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BIG’s Hôtel des Horlogers for Audemars Piguet – the luxury hotel includes a long zigzagging path from roof to ground; during the winter months when the terraces will be covered with snow, guests can ski directly from their hotel rooms to the nearby ski trails

Hot to cold – designing for climate and cultural change – By Iain MacIntyre

Inspirational design solutions that showcase the immense possibilities of adaptive architecture – shaped by climatic and cultural forces – are being globally pioneered by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) of architects, designers and builders.

Operating within the fields of architecture, urbanism, research and development from bases in Copenhagen, New York and London, the firm’s work “emerges out of a careful analysis of how contemporary life constantly evolves and changes,” according to Construction Marketing Services (CMS).

BIG partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann

The New Zealand building and construction industry specification and education body hosted BIG partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann to headline its Design Experience Series in September, with NZCN afforded an interview prior to the first Wellington event.


BIG’s Sluishuis in the port of Amsterdam embraces the idea of living on the water – Bjarke Ingels, founding partner of BIG, describes it as ‘a building inside the port, with a port inside the building’

Amphibious architecture

Mr Bergmann speaks enthusiastically about BIG’s ground-breaking ‘amphibious architecture’ apartment buildings and student housing as a prime example of such ‘economically and environmentally sound’ adaptive architecture.

“As cities fill up – and many cities on coastal areas have mountains, so the spaces that can be built are already built out – you can only move up,” he says. “What we are proposing is not to build on reclaimed land, but instead to float on the water. With pontoons and floating bridges, we have many examples of things that not only float, but have done so for hundreds of years. So the idea is to use that technology to create more landscapes to solve certain issues.

“The idea is that you would be able to float them in areas of cities that are perhaps brownfield sites – former industrial harbour fronts, for example. Just as the soil in many of those areas is contaminated and therefore not buildable, the blue part of the property, meaning the water, is very possible to build upon,” Mr Bergmann says.

In BIG’s Urban Rigger scheme, shipping containers are stacked on a floating platform to create low-cost student halls of residence in Copenhagen’s harbour; the blocks are angled with their ends overlapping to frame a shared garden in the centre of the mobile platform

“We are currently designing student housing in the centre of Copenhagen [which has] a student housing crisis. Our idea is to create floating student dormitories or homes at basically a third of the cost and to be built in half the time of traditional dormitory houses.”

Mr Bergmann describes another of BIG’s contemporary projects – planning 10 miles of flood controls and social infrastructure within a resiliency plan to protect New York from a repeat of the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 – as “absolutely” a career highlight.

“I think reimagining an entire city’s waterfront on the scale of Manhattan is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When you think of the importance of Central Park to the city, this is our generation’s ‘Central Park moment’.”

Social infrastructure

Mr Bergmann emphasises that accommodating cultural change as well as planning for the forces of climate change – including sea level rise, temperature differences, wild fires, earthquakes and liquefactions – is “inherent” to all of BIG’s architectural initiatives.

“What we do is look at it – say a regional transportation system – in terms of scale, and not look at it specifically from an architectural standpoint, [so] how we can bring in the engineering aspects and infrastructure investments to help us start to look at how we make spatial decisions.

“We call it social infrastructure – thinking of infrastructure not only as a means of getting from point A to B or solving a flooding issue, but finding out how the human aspects of architecture can also inform the infrastructure investments that we make.”

Given the inevitability of change, Mr Bergmann also highlights the prevalence of the human spirit in both being able to adapt to and even capitalise on continuously evolving circumstances. “Things will go up and things will go down – that is a given fact. Consider that the Ice Age allowed human migration across to North America. Temperature, climates and coastal regions are in constant fluctuation – these things are just what we have to deal with on a daily basis.

BIG’s Hôtel des Horlogers for Audemars Piguet – the luxury hotel includes a long zigzagging path from roof to ground; during the winter months when the terraces will be covered with snow, guests can ski directly from their hotel rooms to the nearby ski trails

“Of course we can see that human activity – the Anthropocene epoch – is having an effect on our climate. The ozone hole that exists over parts of New Zealand and Australia is also a fact – you now have a different relationship to the sun than any other part of the world.

“So you have to start adapting and becoming quite flexible as an architect and a planner of a city. Just how do we design cities in which we have to start thinking about our relationship to radiation from the sun, or how do we deal with a sea level rise of 3 ft or 5 ft when most of the cities in New Zealand are built on the coast?”

Making something extraordinary

Although noting the need for high-level direction, Mr Bergmann nonetheless emphasises that differences can also be effected at a much lesser scale. “We can’t just hang around waiting for national institutions to create protocols – I think it is very much a ‘grass roots’ issue and what we do on a daily basis,” he asserts.

“Projects don’t have to be huge and have enormous budgets – you can make quite a bit of change happen even in the smallest scale of investments. It is really about thinking how we can leverage any situation to make something extraordinary.”

Having harboured a desire since 2001 (after watching the movie Stickmen) to make his first visit to New Zealand, Mr Bergmann also expresses admiration for the work of a number of local architects, one of which is Nelson-based firm Irving Smith Architects, which he notes has “dealt with cyclones and such issues in terms of what happens when the tree coverage and roots have left, and how to adapt buildings to a new landscape”.

Rebuilding after seismic events

Impressed by how Napier was rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake, he similarly expresses hope that such leadership has and is being shown as the country continues to rebuild following more recent seismic events.

“When you consider they used that moment to rebuild in the Art Deco movement and now that is what everyone really appreciates and looks to by going to Napier – this was an historical moment when the leaders of that city decided to do something that was quite modern for the time,” he says. “One of the things I can see here in Wellington is how many buildings are being seismically retrofitted – you’re not just knocking down buildings, but looking for ways to help them maintain their integrity.”

The basin of Islais Creek – a watershed-turned-industrial district in San Francisco – is at risk from coastal and stormwater flooding, as well as liquefaction; BIG’s vision for the area includes a large park with a restored tidal creek system which retains, conveys and cleans the water, protecting the surrounding neighbourhoods while providing amenities and benefits to the community

Reflecting holistically on his profession, Mr Bergmann describes it as necessitating understandings of history, anthropology, archaeology, futurism, negotiating and economics, while executing responsibility for what are often individuals’ largest monetary investments.

“For me, it has always been the dexterity and the multi-faceted nature of it that draws me to the profession. Every day has its challenges, but it is what you do with them and how you learn from them that informs the way we work.”

Asked in parting if he had experienced any personal frustrations in his career to date, Mr Bergmann quips: “Not having a job in New Zealand – I’m looking for that first opportunity!”

Iain MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport and infrastructure issues within New Zealand i.macintyre@xtra.co.nz


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