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Up, Up and Away

Up, Up and Away

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Bjarke Ingels, architecture’s latest wunderkind, looks like he’s 25. You’ve seen him, no doubt, either in magazines or on the lecture circuit: a strapping Dane with casually mussed hair, a strong jaw, and a bold-graphic on his T-shirt. If there is any living architect who might be expected to rush into a telephone booth and emerge wearing a bodysuit and cape, it is him.

Ingels, who is actually a still-youthful 36, does in fact imagine himself as something of an architectural superman. His recent monograph, Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution ($29.99; Taschen, 2010), is presented in the form of an inch-thick graphic novel, and there is no question as to the identity of its avenging hero—never mind that the comic book is the work of his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).

Architecture is “never conceived by a single mind, and never shaped by a single hand,” Ingels writes in its first pages. That’s a generous concession, yet it follows an opening sequence of double-page spreads that is quite frank in its estimation of Ingels’s place in architectural history. These splash pages proceed from Mies van der Rohe (“Less is more”) to Robert Venturi (“Less is a bore”) to Philip Johnson (“I’m a whore”) to Rem Koolhaas (“More is more”) to Barack Obama (“Yes we can”) before culminating with Ingels himself (“Yes is more”), his feet propped up on his desk, a smile on his face as if he’d just gotten the call from Pritzker HQ.

Ingels reappears throughout the comic as the chipper narrator of his firm’s work, his speech rendered in comic-book bubbles as he walks the reader through each project. His exuberance suggests he’s onto something new. It’s a spirit very much indebted to Koolhaas, which makes sense, as Ingels is one of the seemingly countless progeny of OMA.

In fact, the very format and tone of the book seems to have been the product of a visit by Bruce Mau, the graphic design guru and co-author, with Koolhaas, of 1995’s S,M,L,XL, that most transformative of all recent monographs. Like any good comic, Yes Is More begins with its own origin story: Mau was impressed with Ingels’s work and presentation skills, according to the text, but not the banal portfolio he received after his visit. Why not choose a mode of presentation that would better capture the spirit of the studio? And so the idea for the graphic novelization was born, to “transmit the energy of a face-to-face encounter with the architect.”

That it does. “What if trying to make everybody happy did not have to lead to compromise or the lowest common denominator?” Ingels writes in a two-page introduction, which reads as something of a manifesto. For BIG, every problem is an opportunity, every constraint a solution in disguise. Ingels’s particular gift is what management consultants call “getting to yes.”

Case in point: When the developers of a housing complex in the Copenhagen suburbs deny a request to commission a mural for its entry, Ingels responds with the suggestion that the mural should be a portrait of the developers themselves. Arne Jacobsen had placed such a tribute in Copenhagen’s Royal Hotel, an example Ingels proffered as a Danish “tradition.” Not suprisingly, the mural was approved. Says Ingels, narrating the sequence in speech bubbles: “We literally turned ass-kissing into an art form!”

Ingels deals in that most alluring of enticements: empowerment. “As architects our role is often reduced to the beautification of predetermined programs. A client calls us up on the phone, after having determined all issues of a project, and asks us to ‘make it nice,’ ” Ingels writes. “While we sit at home waiting for the phone to ring or someone to announce a competition, the future is being decided by those with power: the politicians or those with money: the developers.”

Ingels, to his credit, is not one to sit around and wait for the phone to ring. Yes Is More finds him, time and again, generating audacious ideas and finding a place for them. In one episode from 2005, for example, Ingels approaches a newly elected Copenhagen mayor—who had promised an influx of affordable housing—with a plan to ring the perimeter of an old airfield with an enormous, undulating megastructure. In one fell swoop, it would satisfy nearly half the mayor’s housing goal while dramatically upgrading the sports fields occupying the site.

Yes Is More depicts the mayor, the kids who use those sports fields, plans, photographs, news clippings, and a plaintive Ingels himself. The ambition of the plan proved its undoing, the opposition galvanized by the sheer size of the project. As his firm’s name implies, Ingels likes to build big. Very big. Yes Is More brims with massive mixed-use projects, the most pronounced being a planned artificial island in the waters off the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

Ingels is also an unapologetic architectural recidivist, happy to repurpose a shelved project for an entirely different program or client. And so Ingels has “resurrected” the essential concept for that Copenhagan airfield for an amusement park in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as yet unbuilt, where it will be a “hedonistic mirage in the Emirate sand dunes.”

There’s a method to Ingels’s shameless opportunism. Yes Is More details his quest as he embarks on a tour of Denmark shopping around an aquatics center cancelled by the city of Aalborg. Alas, it seems there are still no takers for the project.

Yes Is More does not lack for compelling projects that have failed to materialize. Among the most dramatic is BIG’s competition entry for a performing arts center for Stavenger, Norway. BIG’s proposal is a series of boxy concert halls set on a contoured site of illuminated steps. The entry won the public vote, but a jury chose a more conservative scheme. BIG, predictably, has repurposed the idea for a proposed office tower for Copenhagen.

Formally, Ingels seems to have a few go-to moves, the most common being to either take a simple volume and torque it around or shove it over. Many of the projects are composed of modular blocks. (Fittingly, the Danish Lego corporation is both a client and sponsor of the book.) Taken together, these strategies give BIG’s projects a visual consistency that can at times seem formulaic. Just how well the formal conceits translate into actual architecture is a bit hard to determine. Two of his most significant projects are located in the new town of Ørestad—an emerging Copenhagen suburban project that remains very much a work in process.

Yes Is More doesn’t provide any easy answers, either. As a vehicle for delivering Ingels’s can-do dynamism, it works. But as a tool for studying his architecture in a concrete way, it’s not always an ideal format. The pictures tend to be too small to fit within the comic frames, and many of them are of low quality. Even when these images escape their confines to bleed out to full-page size, the layouts are busy, with dialogue boxes and arrows and other graphic distractions. There are few finished drawings or details for close examination. Some projects are given short shrift. Most frustrating: it’s hard to tell which of the 35 illustrated projects are actually built. (Careful inspection reveals that the number is under 10.)

It’s telling that, historically, the comic format has been used in architecture for avant-garde, speculative work, most famously by the British collective Archigram. Ingels wants to have things both ways: to carry the mantle of those earlier heroes and to build in the real world, to conflate idealism and pragmatism. “Telling your clients that they can get anything they want,” as he says in Yes Is More, turns out to be “a successful strategy.” Go ahead and use it yourself.