Beyond Buildings


BIG Mountain: A Meme Rises

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By now it is probably too late (and not just because of some technical difficulties that delayed posting here for a week, for which, my apologies). Somewhere in a sketchbook or on a screen somebody is sketching a warped, pyramidical mountain that may be built in the coming years. Then critics such as myself, and perhaps the architect who may have started this, will howl and point to the announcement last week of the new housing project on Manhattan’s Westside Highway, designed by the Danish firm BIG, as the one that started it all. We may or may not be right, but certainly, this mountain has become a meme.


Bjarke Ingels Group


A meme is Richard Dawkins’ 1976 name for a cultural gene: an idea or shape that spreads through human contact and survives, changing form and perhaps even meaning, over the generations. Dawkins thinks of God as a meme, an it is almost blasphemous to think that architecture has memes, but certainly there are forms that are not strictly typological, nor tied to a way of building or a style, that survive over the generations. The temple front is an obvious one, as is the skyscraper. More recently, we have seen more modest memes, such as the S-curve in the façade (as opposed to plan) that probably sprang up in the OMA office sometime in the early 1990s and first came into evidence in the University of Utrecht Educatorium of 1993, designed by that office, and in MVRDV’s VPRO Villa a few years later.

Bjarke Ingels, who gave his name to BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), has been designing mountains for a while. A Daily Dose of Architecture has noted most of the geological uplift in his firm’s portfolio, which dates back to the period when Ingels was still in partnership with the underestimated Julien de Smedt in a firm called PLOT. In his new book, Yes is More, dedicated to what he calls “pragmatic utopianism,” Ingels justifies such forms by their ecological and economic effiency: “The Aztecs and Pharaohs designed pyramids in worship of the sun. 3000 years later, attention to the power of the sun led us to reinvent the design in the name of ecolomy.” The latter is Ingels’ name of the confluence of environmental and economic imperatives.

Whatever the logic, and it may be impeccable (I have not studied either the financial pro formas or the energy use analysis of this proposal), the form is certainly powerful. Rising at Manhattan’s edge, the building evokes both natural uplift and the jumble of high rises all around the proposed building. The twisted form heightens the sense of geological unfolindg, while giving the apartment block the sense that it is opening itself up the urban context. This is one sexy mountain. It has received a great deal of press, and even the local community board seems to like it, which is rather unusual in New York. I know, however, that I have seen it before, though I cannot quite place where. That is the thing about memes: They have a haunting presence that reminds you of the familiar forms out of which they are shaped, and to which they add, in this case literally, a twist.

MVRDV, Guanggyo City


The mountain has been in BIG’s and PLOT’s work, and I know that it has also been a favorite for a long time of Vicente Guallart and other Barcelona architects. It obviously also has roots in science fiction—think of the Tyrel Corporation headquarters in Blade Runner. MVRDV has proposed some mountains, and it seems to me that OMA has as well, though a quick search of their websites and Google images didn’t confirm my memory.


Vicente Guallart, Tarragona

The point of a meme is that it does not come out of nowhere, and that it succeeds coming into persistent presence through numerous iterations. It also must have an internal logic. Ingels’ design has all of that. I do not think he invented the mountain, but his particular twisting of the shape, combined with the logic of function of site and, lest we forget, Ingels’ incomparable showmanship—both in imagery and in how he presents himself to the public—establishes this apartment block for me as first peak in what no doubt will be a mountain range of memetic and mimetic urban masses.


MVRDV, Liuzhou



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: R.O.B | Time: 10:00 AM Friday, March 04, 2011

    An adapted version of the Lever house situated perpendicular to the quay would do exactly the same job without creating a large amount of awkward angular spaces, without the need of solving a lot of tricky silicon roof details, and without turning its back towards the city. It would cost probably a 30% less as well. BIG with its flashy IKEA version of OMA’s work, diagrams included, is selling us again the new emperor’s clothes and hoping we’ll pay more for less. I’m afraid that this type of concepts gets outdated in no time while the Lever house still impresses after 60 years. It is time architecture would become a craft again, freed from excessive ego-exposure.

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  • Posted by: kbaltmane | Time: 11:07 AM Sunday, February 20, 2011

    Gunnar Birkerts- The National Library of Latvia

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.