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A perfect example of “programmatic alchemy”

Bjarke Ingels – the Danish star architect founder of BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) – is known as the man who created a hill in flat Denmark. He did it with his project for the CopenHill, an incinerator plan that includes a ski slope, a hiking trail, and a climbing wall. A perfect example of “programmatic alchemy” - a definition proposed by Ingels at the beginning of his career – namely his peculiar ability to blend alchemically diverse programs with a holistic method.

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I keep good memories of my first meeting with Bjarke - fourteen years ago in Copenhagen. It was 2008, and, at that time, I was doing my Ph.D. and interviewing my favorite architects around Europe. I have followed the work of Ingels since the times of Plot, the office he created in 2001 together with Julien De Smedt. I loved the clarity in their designs and the simplicity of their concepts. Moreover, I appreciated the effectiveness of their diagrammatic approach, analogous to that of UNStudio, MVRDV, OMA, and others of my reference points of that period. In 2006 the partners decided to go their separate ways, and Ingels founded BIG. The studio's ambitious name foreshadowed the success it would achieve in the following years.

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I was very impressed when I visited BIG’s office in 2008 for my interview, only two years after its foundation. I discovered a well-established firm with dozens of employees and several ongoing projects. Bjarke kindly agreed to spend a couple of hours talking with me. The recent lecture “Bjarke Ingels. Plan for the Planet” – held in Naples and organized by Fondazione Annali dell’Architettura e delle Città – was an opportunity to revise my interview and uncover topics that are still of great relevance today. For example, “hedonistic sustainability”: a sustainable city is better for the environment and much more enjoyable for the people living in it.

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The lecture started with the definition of design, a word that in Danish means “to give form to something that has not been yet given form.” According to Ingels, architects and designers have vast power but also a great responsibility: because they have a chance to shape the future world. Ingels aspires to create ambitious projects able to change the baseline for the people of the future, so they will be able to reach higher targets.

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In the speech, he raised an important question. Could we apply the methodology, skills, and tools we have as architects and make a concrete plan for the entire planet? The answer is contained in the “Masterplanet”, a sort of guidebook proposed by BIG with an ambitious goal: making the sustainable future more desirable and enjoyable. According to Ingels, this “plan for the planet” will orient all the firm's future projects.

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In summary, what makes a building sustainable also makes it more attractive. This topic of “hedonistic sustainability” was already mentioned over a decade ago in our conversation. At that time, Bjarke called it by a different name: “ecolomy”.

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“The concept of ecolomy started from the old belief that sustainable architecture is too expensive or difficult to realize. I think what we need to do is to propose sustainable initiatives that are financially feasible. Something ecological but too expensive will never happen. And something profitable but depriving natural resources won’t happen in the long run. Therefore, we have to find strategies that are both economically and ecologically attractive. I think ecolomy is what could save the planet, neither economy nor ecology alone. Also, the funny thing is that the two words almost mean the same. Economy and ecology in Greek mean respectively management and study of the household. Their common root eco means house in Greek. So, ecolomy should be the preferred subject for architects.”

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In the last decades, the increased access to energy powered an incredible leap in the progress of the quality of life, and dramatically increased life expectancy. The downside of this massive energy consumption is carbon dioxide (CO2) emission into the atmosphere. Masterplanet does not aim for new technologies to save the planet, but proposes using existing ones. For example, by combining high-efficiency agricultural technology and well-proven methods such as silvopasture and polyculture, we can reduce the average land needed to feed an earthling by two-thirds. Silvopasture offers several benefits: it captures greenhouse gas, increases biodiversity, and makes cows happy. Constructions materials can be as well too impacting on the environment. Concrete, for example, generates CO2 during its production process. Mass timber would be a better choice because it is renewable. Each climate and context will have materials that fit the concept of sustainability.

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According to Ingels, the plan can be realized incrementally, starting from the small scale: electrifying our homes to use renewable energy, optimizing thermal insulation, adopting sustainable materials, and harvesting the sun and wind energy. At the urban scale, embracing carbon-neutral autonomous mobility and creating a greener city to invite people to walk or bicycle. Furthermore, turning waste into resources. For example, organic wastes can be turned into biomethane. Finally, creating a global grid of energy guarantees efficiency and stability.

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The lecture in Naples also introduced some of the latest projects of Bjarke Ingels Group worldwide. Toyota Wowen City, for example, is an ambitious project under construction near Mount Fuji in Japan. Toyota recently switched from a car maker into an urban mobility company. The new city is conceived as a “Living Laboratory,” enabling seamless real-world testing of new technologies.

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We can consider it an incubator for experimenting with solutions to implement in our old cities. The Historic Center of Naples, for example, is recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. According to Ingels, modern architecture has partially failed in Napoli. Nevertheless, there is an excellent opportunity to integrate a modern city into the beautiful historical city.

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Fourteen years ago, I asked Bjarke how he imagined the city of the future.

“The most of the city of the future is already here. A hundred years from now, you’ll probably be able to recognize most of our actual cities. So, what we’ll be doing? We will be reinterpreting and reformulating the stuff we already have, rather than making so much more new stuff.”

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BIG’s plan for the planet might appear too optimistic, and it has been criticized for this reason. Nevertheless, it introduces a ground-breaking message. Our future cities perhaps won’t be so different from today. We don’t need to wait for futuristic inventions to save our planet. We already have all the tools and only need to use them properly. “Hedonistic sustainability” will be the solution.


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