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Bjarke Ingels: An Architect For A Moment Or An Era?

Ingels stands in the middle of what will become a giant, twisted wedge of an apartment building in New York City.

This rendering shows Ingels' design for an apartment building under construction in Vancouver. Its base is triangular, and twists into a rectangle at the top.

Bjarke Ingels' office in New York City is filled with plastic models of projects he's working on.

The Danish Maritime Museum in Elsino, which is completely underground, was designed by Ingels.

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Aired 1/3/14

In a business that's often poorly paid and anonymous, 39-year-old Bjarke Ingels has become something rare, especially at his age: a "starchitect" in demand.

Now, the Danish architect, who has museums, apartment buildings and parks around the world, is taking his talents to New York City.

'Cracks In The Asphalt'

Models fill his firm's New York City office, including a design for a public pier in Brooklyn that looks like a sea creature.

"This is the Manta Ray, we've called it. But essentially it's the corner of Pier 6 and the Brooklyn Bridge park," he says. "So basically we just took the corner of the park, lifted it up and pulled it out to the edge of the pier so it creates a covered space."

Ingels has unique descriptions for most of his buildings. There's an apartment building going up in Vancouver next to a highway interchange. Its base is triangular, and it twists into a rectangle at the top.

"So it's essentially almost like a weed that starts growing through the cracks in the asphalt and sort of blossoms when it escapes the turmoil of the city around it," he says.

Ingels' work has a few trademarks: sloping lines, and designs that are shaped to their surroundings. But you won't necessarily know a building is his just by looking at it, the way you would, say, a Frank Gehry design.

"You know, some people use only the color white, or only 90 degrees," he explains. "What defines their style is the sum of all their inhibitions. And I think we try to put ourselves in a position where we can be free to choose any weapon of choice in each and every case to match the context, the culture [and] the climate in the best possible way."

Ingels is nothing if not confident.

Power Plants, Ski Slopes And Perfect Rings

If trademark design elements don't bind his projects, it may be an idea: that a building should be built to its environment, not dropped from outer space, and that being green can be fun and desirable, an idea he calls "hedonistic sustainability."

If there's one design that embodies all that is Bjarke Ingels, it is this one: Right now, his firm is building a power plant in Copenhagen that converts household trash into energy, uses the excess heat to warm nearby homes, and emits nontoxic fumes. It's also not far from the city center.

"So, we thought, like, what if we could turn this into, not a gray area on the city map but a green area? What could you do here that would make sense?" he says.

Ingles knew it would be a man-made mountain of sorts in a city with few hills. And that gave him an idea. Copenhagen has snow but no ski slopes, so he'd give them one.

"We proposed it as a brainstorm as a joke, but then, you know, it wasn't so silly, and we started like, why would this not be a good idea?" he says.

Soon, Danes will be able to take an elevator to the top of the power plant and ski to the bottom. Right now, Ingels is figuring out how to make the smokestack blow perfect smoke rings, because why not? But actually, each ring will represent a certain amount of carbon dioxide emissions.

Buildings That Don't Look Like Buildings?

If all this seems a little cartoonish, it might be because cartooning was his passion as a kid.

"In the absence of a cartoon academy, I enrolled in the Royal Danish Art Academy School of Architecture, with this plan of potentially becoming better at drawing backgrounds," Ingels says.

Somewhere along the way, the background became the foreground, and his drawings of buildings started winning architecture competitions. Renderings of his designs were passed around online.

"He's been very effective at using social media and using the media and using digital technology in smart ways," says Sarah Goldhagen, architecture critic at The New Republic. "He's devoted an enormous amount of energy to getting his stuff out there."

Marketing isn't a bad thing, she says, but it doesn't necessarily translate into good buildings. But people with deep pockets are taking note.

"Part of the reason that people are paying a lot of attention to him is that he's getting these very large-scale projects very young from developers," she says.

Douglas Durst presides over one of New York City's biggest real estate companies, even redeveloping part of the World Trade Center site. Durst met Ingels years ago at a conference in Copenhagen. After Durst gave a speech, Ingels had a question for him: Why do your buildings look like buildings?

"He was a very brash young man. I said, 'Because they are buildings,' " Durst says. "It was more than veiled criticism."

Despite that, he hired Ingels to design the Durst Pyramid.

Trans-Atlantic Romance

Ingels is standing on a pile of dirt, plywood and rebar that will someday become a giant, twisted wedge of an apartment building.

"If you can imagine, on one end it's going to be the height of a handrail, and all the way to the left, we're going to be looking up 470 feet to the peak of a giant, saddle-shaped pyramid building," he explains.

It will look sort of like someone knocked it on its side and carved out a giant courtyard in the middle that Ingels calls a bonsai Central Park.

"It has the same proportions, but it's 13,000 times smaller," says Ingels, who is wearing a hardhat with his firm's initials -- BIG for Bjarke Ingels Group, a bit of cheeky immodesty.

This will be Ingels' first major building in New York City, and it's the reason he moved from Denmark and set up an office here.

He links the two offices with Skype displayed on big-screen TVs. He's hoping it sows trans-Atlantic romance between two of his 200 employees.

"A girl in Denmark and a guy in New York see each other and end up speaking so much that they fall in love and get engaged. So, uh, we haven't reached that level of breaking down physical barriers yet, but we're working on it," he says.

Ingels can be charming, and modest at times, but it's his confidence that has helped catapult him to the big leagues. Another interviewer once asked him his greatest weakness, and he had trouble thinking of one. Today, he gets another chance, and again he is stumped.

"Um, let me find an intelligent way of answering that question," he says.

It's really hard for him. His confidence has led to other recent projects announced for Harlem and Miami. The question is whether this 39-year-old will be an architect for a moment or for an era.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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