Bjarke Ingels — BIG Founding Partner / Creative Director. The following interview was conducted in BIG office in Copenhagen to discuss about the design features of Huilanwan Sunrise Village and his unique idea.
In the architectural design, landscape and nature have a strong presence. That true of all your projects?
We are trying to dissolve a dilemma: you have this beautiful landscape, green fields, mountains, the water, and currently a relatively low density if we could actually significantly increase the density to create this new form of living in the landscape without sacrificing the landscape… you have a lot of examples where especially in Asia, southern Europe, where a development has eliminated the original attraction, the landscape. So you end up having it a cluster of big boxes that somehow eliminate what drew people there in the first place. And this is the idea of creating a manmade landscape that is a hybrid, which increases the human density but actually as a refinement or articulation of the landscape rather than an elimination of the landscape.
It’s almost like a skyline that’s more like a mountain range rather than an accumulation of boxy volumes. When you look at Manhattan, it has almost natural beauty, it’s very tempting to start treating idea of a skyline almost as a manmade mountain range.
Secondly, the idea of trying to respond to local climate. The subtropical climate makes anything grow rapidly, so any surface left un-manicured will eventually go green. Then of course the fact that it’s warm, the architecture is trying to passively shade the mostly the prevailing east and west orientations, the lower incoming sun you can screen off, also because so close to the equator the sun literally travels in a vertical arch directly overhead. So toward north and south you have very little incoming sun. The balconies can take care of that. The balconies and the fact that the glass is pushed back, it’s self-shaded. But you can’t self-shade the east and west, which is where we have the grass roofs coming down. So that gives you passive attributes that work… so you can actually enjoy the views without drawing the blinds, or being fried by the sun.
So it has a lot of performance, and then lastly:
In architecture you can’t really afford to do things just for fun—well, you could but that would just be wasting people’s investment, not only the developer but also the clients buying. Of course the green is part of the façade, it’s an aesthetic element that makes it well integrates, and the landscape makes it a beautiful thing to look at.
A lot of the project it’s going to be its own views. Some of the most beautiful views will actually be the views looking at your neighbors, across the ribbons of green, so in essence it makes sense from an aesthetic point of view. From a performance point of view, not just externally but internally we looked at the greening of the roof significantly lowers the temperatures because of the evaporative cooling that comes with having greenery. The use of the balcony in many cases is going to be 5 degrees C cooler on the balcony purely because of the surrounding landscape. If it had been made of mineral or solid surface would have been more like heat storage than cooling.
Since it works on a lot of different levels, the environmental, performance aspects, functional aspects, and aesthetics come together in a synergy.
It looks more complex than what it is. When you see it, it looks like totally freeform, but in fact it’s quite regimented.
I think we always try to achieve the maximum amount of freedom within the maximum amount of discipline. One is dependent on the other. If you are undisciplined, unsystematic, and irrational, you’ve spent all the money before you even started. Whereas if you can actually find ways of achieving the maximum amount of diversity with max amount of repetition… I love the definition of ‘complexity’ that you find in computer coding. It’s very well explained. They say, complexity is the capacity to transmit the maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of data. So the fewer keystrokes you need to achieve the same performance, the more complex it is.
If there’s a string of code this long to make computer do this, and if you can get the computer to do the same thing with less code, even though it’s simpler, it’s also more complex. Complexity, not complication. One is more complicated; one is more complex. So complexity is a form of simplicity. And that also means – this is very important -- the more design intent you can transmit with fewer moves, the better it is: the more experience, freedom, diversity, excitement, surprise, possibility you can deliver with fewer expenses or complications, the better.
There’s poetry in the performance. Could you please talk about social condenser/social path?
The way it’s done, the original masterplan was the idea of creating a valley where the three different mountain ranges come together to create a valley in the middle. The silhouettes—Chinese scroll watercolor of Taiwan.
Taking this graphic style and turning it into an architectural language. The deepest and biggest floor plates on the ground, where you have communal facilities, then because of this seamless undulation, in a very simple way you can provide access to a level above, or even a level above that, so that you can actually create… the topography doesn’t become a podium on the ground and everything else above, the ground becomes a changing undulating condition which means that you’ll have a pool that’s almost on a ridge or slightly higher plateau that you can access through paths, running tracks.
The project will have some of the surprises and diversity you find in nature. The urban condition where the ground floor is public and everything above is private is more challenged, more fluid… which also means the public realm in some cases can capture views over the relatively flat surrounding landscape.
Public spaces on inside… a lot of apt’s will have attic-like feeling with inclined walls, it’s a charming thing. Normally if you have a condo, everything is boxy, shoebox setup. Whereas if you have a chalet, you might actually have a sloping roof. Here you have more of that charm that is normally unavailable for condo lifestyle. It doesn’t usually exist. Maybe 25% to one third have this condition.
Also in some of the lobbies, you have amazing conditions where light creeps between the undulating ribbons and you have big spatial sculptures where you really understand the tectonics of the buildings.
It’s all orchestrated not at the expense of functionality. When you look at the plans it’s like 90 degrees only, things rather straightforward but the skinny ribbons in some of the deeper floor plates allow light to come in on multiple locations, even though you maybe have big living-kitchen-dining space, the ribbons allow light in…
I like this idea of what we call “engineering without engines.” Bernard Rudolfsky MoMA show in 1964 called “Architecture without Architects.” He was looking at vernacular architecture, as he coined the term “non-pedigreed architecture” the idea was there are amazing architectural styles in different places around the world that were neither academic nor esthetic; they evolved out of some tradition. The local population had figured out how to use the local materials and locally available techniques, to respond to the local climate in a way that generated radically different vocabulary. That’s why a Greek village with the white roofs to reflect heat, the flat roof so you can go up and enjoy the cool breeze at night, you have six-story dense cities in Yemen with funny chimneys that capture the prevailing winds and create natural ventilation in a six-story building.
You had architectural languages that were really exciting. Back then, he was mostly on an esthetic mission that the International Style of Modernism had made building look the same everywhere. He was interested in the idea that local specificity was an asset that had been lost.
One of the inventions that made Int’l Style possible—and was its greatest strength and weakness at the same time—was the advent of building services. They are essentially a mechanical compensation for the fact that the building is bad for what it’s designed for: human occupation.
There were all these technological freedoms, that you had electric lights, so you could make really deep floor plates independent of windows. You had mechanical ventilation, making you independent of opening the windows. You had a/c and central heating… in the end the box was just that. The architecture didn’t do anything; it was just a container of space, a boring box, with a basement full of gas-guzzling machinery that made it inhabitable. As a result you got boring architecture with a big energy bill.
What we’re interested in is not some return to ancient vernacular architecture, but let’s call it “Vernacular 2.0” that instead of ‘architecture without architects’ or ‘engineering without engines,’ to use our contemporary capacity to simulate and calculate and model the performance of a building—the thermal studies of grass roof vs. no grass roof. You can actually model the impact of two different solutions. This capacity to anticipate or calculate and model makes it possible to move the attributes of the building away from mechanical compensation and back into the attributes of the design. It’s the geometry, materials, orientation of the architecture that makes it perform. And perform very well.
Hualien is a really good example of ‘engineering without engines’ what makes Hualien look different is also what makes it perform differently. And better.
Green roofs haven’t been done on a scale like this before?
It’s pretty consistent… You might see an entire building that has a big green roof, maybe a conference center. In this case, the fact that it’s a dense vertical project, to find a way to integrate a green roof in such a consistent way, can’t find any other examples.
Could you please talk more about social aspects?
Eight House: the vertical street means… social interaction traditionally limited to street level, here it’s invited to invade the three-dimensional space of the urban block. People on the tenth floor of Eight House have gotten to know their neighbors, and as a result you actually see a local patriotism. They made monthly magazine for neighbors, called The Octopus, they also have a comic strip on the back called The Moebius Strip. And that’s because they’ve gotten to know each other. You pass people every day when you move around, even when it’s cold and nobody is there. Some of more successful social neighborhoods in CPH are tiny, tiny gardens, but everyone loves them because you get to know your neighbors. You’re not going to get into a fight with your neighbor if you know how nice they are. In a typical vertical development either you meet people in the elevator where it’s almost too intimate, or you hear them rumbling around above or in the stairwell. Here [Eight House], you see the nice lady with the baby stroller or the good-looking girl with absence of stroller… all kinds of opportunities to know each other. It won’t just be a stranger from the other street; you really get to see each other. It’s like stoop culture.
Even on high floors, there’s “street” access?
Hualien: facilitating interaction. The work of an architect is you provide the framework for life to unfold. The more possibilities, the more freedom you deliver, the more can spontaneously erupt. We always try to not have too many dictates about… that’s also in Hualien the greenery is going to provide a lot of color and diversity, but after that it’s a pretty sober, practically Scandinavian material palette, pale wood, glass, aluminum, concrete, a very calm material palette where people can provide all the color they want. In summer, Eight House is an explosion of life that you see in front lawns—imagine in Hualien climate.
What do you think the response will be in Taiwan market?
Taiwanese definitely have experience with density. It’s the idea of taking the Taiwanese density and bringing it into a completely new setting where it’s no longer just a vertical stack of units but it provides a lot of arenas where the potential of that density can unfold in social ways. I think you have a culture of amenities, maybe indoor-outdoor aspect is the novelty. It’s not a tower-podium, it’s more a hybrid condition where it’s a gradual transition from living higher up. Some of the units will have terraces that open up to common green area. You’ll have a much greater gradient than the typical development where you either have a or b, down in podium or up in tower. Similar to historic cities or natural landscapes, you have a much greater variety of transition from completely public to completely private, with a few stops in between. It’s something you usually find only in older, established cities. Here we’re making the new neighborhood in the city.
What about Scandiwan style?
Taiwan is already a hybrid condition between Japanese and Chinese culture. And a lot of food culture is influenced by Japan. Danish modern architecture from 50s-70s is very influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. So there’s a propensity toward simplicity, perfection, variation within an established system.
I also like the idea that we shy away from excess ornament but that doesn’t mean the absence of careful detailing; on the contrary. Kyoto: amazing care that goes into anything that makes it delightful.
The idea of Scandi-wanese, taking simple esthetic but also the series is designed for some of the aspects of the house, like shelves that adapt elastically to different angles, a series of attempts to do something that’s informed by propensity toward simplicity that’s also tailored to the nature of the architecture, and place and lifestyle.
What do you want potential buyers to take away from the project or really understand about it?
I think the fact that it creates synergy or harmony with existing landscape, it’s almost like the features of the existing landscape, the green, the views of the mountains, those elements recombine to create an inhabitable landscape—I think that’s a major quality of this project.
All the barely noticeable but very important elements, like the fact that the balconies and the indoor-outdoor living is going to be much more enjoyable because of the evaporative cooling that comes with the green roofs. Everyone knows that cities are like heat islands; this is actually going to be much more like the fresh air of the country, why people escape cities in summer. You’ll actually get that even when you’re home in your condo.
Then the thrill of inhabiting a building that performs intelligently, that doesn’t waste resources, for the money you put into the building you won’t have to pay as much a/c costs, or draw the blinds all the time, a lot of these things… like Scandiwanese tradition, the careful intelligence in all of the things you don’t see, the glare you don’t get, the relentless humming of the a/c that you won’t have—these may be the greatest strengths of living there. The things you do see—it will be like living in a landscape. A lot of the qualities of the project are intuitive.
Do you think BIG’s roots in Copenhagen, a city that takes “green” pretty seriously, and Denmark, known for social housing, makes you uniquely qualified to pull this off?
Now we’ve become the definition of a new kind of Scandinavian approach, but when we started out we were seen as incredibly un-Danish, un-Scandinavian. Now the general understanding of what Scandinavian is has changed. The idea of the social performance of a building and the environmental performance of a building are qualities you naturally nest into your design efforts, without almost reflecting too much on them.
Chairman agrees that these are qualities he’s looking for. He is a big picture person. maybe because of his background in cinema, he has great respect for a story well told, he’s used to running with clear idea and see where it can go. It’s like having a the red thread: The narrative in a structure is the red line tying everything together; different scenes come together to describe an arch—the PLOT.
Same in architecture, an idea that ties different pieces together. It’s more than just a stack of bedrooms and toilets; a lot of architecture is exactly that, just stacks of bed-rooms and toilets.
The art and science of designing a project for someone, I liken to the art of portraiture. The success of a portrait, the beauty is in the artist’s capacity to express him or herself, but more importantly in the artist’s ability to express not only the appearance of the sub-ject but also the character, the personality, the aura, soul if you like, or the potential of the subject, so in that sense Hualien is our best attempt at giving form to what we see as the potential for Hualien and the chairman’s ambitions, our best possible manifestation of the possibilities of Hualien as a place to live or visit. That’s why Hualien doesn’t look like any other project… each and ever situation is a portrait of someone or somewhere. In each and every case, becomes an exploration of the possibilities of a certain situation.