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BIG: Innovation and the search for hope

November 1, 2022

Intending to change the surface of our planet and to better fit contemporary life forms, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group believes that to deal with today’s challenges, architecture can profitably move into a largely unexplored field.

Copenhill: Hedonistic Sustainability

Copenhill (Amager Bakke in Danish), a waste-to-energy plant with a ski slope, hiking trail, and climbing wall on top is an example of what the studio, led by founder and international starchitect, Bjarke Ingels, has termed ‘hedonistic sustainability’.

Just as the Noma restaurant (which BIG designed as well in its new location) wants to make all of us taste new ingredients and eat more sustainably by making the sustainable meal superior in taste, looks and allure, BIG has made Copenhill a symbol of Copenhagen’s efforts to become a carbon-neutral city.

It celebrates the idea of the good life in the city and integrates a very practical function (disposing of waste and creating energy) with a recreational dimension that makes sustainability attractive and integrates functions in the city that would normally be kept separate.

Copenhill has made the National Geographics list of 2021 destinations on the rise and CNN's Eart Day round-up of sustainable projects. It has received the ‘Archtectizers A+ Award’ as well as the German Design Council’s Icon Award. In 2020 a documentary film on the project, ‘Making a Mountain’, premiered in North America.

"I think the appeal of the project is, that you can understand it in 2 seconds: it’s a ski slope on top of the World’s cleanest waste incineration plant, which is sort of mind-blowing because you normally do not mix industry and recreation in the city. It makes for a very concrete icon of sustainability, which is normally very invisible. ‘what is a ton of CO2, really?.'"



David Zahle

Architect and Partner at BIG

How do you approach innovation?

“Innovation requires the courage to try new things, but also to fail. When you work in a rather conservative sector, construction, innovation can be an uphill battle. We are working with a number of tech companies now. And I think the world of architecture and construction can learn a lot from tech. There, it is a lot less about repeating solutions you have already developed. Instead, it is all about new solutions. When we draw a project, we need to make it work across a lot of different professions and levels of education. That sometimes makes innovation difficult and slow. And most buildings look like something that has been built a 100 times before. When I graduated from the school of architecture, people at dinner parties would say ‘why are all modern buildings just boring square boxes’? That is the attitude, architects were met with. That has changed over the years, luckily. People are starting to realise that architecture is not just about good taste and choosing the nicest toilet or the nicest colour. It can also be about working to change the way our society works. But, as an architect, you always negotiate with limitations. We are respectful of that – and then we try to push the boundaries.”

Have you had examples of cases where you’ve learned and actively used something from other creative businesses that are not in your field?

Our prime example is probably ’Superkilen’ a public park area in the Nørrebro neighbourhood of Copenhagen. In that project we worked with the artist group Superflex. Working with artists makes you search for something radical and uncompromising. As an architect you have a huge knowledge about what you can and cannot do. You think about the buildability and that is has last for at least 100 years. But by cooperating with someone with a different perspective, you start from somewhere else. And that is really enriching to the creative process.

Sometimes, we are able to inspire the other way around. For example, Bjarke has consulted on the new season of West World and on Lars von Trier’s ‘The House that Jack Built…pretty morbid stuff. But there is something incredibly liberating about suddenly working in a different professional field. Because the limits to how you can use your creativity are expanded. The best cooperations are defined by mutual respect. And by relatively intense cooperation between a limited number of professions. Each time you do that, you ask questions to other professions that as a professional insider seem to be natural limitations, but maybe they do not have to be. I mean, when you are asked to create something on the face of the moon, as we were recently, then you cannot even take gravity for granted. And a box of nails will cost you ten thousand times more, then you start questioning everything. And that leads to new answers. And the answers you come up with, can often travel back to the sphere where you normally are. Because somehow, you let the genie out of the bottle. And you cannot unthink what you just came up with”.

Read more about the Superkilen project here.

How is your industry affected or enabled by digitalisation?

"Digitalisation has changed the way architects work completely. But we still wait to see the full potential, because it has not reached the construction sites yet. As soon as we see robots and VR and 3D printers the size of a family home at the construction sites, – that is when digitalisation will change the game. All of a sudden, you will be able to produce things that look completely different from what they did 50 or even 20 years ago. We will start to explore a different type of design. Modernism has become known as a style. But the whole rational, protestant, square aesthetic was really an effect of industrializing the way we build and standardizing everything. Once 3D printing is there at scale, we can just print concrete elements in whatever shape we want, because the cost will be the same. I think that we will have a much more playful approach to building design as a result of increased digitalisation".

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About BIG

Bjarke Ingels Group is a Copenhagen, New York, London, and Barcelona based group of architects, designers, urbanists, landscape professionals, interior and product designers, researchers, and inventors. The office is currently involved in projects throughout Europe, America, Asia, and the Middle East. BIG’s architecture seeks to change the surface of our planet, to better fit contemporary life forms.

Selected Awards

  • German Sustainability Award (2019), Bjarke Ingels
  • ICONIC Innovative Architecture Best of the Best Award (2020) 
  • German Design Council Innovative Architecture Best of the Best Award (2020) for Copenhill
  • The Prix Versailles Award administered by the UN given to Galeries Lafayette for the Shopping Mall category in Europe (2020)

More awards