens by suggesting a direct parallel with Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can.” While Obama’s phrase served as a stand-in for his goal of consensus-building pragmatism, Ingels’s slogan suggests excess over compromise, or perhaps excess via the rhetoric of compromise. Demand to resolve the impossible and something interesting might emerge: “What if design could be the opposite of politics? Not by ignoring conflict, but by feeding from it. A way to incorporate and integrate differences, not through compromise or by choosing sides, but by tying conflicting interests into a Gordian knot of new ideas.” [4]

West 57th Massing Diagram. Image courtesy of BIG
West 57th Massing Diagram. Image courtesy of BIG

While the Gordian allusion may be apt, it seems that Ingels is simultaneously playing the roles of both Gordius and Alexander, weaving difference into a coherent formal puzzle while cutting through “politics” with a decisive stroke.

In Taming the Prince, conservative political philosopher Harvey Mansfield locates this political ambivalence as a latent Machiavellian thread inherent in the executive branch of the US government. Unlike an authoritarian ruler who exerts power based solely by claiming the right to do so, the executive executes decisions on behalf of the sovereign who have elected to abide by such rulings. Being of the people allows a leader an exceptional capacity to take decisive actions while remaining distanced from their outcomes. This rhetorical latitude is a double-edged sword, being both extra-constitutional (outside) and grounded in its formal provision (inside).

For Mansfield, the ambivalence of the executive is the position’s greatest strength. It is absolute formal power in a populist guise. Curiously, such power can also be considered “performative” which, as Robert Somol suggests, “operates in such a way that the saying of it makes it so.” [5]

West 57th, New York City. Image by BIG and Glessner, courtesy of BIG
West 57th, New York City. Image by BIG and Glessner, courtesy of BIG

Much of Ingels’s work assumes this character of assertion. His self-described “pragmatic utopian” brand of the performative is, in fact, its own kind of Tea Party Express—that undeniably revolutionary platform that somehow manages to reconcile such outwardly incommensurable positions as tax reduction and increased military spending into one loud, populist leviathan. It remains to be seen whether Ingels’s desire to have his cake and eat it too, or “BIGamy,” [6] is more closely related to the Tea Party’s brand of cognitive dissonance or some imagined urban win-win scenario brought to bear through sheer force of will. But, then again, does it even matter so long as the strategy pays off?

“The logo can slip from foreground to background as the situation warrants.” — R. E. Somol [7]

"The unity of the office [of the president] implies the possibility, though a remote one, of an ideal executive. Such a person would combine in himself the ambivalence inherent in the office, ducking out of sight and leaping into view when necessary and appropriate. And his knowledge... would encompass the doctrine of executive power, uniting its two aspects while justifying their separation.” — Harvey C. Mansfield, JR. [8]

As with BIGamy, the disruptive potential of the Tea Party, like so many populist movements before it, lies in the directness of its attitude rather than the consistency of its positions. Its ideological diversity is kept in check through cults of personality and patriotic displays. Likewise, one could say that the seemingly irreconcilable socio-political issues that Ingels ostensibly seeks to absorb into his work are held together through the use of shape.

The bulk of his projects straddle the gulf between the scale of the building and the scale of the urban master plan, and indeed, much of the criticism directed toward the work itself concerns matters of detailing and “program-stuffing.” Unable, perhaps, to exert building-scaled control over his projects, and conversely unwilling to relinquish formal control over the design of the larger plan, Ingels uses the bluntness of shape to broker a tenuous peace and gain some degree of maneuverability within this scalar high-wire act. Shape, then, corresponds to attitude, a mode of operating that covers for both scalar and ideological ambivalence.

Contrary to Somol’s largely depoliticized conception of shape in which the “non-necessitarian possibility" [9] of the graphic allows it to disappear into the background, Ingels’s work demonstrates the efficacy of shape as an insurgent socio-political force. Somol perhaps unintentionally hints at this capacity when he suggests that “the graphic can only be artificially asserted and subsequently played out.” [10]

In the context of American executive power, however, the exceptional assertion is permissible only through an appeal to necessity and to the extraordinary circumstances that force a leader to go beyond the normal call of duty. For Ingels, the necessity of materializing his projects requires the construction of a receptive audience, primed to believe that the abstraction of the diagram somehow corresponds to their experience of the city. Whether post-rationalized or generative, BIG’s diagrams project an attitude of inevitability, suggesting that the final form is the necessary result.

While such alibis are not new to the architecture profession, Ingels takes it a step further, actively working to shape the social environment within which the final project is judged—placing himself firmly in the world of politics, big developers, public relations, and popular media, so that the forms themselves are walled off from scrutiny. Here, TED Talks, CNN appearances, World Economic Forum “innovation” work-shopping, and Audi partnerships all become integral tools of the architect’s trade.

The Mountain, Copenhagen. Photo by Carsten Kring, courtesy of BIG
The Mountain, Copenhagen. Photo by Carsten Kring, courtesy of BIG

However, for all the valuable rhetoric about embracing a diversity of socio-political and economic forces, Ingels’s work is relational only within the autonomous social context that he has rendered for himself. From the image of a mountain screen-printed onto the side of his housing complex in Copenhagen known simply as “The Mountain”, or the projection of the face of Princess Victoria onto the façade of the Arlanda Hotel, to the use of Lego people in “Lego Towers”, Ingels constructs a graphic social ecology that is as hermetic as it is self-serving. Within this framework, there is little tangible embrace of the contingency of urban life. Rather, the value of the work lies in the reductive and monolithic fiction of the world he presents—a plausible, seductive alternate reality to (and an implicit critique of) “our reality” of winning, losing, and bargaining. Ingels’s true craft is in acting as though this gap between the two parallel realities doesn’t exist.

Lego Tower. Image courtesy of BIG
Lego Tower. Image courtesy of BIG

“Bjarke Ingels is a ‘yes man.’ He rises to the challenge of just about any demand, be it reasonable or otherwise, with an unqualified ‘yes.’ This fuels his ambition to absorb all the political interests surrounding a project and to turn them into backbending forms that disarm the opposition.” — Bjarke Ingels [11]

It is interesting, then, that someone who claims to have the capacity to “absorb” all differences within a project can also claim that he has an “opposition” to “disarm,” as the idea of opposition is foreign to his win-win conceptual narrative. While language has a way of betraying the gap he seeks to dispense with, Ingels’s insistence on making the impossible into a viable alternative gives his work its critical potency. Neither a purely heuristic device nor a prescriptive utopia, Ingels’s “yes” offers the promise of an attitude adjustment in the public imagination—a seed that reframes the way we perceive the world and its antinomies, prefiguring our reactions to his future visions.

“Government has the ambivalent task of bringing necessity home to the people, so that they survive, while concealing it from them, so they are happy and innocent.” — Harvey C. Mansfield, JR. [12]

“This idea of the paranoid—of noticing aspects of the world that other people don’t see—is a very powerful tool for the architect.” — Bjarke Ingels [13]

One of the defining features of any conspiracy is its internal coherence. Irrespective of the ends, conspiracies perform, yet how well they perform is a function of the skill with which these autonomous Gordian constructs are planted within the collective consciousness. Such skill underwrites the soft power of influence. While architects’ desire for influence is as old as the profession, the strategies for achieving it have varied widely. More often than not, they entail an appeal to the architect’s ability to manage material and economic efficiency, effectively abandoning the excess inherent in any architectural act.

Ingels, however, engages the social so as to justify this excess, using his own personal brand as a sideshow to secure autonomy for his exuberant formal agenda—an agenda that is anything but inevitable. This two-front maneuver reflects at once a profound sympathy for Koolhaas’s appropriation of the Paranoid-Critical method in Delirious New York as well as an intuitive understanding of the ambivalence that underwrites American power structures. If, paradoxically, Ingels has conspired to pry open a space for division, or disciplinary autonomy, through a social project of fictive unity and consensus-building, then perhaps an evolution in his work will emerge when he moves to free his shapes from the lingering rhetorical vestiges of populism and examine form itself in relation to the irreconcilable political necessities that drove him to conjure such an ambivalent knot from the start.

In our world, yes is great but no means no. By subverting the necessity of trade-offs in a zero sum game, Ingels is offering an internally coherent conspiracy theory and seeking converts to share in the BIGamy. It’s up to the rest of us to decide if Ingels’s program represents a temporary suspension of reality or if it effectively re-writes the rules entirely.

Justin Fowler is a PhD student at the Princeton School of Architecture and a founding editor of Manifest: A Journal of American Architecture and Urbanism.

WORKS REFERENCED

[1] Bjarke Ingels, “Bjarke Ingels: Interview by Jeffrey Inaba,” Klat, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 89.

[2] Sarah Palin, “Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention,” September 3, 2008.

[3] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W. K. Marriott (Costa Mesa, CA: Plain Label Books, 1952), 92.

[4] Bjarke Ingels, Yes is More (Cologne: Evergreen, 2009), 14–15.

[5] R. E. Somol, “Green Dots 101,” in Hunch, no. 11 (Winter 2007): 29.

[6] Bjarke Ingels, “Bjarke Ingels,” 94.

[7] Somol, “Green Dots 101,” 33.

[8] Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 15.

[9] Somol, “Green Dots 101,” 37.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Bjarke Ingels, Yes is More, author’s note.

[12] Mansfield, Taming the Prince, 145.

[13] Bjarke Ingels, “Bjarke Ingels,” 86

Cite:Justin Fowler. "The Prince: Bjarke Ingels's Social Conspiracy" 02 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accesed . <http://www.archdaily.com/396420/the-prince-bjarke-ingels-s-social-conspiracy/>