Pyramid Scheme: Bjarke Ingels reinvents the New York apartment building

NY Magazine


Justin Davidson

Architects mature slowly; prodigies are rare. Yet at an age when most of his peers are still sitting in cubicles, laboring over light fixtures and door handles, Bjarke Ingels, a photogenic 36-year-old Dane with offices on two continents and projects on three, is about to revamp one of New York’s basic units: the apartment building. In every growth spurt, rental towers pop up all over the city like architectural acne, a pox of large, unsightly blocks whose creators claim it’s the best they can do, given financial realities and a restrictive zoning code. Ingels has flicked away those excuses. For the desolate juncture of 57th Street and the West Side Highway, he has designed an utterly unexpected form, neither tower nor slab nor even quite a pyramid, but a gracefully asymmetrical peak with a landscaped bower in its hollowed core. It looks wild, but it’s born of logic; true originality is the inevitable endpoint of rigorous thought.

On yet another biting cold day, Ingels cheerfully locks his foldable bicycle to a street sign in Chelsea and slides into a diner banquette to discuss his New York debut. Having naughtily dropped a few public hints about the project before his client, Durst Fetner Residential, was quite ready for the attention, he is now simultaneously excited and cagey. The new building, he explains, will fuse two apparently incompatible types: a European-style, low-rise apartment block encircling a courtyard, and a Manhattan tower-on-a-podium, yielding something that looks like neither and behaves like both. New York is ready to embrace such a griffin, he insists: “This is the country that invented surf and turf! To put a lobster on a steak—any French chef would tell you that’s a crime.”

Ingels, who has been a visiting professor at Rice University, Harvard, and Columbia, is an unabashed Americanophile. “Europeans like to declare the U.S. dead, but it’s a convenient fiction,” he says. “So many European architects have been influenced by America, and I’m interested to discover that part of Danish culture.” So he has become a part-time New Yorker; he’s rented an apartment in Tribeca, opened an office in Chelsea, and bought a vintage Porsche for jaunts out of town.

Copenhagen gave his career a running start. Ingels had just come off three years at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rem Koolhaas’s Dutch genius factory, and he and a former associate got the job of building the Copenhagen Harbour Bath, a peaked wooden iceberg from which kids can dive into newly limpid city waters. By 2005, his first residential project had sprouted in the planned quarter of Ørestad, an open field fifteen minutes by subway from downtown that now houses a concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel. Ingels was attracting plenty of interest, but he was still feeling cut off. “The natural transit of the international intelligentsia through Copenhagen is quite limited,” he says drily.

Well before opening a New York outpost, the Bjarke Ingels Group, founded in 2005 and known by its swaggering acronym, BIG, had turned American-style surf and turf into an architectural philosophy. One of the Ørestad projects merged suburban development with dense city living by stacking little houses with yards into a precipitous mound over a parking garage. To emphasize the building’s loftiness, a steel façade displays a perforated image of Everest. For a native of a little platelike country, Ingels sure has alpine cravings: BIG has just won a competition to build a waste-to-energy plant that will loom over Copenhagen’s lagoon—and double as an artificial ski slope.

Now he is bringing the mountain to Manhattan. Durst’s West 57th Street site is a large, unpromising oblong plot pointing toward the liftoff point of the West Side Highway and flanked by an active but largely empty steam plant and a new garbage-truck garage. Ingels’s design capitalizes on the city’s steady march to the ever-more-verdant riverfront, where industry meets leisure. He and his architects had multiple tasks: turn the building toward the water, leave neighbors’ views as intact as possible, and negotiate a transition from the low-slung silhouette of Hell’s Kitchen to the long-necked towers of Riverside South. At the same time, Ingels wanted to make a “blatant” connection with Hudson River Park, and pull its greenery into the heart of the architecture in the form of a spacious court. To open up views, the building dips down at its southwestern corner. To mitigate traffic noise, it pulls back from the highway and the sanitation garage, rising along a steep, continuous slope to a sharp 450-foot summit. These methodical steps yield a sierralike outline familiar from as far back as Copenhagen’s Harbour Bath, and while that shape may one day devolve into a stylistic tic, for now it feels natural and fresh.