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Architect Bjarke Ingels on Artists Speaking on Behalf of the Future + His Design for a Resilient Manhattan

Humanhattan 2050: A Vision for a Resilient Manhattan, Presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale

By Zoë Zellers

Coverage of the Venice Architecture Biennale Presented in Partnership with Architectural Record

“As an artist you actually have to be able to speak on behalf of the future, because there are so many reasons to not do a project,” says the Danish-born architect Bjarke Ingels. He notes that from the very onset of developing architectural and urban planning projects, “there are so many no’s” from planning to legal to economic issues, “that a project can die in its infancy.”

“Therefore, as artists we have to be very precise and brave in terms of being champions of the future that hasn’t been born yet,” says the founder and creative partner of the Bjarke Ingels Group aka BIG. Ingels, who was previously named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, is behind a lengthy list of high-profile, sustainability-driven projects, and also serves as the chief architect of WeWork.

Steered by Ingels, BIG’s headline-grabbing projects include Google’s redesigned Mountain View headquarters, 2 World Trade Center, the last of the set of towers at Ground Zero, VIA 57 West, a 35-floor residential skyscraper overlooking the Hudson River, and Denmark’s LEGO House, which is constructed from colorful glazed terracotta designed to evoke oversized LEGO blocks.

BIG’s headquarters are now situated in a lofty 50,000-sq.-ft. studio in Brooklyn’s creative-minded DUMBO neighborhood. Yet Ingels explains, when he first opened an office in New York, the devastating destruction of Hurricane Sandy soon followed, wiping out most of lower Manhattan’s power, and causing major structural damage. Paying witness to this coastal catastrophe inspired The Big U, a proposal for a sea wall designed to protect lower Manhattan from rising sea levels and future flooding, while adding social space along the waterfront for New Yorkers and tourists to enjoy. Called “Humanhattan 2050,” Ingels presented his group’s “vision for a resilient Manhattan” at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Zoë Zellers interviews architect Bjarke Ingels at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo by Alex Fradkin.

Zoë Zellers interviews architect Bjarke Ingels at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo by Alex Fradkin.

Working with the City of New York, BIG was awarded $335 million to further develop the idea for the flood protection sea wall, made up of 10 miles stretching from West 57th Street down to The Battery and up to East 42nd Street. The plan is broken into flood zones that would surround the most vulnerable areas of Manhattan, forming the shape of a U. Low-lying neighborhoods would be separated from water with raised land, along with resilient vegetation, while additional walls beneath the FDR Drive would be used as a flood barrier and to create open space and connect neighborhoods.

Bjarke Ingels looks at the expanding Manhattan to "create more city and more value."

Bjarke Ingels’ The Big U looks at the expanding Manhattan to “create more city and more value.”

At the Venice Biennale, architects, urban planners, designers and journalists gathered in the picturesque “City of Canals,” to take in the international architecture celebration, which tasks architects with creating exhibits for national pavilions in the Giardini area and scattered off-site in palazzos throughout the ancient city. A scale model of parts of Manhattan and digital displays of The Big U proposal were prominently featured in an entire room of the European Central Pavilion, encouraging visitors to literally walk through the idea.

All the parts of Manhattan that are not included in the architecture model are not in threat of rising sea levels and climate change.

All the parts of Manhattan that are not included in the architecture model are not in threat of rising sea levels.

“What you see on this model is actually the entire flood plain. All the parts of Manhattan that are not here, are not in threat,” explains Ingels. “But, all the parts that are in the model, are actually threatened by upcoming climate change and rising water levels. To protect Manhattan, we are taking the challenge as an opportunity to also make Manhattan more welcoming to human life,” he says. The design would create new coastal public space that could be used for recreation and to spur new economic opportunities through seasonal markets, retail, entertainment and real estate.

A scale model of The Big U proposal took over an entire room of the European Central Pavilion at Venice Biennale.

A scale model of The Big U proposal took over an entire room of the European Central Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, encouraging visitors to literally walk through the idea.

Ingels extends his arm, pointing out, “up until after Williamsburg Bridge, is the phase one, roughly four kilometers that is scheduled to break ground in the coming year. From roughly in between the two bridges and all the way down, is a study we called MoMa or like more Manhattan, where we’re basically looking at expanding Manhattan to create more city and more value, and create new parts on the waterfront. And,” Ingels pauses for emphasis, “the value created should be enough to fund the flood protection.”

“It’s a mixture of very short-term, immediate action and a more long-term planning effort,” the architect notes, “but essentially also trying to use the challenge we have with keeping Manhattan dry to also make Manhattan more enjoyable for human life.”

Bjarke Ingels' plan is broken into flood zones that would surround the most vulnerable areas of Manhattan, forming the shape of a U.

The plan is broken into flood zones that would surround the most vulnerable areas of Manhattan, forming the shape of a U.

Ingels is animated, and his high-energy and enthusiasm for innovative, solution-based critical thinking and penchant for “enjoying architecture,” are contagious. When asked about how young architects can use environmental challenges as inspiring prompts to think outside convention, Ingels says he’s been reflecting a lot lately.

He describes a recent exchange with his friend Andri Magnason, the celebrated Icelandic author of “The Casket of Time.”

“In Iceland, of course his great-grandmother went on hikes up on the glaciers. They were like mountains, but mountains that are now disappearing. And in his lifetime, most likely some of those glaciers that were really some of the most fixed things on the horizon will be gone.”

When Bjarke Ingels first opened an office in New York, the devastating destruction of Hurricane Sandy soon followed, wiping out much of Manhattan’s power.

When Bjarke Ingels first opened an office in New York, the devastating destruction of Hurricane Sandy soon followed, wiping out most of lower Manhattan’s power.

Ingels recalls how Magnason was speaking to a group of young writers in their early 20s. “He asked them, ‘When do you think that there will no longer be anyone alive on Earth that you have loved directly? Someone you loved, when will they no longer be around?’”

Ingels furthers, “When you don’t think about it you think maybe in 50, 60 years, whatever. But actually, these kids, they’re in their 20s, they’ll probably live another 80 years. Before they die, they will have a grandchild, some lovely little kid that they love more than anyone, and that kid is going to live maybe another 100 years, so we are talking 180 years into the future. That’s like the year 2200.”

“It’s so far into the future that it’s like science fiction in the complete abstract. But that’s when there will no longer be someone that you have loved directly,” Ingels reflects, placing his hands to his heart. “That means that the future, the far-far future, is much closer to us than we really think.”

The starchitect brings it back to his initial musings on the responsibility of the artist, architect and visionary, and “Humanhattan 2050,” his own highly ambitious vision for a resilient Manhattan, explaining, “Therefore, even if it takes 50 years to do it, it’s going to be worth it because it’s going to impact people you love.”

At the Venice Architecture Biennale, architects, urban planners, designers and journalists gathered to take in the international architecture celebration.

At the Venice Biennale, architects, urban planners, designers and journalists gathered to take in the international architecture celebration.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development dedicated $511 million in funding toward The BIG U, while New York City committed another $305 million in capital funding to start the first project phases, according to Rebuild by Design. Collaborative developers involved include BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) with One Architecture, Starr Whitehouse, James Lima Planning + Development, Green Shield Ecology, AEA Consulting, Level Agency for Infrastructure, ARCADIS, and Buro Happold.

To explore Architectural Record‘s coverage of the Venice Architecture Biennale, presented in partnership with Hunter Douglas Architectural, click here.

Coverage of the Venice Biennale presented in partnership with Architectural Record and Hunter Douglas Architectural.

Coverage of the Venice Architecture Biennale presented in partnership with Architectural Record and Hunter Douglas Architectural.

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