There are many things that set BIG’s latest project, Amager Bakke, apart. The plant, which broke ground yesterday, will be the cleanest waste-to-energy plant in the world. It will be the tallest and biggest building in Copenhagen. It will house Denmark’s first ski-slope (on the roof of the plant, no less). It will emit its CO2 emissions - not as a continuous stream of smoke, oh no - but in sudden, bursting smoke rings.
However, the Amager Bakke waste-to-energy Plant is far more than the sum of its rather remarkable features. As an urban “destination in itself” and a landmark in environmental design, it’s one of the most radical representations of architecture as a means of public engagement of our time. And, what’s more, it’s a signal that BIG has finally reached maturity, truly coming into its own as a firm.
The germ of the idea that would become Amager Bakke actually sprouted over a decade ago, about three years before BIG, when Bjarke Ingels’ firm went by the name of PLOT. The young company was devoted to getting their name out, hoping that their ingenious, outlandish ideas would captivate the imagination of the public and become reality. And so they decided to enter a competition, despite not being qualified to enter it, for an urban project in a city in Denmark.
What they proposed was to insert a public urban space in the densest area of Copenhagen - where land is most limited but need most evident. But how? By putting it on top of the largest department store in the city, forming a man-made landscape with amazing views and, because ski-loving Danes are plagued by their country’s flat plains, a topography that could be used as a ski-slope in the winter.
Although they won the competition in 2002, it’s perhaps not shocking that the project never came to fruition. However, the effort was an important lesson for Ingels, who would carry the experience with him.
Fast-forward ten years later, and BIG has been commissioned by the 10 municipalities of metropolitan Copenhagen to come up with a vision for the city in the year 2050. They create a bi-national plan, which would connect Denmark to Sweden via a 2.5 mile bridge and form a 170 kilometer metropolitan loop, connected not only by continuous public transportation (indeed, under the plan, no area would be further away than 40 minutes via public transportation) but also under a common waste and water management system.
And the first project under this plan is none other than Amager Bakke, the waste-to-energy plant that will replace Copenhagen‘s existing plant and provide 97% of its homes with heating and about 4,000 people with electricity. It will act as a man-made ecosystem, harvesting natural resources (daylight filters through the facade of planters, rainwater is captured, etc.) and turning the city’s waste into its energy.
However, BIG wanted the plant to be more than a display of cutting-edge, waste-to-energy technology. The plant, located in the middle of the city, next to the marina, holds a privileged site in the city, making it prime to be utilized, to become a “destination” for the general public. So how could this “mountain of trash” be used as a public space? Again, the idea of the ski-slope, a topography that captures the Danish imagination, seemed a logical answer.
But BIG then took this logic one step further, making the plant not just a “destination” to encourage public participation, but a means of communication that would encourage public engagement. Despite the fact that Amager Bakke will be the cleanest waste-to-energy plant in the world, the firm wanted to communicate to city-goers that it’s not perfect, that the environment is still affected by its CO2 emissions.
And so those wacky smoke rings aren’t just some clever marketing ploy, but a way of expressing pollution that can be easily conceptualized and understood by the public (5 smoke rings = one ton of CO2). As Bjarke Ingels comments in his lecture for Going Viral: “One of the main drivers of behavioral change is knowledge. If people don’t know, they can’t act.”
This is the key: BIG has learned to use its outlandish ingenuity for more that its own sake; it has learned to use its guerilla-like tactics to encourage public participation and then give that participation purpose. Amager Bakke is pure BIG, but a more grown-up, bigger BIG. This is the beginning of BIG 2.0.
Team Credits for Amager Bakke
Collaborators: Realities United (Interactive Façade), AKT (Façade & Structural engineering), Topotek/Man Made Land (Landscape), Glessner Group
Partner-in-Charge: Bjarke Ingels, David Zahle
Project Leader: Claus Hermansen
Team: Brian Yang, Jakob Ohm Laursen, Mads Enggaard Stidsen, Jesper Boye Andersen, Nanna Gyldholm Møller, Espen Vik, Narisara Ladawal Schröder, Ryohei Koike, Anders Hjortnæs, Henrick Poulsen, Annette Jensen, Jeppe Ecklon, Kamilla Heskje, Frank Fdida, Alberto Cumerlato, Gonzalo Castro, Chris Zhongtian Yuan, Aleksander Wadas, Liang Wang, Alexander Ejsing, Chris Falla, Mathias Bank, Katarzyna Siedlecka, Jelena Vucic, Alina Tamosiunaite, Armor Gutierrez, Maciej Zawadzki, Jakob Lange, Andreas Klok Pedersen, Daniel Selensky, Gül Ertekin, Xing Xiong, Sunming Lee, Long Zuo, Ji-young Yoon, Blake Smith , Buster Christensen