Creative CEO: Architect Bjarke Ingels on Getting Your Idea Across the Finish Line

Bjarke Ingels, architect and principal of BIG.
Photographer: Andrew Zuckerman | Courtesy of BIG

Architect Bjarke Ingels is the visionary founder and principal of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) a design consultancy with expertise in architecture, landscaping, engineering, and product design. Over the past two decades, BIG has developed the philosophy of “hedonistic sustainability,” which holds that buildings and environments that are ecologically and economically sustainable are not just socially desirable, but deeply satisfying to live in, as they improve the quality of life for everyone.

Among BIG’s most notable projects are the LEGO House in Billund, Denmark, and the Amager Resource Center in Copenhagen, a waste-to-energy power plant with a recreation area built on top of it that even includes a ski slope. BIG also just broke ground on the Dryline–a 10-mile long flood barrier around Manhattan Island that will double as a park, and they are partnering with London’s Heatherwick Studio to build Google’s new headquarters in Mountain View, California, which will feature the largest photovoltaic façade, the largest geothermal installation, and the largest black-water cleaning facility in North America.

LEGO House in Billund, Denmark.
Each gallery in the BIG-designed LEGO House is color-coded in one of LEGO’s primary colors to make wayfinding in the facility a cognitive journey. | Photographer: Peter Helge Petersen | Source: Shutterstock

Bjarke’s projects are optimistic and prolific; NASA enlisted BIG and the 3D-printed-building company ICON to design Project Olympus, a lunar habitat that will be robotically constructed from local materials.

An honorary professor at the Royal Danish Art Academy’s School of Design and Architecture, Bjarke has been a visiting professor at a number of universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, and is the author of three books: Yes Is More, Hot to Cold, and Formgiving. Named Innovator of the Year by The Wall Street Journal in 2011 and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2016, he is also a recipient of the Danish knighthood of Dannebrog and a French knighthood (Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres). He recently joined as an advisor to the Urban Tech Fund, which backs tech entrepreneurs.

Bjarke’s insights about work and life are thought-provoking and often funny. We spoke from his home in Copenhagen, where he lives with his life partner Rut Otero and their two-year-old son Darwin Otero Ingels.

Q. What was your first job and what lessons did you take from it?

I was 12 years old and I delivered newspapers. I had all kinds of jobs before I was 20. In Denmark, they’ve been recycling bottles for 50 years, so Bottle Boy was a typical 14-year-old’s job, receiving and sorting bottles in supermarkets. I also worked a hot dog stand and at the Central Station, which was a tough job, as you saw the dark side of society at night. I learned a lot working in an old age home, which had its cast of characters. It was painful sometimes because I would bond to an old lady and then on my next visit, she would be gone. Having so many jobs gives you perspective; you realize that the people you meet could be you. That makes you more conscious of how you treat them and interested in gleaning their perspectives.

From Bottle Boy to reshaping skylines around the world, Bjarke Ingels has made it BIG.

Q. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs starting out today?

In a way, it’s all about intention, especially the why. I wouldn’t say I’m an entrepreneur; I’m an architect with a capital A, but because I’m passionate about it, I think hard about the problems I encounter, all of the obstacles, challenges, and barriers. Doing so has allowed me to recognize certain opportunities that I couldn’t not pursue.

I never set out to be an entrepreneur. I simply ran out of options.

– Bjarke Ingels

I tell Americans, don’t dream about becoming billionaires and starting your own company—develop a passion. I wanted to draw to become a graphic novelist. I’ve always been the best in the room at drawing cartoons. When I graduated high school, I knew that was my destiny, but I didn’t know how to pursue it. The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts had lots of drawing classes, so I thought, let me spend two years doing that so I can become a better draftsman, and eventually I fell in love with architecture, in particular Rem Koolhaas. Then I worked at his firm for a few years, until I felt I had run my course there.

Navigating office politics was one thing I could do without, and since I had already worked for my favorite architect, there was nothing left for me to do except start my own firm. So, I never set out to be an entrepreneur. I simply ran out of options.

Q. What creative CEO would you love to have drinks with and why?

I could list several notable people, but when you meet someone who is passionate and deeply knowledgeable about anything, it opens up a whole world to you. I ran into a master watchmaker once. I’d never cared about watchmaking before, but after a 45-minute conversation, I got it. Now I can see into that world.

Q. Is scaling a business necessary for success? And what’s the hardest part of scaling?

I’m in a field that isn’t super scalable, as we are a technical creative consultancy. But one thing we are very careful about is to be explicit about our first principles, the how and the what and the why of what we do, so that every decision we make is tied to them. I don’t mean you should have rigid dogmas, but an underlying worldview or attitude or set of values should inform all your decisions.

Every architectural project is like starting and building a company. It takes 5–10 years to complete it, then you say goodbye and have nothing to do with it ever again. The way we work, the design process is a constant iteration and reiteration of the design narrative. What is this project all about, what is its biggest issue or problem, and what is its biggest potential? Think it through, react, then go through it again and maybe change the narrative, and every time you do so, everyone on the team—clients, decision makers, everyone—is empowered with new knowledge. The blueprint/source code becomes a part of their thinking so they’re not dependent on the creative genius to show up. Everyone has ownership of the design narrative; all you have to do is replay the conversation you had at the last meeting. That way of being open and generous, of involving everyone in the fundamental thinking, and not depending on the leader so much, gives everyone the same tools and allows them to grow.

Amager Resource Center, or Amager Bakke, in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The BIG-designed Amager Bakke in Copenhagen before it was fully completed. The project has won several awards, including a 2020 ICONIC Award for Innovative Architecture. | Photographer: Oliver Foerstner | Source: Shutterstock

Q. What traits do you look for in partners, collaborators, and team members?

It’s very easy to hire architects because you can see their work. It’s much harder to hire people with invisible outputs. When we are looking for an executive assistant, the most important attribute we look for is—there’s a Danish phrase that loosely translates to “a generous personality”—someone who is positive in every encounter, who takes things seriously but deals with them with a great human spirit. There are challenges and problems to solve in every part of life, so we would like the people we work with to engage with them in a pleasant and enjoyable way. A lot of our problems are difficult to solve and if the human encounter is positive, then everyone is more willing to engage in it.

Q. What was your biggest failure and what did you take away from it?

As an architect you experience failures in abundance. My first company was PLOT and our first project—it came out of the first contest we entered—had been in development for two years when, after a municipal election, it was canceled. My whole life’s dream had hinged on it; I was devastated. No one will let you build a building until you’ve built one; what would we do now?

Fortunately, we hadn’t put all our eggs in one basket. We had created some relationships with the first part of the project, which was a $1 million bathing beach. The budget had been compromised and we considered pulling out several times, but we stayed the course and it ended up being a tremendous game changer, because how you negotiate the difference between a brilliant vision and an imperfect reality is everything. Being able to get your idea across the finish line is the true art form, even if it is compromised or imperfect.

Q. Where do you get your inspiration and creativity?

I love fiction now, but until I turned 30, I only read nonfiction. There is so much cool knowledge in the world, why would I read some stuff someone had just made up? But I love the idea that as humans we have the power to create worlds out of nothing, and my job allows me to bring the world I make in my head into the real world.

Douglas Coupland is a good friend and a master writer; some of his most profound books have everyday settings. He opened my mind to the idea that while you long to go on adventures, life is what happens while you’re making other plans: the real action is happening in your daily life. Multifamily housing, for example. You get these ordinary projects but once you drill down into them you realize there is the possibility of creating something extraordinary.

Q. How has the current pandemic affected your business and the way you work?

We got through the first lockdown feeling fairly optimistic. I thought we would soldier through it, and even have a burst of creativity, but by January I was deeply depressed because my views about the importance of space were being affirmed. I was concerned about how long we could make virtual collaboration work and, if we couldn’t go back into the world again, whether that meant that my medium would become obsolete.

Ultimately, I think the pandemic has taught me about the importance of creating more meaningful settings to work in with colleagues. When we finally do show up at the office again, we will want it to matter; we’ll want to be in a stimulating environment that inspires us to create and innovate.

Q. How does design make our lives/cities better?

Design is fundamentally formgiving, which is also the title of my most recent book, Formgiving: An Architectural Future History. To design is to give form to that which hasn’t yet been given form and to the world you would like to find yourself living in in the future. If the world doesn’t fit your life, you have the ability and the responsibility to transform it to make it closer to the world of your dreams.

Rana Florida contributor bio photo

Rana Florida is the CEO of Creative Class Group. An expert on business and leadership, Rana has written for numerous publications and been featured on programs such as The Today Show and MSNBC’s The Cycle. She is also the author of Upgrade—Taking Your Work and Life From Ordinary to Extraordinary.

(Photo credit: Gabor Jurina)


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