What makes a city? Natural landscapes, political orientations, artistic efforts—all of these things influence how we define our urban environments. But it’s not that simple. We each have our own ideas about what makes a city livable or unlivable. There’s no single way to describe a metropolis because cities constantly shift and adapt to reflect the desires of the people within them. We all lay the foundations—and then it’s up to designers, urban planners, and visionaries to bring our environments to life.
Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is one such individual. He and his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), are responsible for some of the world’s most dynamic structures—the BIG Maze in Washington’s National Building Museum, the Klein A45 tiny home in upstate New York, the 8-Haus affordable housing project in Copenhagen—and often challenge how we perceive public and private spaces.
"It’s no longer enough for buildings to provide shelter or for train stations to act as a temporary destination between two points."
Though Ingels’s work has had a major impact in certain cities, his influence in others—like Vancouver—is only just beginning: the firm’s Serpentine Pavilion will eventually settle near the city’s Olympic cauldron and Vancouver House is currently under construction (expected to be completed in 2019). Designed with people in mind, BIG’s revolutionary projects are intended to provide a fresh perspective and present a unique opportunity for citizens to interact with one another.
photo by Epizentrum
Design as a gateway
As cities continue to evolve, designers must think about how people can engage with architectural structures. It’s no longer enough for buildings to provide shelter or for train stations to act as a temporary destination between two points; they need to be dynamic, beautiful, thriving spaces where both locals and visitors can gain an intimate understanding of the city and its people. BIG’s designs accomplish this by taking inspiration from the evolution of contemporary life—multiculturalism, global economics, and communication technologies are some of the firm’s biggest influences. Visually, BIG’s work can be described as abstract, but it’s also thought-provoking and impactful.
Vancouver House has often been described as a reimagining of the gateway to the city. The Granville Street Bridge, a literal entry-point into Vancouver’s downtown core, provides a tri-forked site for the real estate project’s podium and tower. The unique cantilevered shape of the building has even been compared to the visual of someone pulling back a curtain to welcome visitors into the city.
"Rather than working against the spaces they occupy, BIG’s designs work in tandem with them."
In Nørrebro, the Black Market area of Superkilen park acts as both a city square and cycling gateway, providing commuters with a beautiful and functional route to various destinations. The park’s efforts to promote diversity and encourage community also act as a gateway—away from Denmark’s mono-ethnic reputation towards a multicultural city that celebrates differences as much as similarities.
photo by Vancouver House
photo by Vancouver House
Cities shaping design
According to Ingels, BIG’s goal is for “designs to respond to their surroundings…[and] to inherit their attributes from the challenges and potentials of their environments.” The triangular base of Vancouver House is just that—a response to the restrictions of the space (it even minimizes the shadow cast by the building, much to the benefit of nearby parks). To further complement the surrounding landscape, the geometry of the building morphs into a standard rectangular shape once its height surpasses that of the bridge, allowing for increased square footage—plus maximized views and sunlight for residents. Rather than working against the spaces they occupy, BIG’s designs work in tandem with them.
While Copenhagen’s livability index surges forward, a major challenge the city faces is social segregation. As one of the world’s most expensive cities, it’s become common for lower-income families to congregate in one area or neighborhood, such is the case in Nørrebro. Social segregation is believed to lead to misunderstanding and even fear of foreign cultures, but this can be alleviated by taking an inclusive approach to design. As a result, the city has committed to “urban transformation” efforts, which include investing in public spaces, like Superkilen, where citizens of all socio-economic classes are welcome.
"Not only does BIG’s work challenge what we know about design and urban planning, but it also challenges our social norms and standard definitions of what we think a city can be."
Nørrebro’s cultural diversity is reflected in the elements found throughout Superkilen park: a boxing ring from Thailand, a jungle gym from India, a swing-set from Iraq. In partnership with the artist group Superflex and Berlin-based landscape architects Topotek 1, BIG created a space for people of all backgrounds. The park’s inclusive design highlights what makes Nørrebro unique, including influences from more than 50 countries.
photo by Anastasia Perevozkina
photo by Ale de Sun
Design shaping cities
The space underneath a bridge and a formerly abandoned park may not be the most obvious places for beauty, but BIG’s loving embrace of these spaces is encouraging us to think twice about what we need from our cities. Superkilen was developed as part of an urban renewal project; Vancouver House will function as a Gesamtkunstwerk (or “total work of art”)—a space for creativity and public gatherings—to revitalize a previously underappreciated part of the city’s downtown core.
"People are the driving force behind our urban environments."
Not only does BIG’s work challenge what we know about design and urban planning, but it also challenges our social norms and standard definitions of what we think a city can be: The Infinite Happiness describes Ingels’s work as “social architecture” and suggests that a neighborhood’s design can lead to happier communities. In Superkilen, for example, something as simple as a star-shaped Moroccan fountain has evolved to become a place that encourages conversation; the points of the star create a space where people can engage (it doesn’t force them to look outwards as a typical park bench would). According to BIG, Superkilen was intended to make Nørrebro the “center of innovative urban spaces of international standard which can be an inspiration for other cities and neighborhoods,” but it’s also a beautiful, inclusive, and social public space that everyone can enjoy.
The next time you visit a new city (or even walk the streets of your hometown), look beyond the sidewalks. Explore the architecture—think about how it encourages you to act. Investigate how its design reflects the culture of a place. People are the driving force behind our urban environments. It’s only when cities are designed to be an opportunity for and a reflection of its citizens that we can truly thrive as individuals and as communities.
No two destinations are the same, but look closely and you’ll notice similarities in how each is designed. In What Makes a Creative City?, we look to Copenhagen for inspiration and discover how its unique perspective on urban planning has helped it to become one of the world’s most innovative cities.
photo by Kevin Allen
Written by Taryn Hardes