If people are different, then why are all homes the same?
Renowned Danish architect and ideologist Bjarke Ingels invites us inside his private home, and shares his thoughts on architecture, technology and Bang & Olufsen.
The first major project Bjarke Ingels completed was the award-winning VM Houses in 2005. It’s two residential blocks formed as the letters V and M, situated in a new area outside the Danish capital Copenhagen and built with former partner Julien de Smedt as PLOT Architects. The project is symbolic because it is centred around a modern flexible way of life, a topic we’re here to discuss.
“The brief for the VM Houses was to make it as affordable as possible, because no one had any idea what the area would become at the time. We made a conscious choice back then to make the apartments as pure as possible. We created a lot of height in the apartments and ensured there was plenty of daylight too,” says Bjarke Ingels as he takes us through his recently renovated home.
“Looking back, the formula we used with the VM Houses is one I’ve recently applied to my own apartment. I’ve removed several walls to get the natural light inside – and I have basically opened up the living space.” He confides that the renovation process didn’t go exactly as planned, because the road from idea to implementation is filled with challenges. The word problem is seldom used, and as he dryly remarks, “I’m probably on to the next home, when we finish here.”
“If you look at the traditional way of arranging the rooms in a home you have a lot of closely-knit, separate functions, but in reality the only place where you really need to close the door is the bathroom. Perhaps people would benefit more from spaciousness?”
The answer is obvious if you ask Bjarke Ingels, and when we look at what they ended up doing in the VM Houses by making homes that were hyper flexible on the inside and outside, and ready for radical change, it was a basic human insight that spurred it all: the only certainty is change.
They built what they described as programmatically flexible homes for their own generation, homes that were open to the needs of the individual, yet catered for a mosaic of different forms of living.
“Instead of having all these unused square meters I always try to activate the entire home – by staying conscious of all the different uses and functions within the four walls,” says Bjarke Ingels. “I look at the home as your personal canvas, the place where your belongings add the final characteristic touch. The artworks on the walls, the books on the shelves and the rugs on the floor bring your home to life. The best building blocks you get – you could call them ‘raw qualities’ without any association with taste and personality – are active square metres and high ceilings.”
In a time and age where there is more and more technology within your home, concealed in every conceivable product and hidden from plain sight, the question is how these advancements are leveraged, because technology has often worked against us by adding complexity and too many choices when it should do the opposite – make life easier and perhaps more enjoyable too. “It’s imperative that the technological qualities you need in your home are as inherent as possible. You can control the music, television, temperature and lights with your smartphone or the Bang & Olufsen remote – and when designed properly technology has the ability to improve life,” says Bjarke Ingels as he waves the silver remote around the room. A presentation of upcoming BIG buildings is mirrored on his BeoVision Avant, and radio music is blazing from all corners of the home.
One of Bjarke Ingels’ favourite literary genres is science fiction, and he brings up the cult writer Philip K. Dick because he has the coolest definition of the genre. “To paraphrase Philip K. Dick, science fiction is not space operas, nor is it futuristic stories – it is a genre fuelled by some form of innovation or new way of thinking, and it is often a new way of thinking technology into our lives, but it could be cultural, political or whatever.” “Even if at first the notion sounds farfetched, the important point is that you look at the world you know, and add that one element of innovation. Your focus is then, what is the potential of the innovation, and what are the consequences of it? – and you create a narrative exploration around that.”
“Technology is a constant source of innovation and new conditions, and as a designer you can explore the possibilities and consequences the progression brings. As an architect, you don’t design the same building twice, and that is because things invariably change. The way people live changes, as do the tools and opportunities they have. And you need to leverage those shifts, and more often than not our projects utilise technology in some way,” says Bjarke Ingels.
"Design is not a goal, but a means to an end. It’s all about creating the best life for the people you design for. How to get there is up to the design process, but the goal is the life they’re living”.
When you talk about technology within the home, a potential conflict emerges. Technology brings everything to life, it makes everything and everyone accessible. You are always connected, but how does that fit in with the sanctity of the home? Once upon a time your home was a quiet base, and unless someone called you on your landline, you only communicated with the people inside your home. Now you’re always connected, always reachable.
“Time is precious, and these days it’s difficult to get some peace and quiet. There’s even WIFI on the planes.” You get the feeling that he instantly turns the inconvenience into an asset as he continues, “the positive is that you can always have your technology tools at hand, you can work from anywhere and you have the ability to eliminate non-productive time. In the end, technology frees up time for you, and allows you to be present in those few moments when it matters. So you have the ability to fix things from the backseat of a taxi on your way home, and when you arrive you are done with work.”
And just because you’re always connected, it doesn’t mean you’re always accessible. As Bjarke Ingels points out, we humans are the masters of technology, and how it is used is entirely up to us.
“In the old days, the landline phone kept ringing until you picked it up. You could unplug it, but no one ever did. They would stop what they were doing to respond and end the noise. So even if the technology was less omnipresent, it was far more demanding. Now, you just switch your mobile phone to silent, so you don’t have to pick it up if you don’t feel like it. And when you want to be left alone, you put your phone in flight mode. The control is in your hands when it comes to technology, so it is a behavioural thing, you can change if it takes up too much space and time in your home.”
Talking with Bjarke Ingels, you realise that he has never actually seen himself as being particularly Scandinavian, but since he moved to the US he has realised that what drives Scandinavian design, and perhaps the culture in general, is some form of social empathy – and an appreciation of nature, either from an environmental perspective or an affinity for natural materials. “I think another thing that symbolises Scandinavia is straightforwardness. There is something more direct to our designs. Style is not a layer that you apply later as an ornament or a piece of styling. We try to convey the inherent qualities of a given product, and constantly refine it in order to present the essence of what it is people need,” says Bjarke Ingels.
“That refinement and contextual understanding is what Bang & Olufsen stands for. I grew up with the products, and lived in a world of ultra high-tech and laminate – or rather wood, glass and aluminium,” he pauses as he thinks back to childhood.
“Trying to understand people – that is what Bang & Olufsen have done for decades. They have always put themselves in their customers shoes, instead of focusing on what goes on around them.” He looks intent as he makes his point clear, “I think the right phrase is: Design is not a goal, but a means to an end. It’s all about creating the best life for the people you design for. How to get there is up to the design process, but the goal is the life they’re living.”
“The phrase that springs to mind when talking about design icons is professional competency. Having that ability to really care about your field is what sets a company like Bang & Olufsen apart. When you combine that quality with an uncompromising attitude towards function and form you get a feeling of effortlessness. It takes so much to get that effortlessness instilled in your products for people to experience it,” says Bjarke Ingels.
In a time where product life cycles are getting shorter and shorter, there could be a conflict if you’re catering to the exact opposite?
“There’s obviously a dilemma somewhere, but one doesn’t have to preclude the other. I think it comes back to professional competency. I have always preached that architecture, design and technology are evolutionary – and not revolutionary. Changes don’t appear out of nothing, and you don’t start from scratch every time. You build on top of what you have done and learned in the past – and that is how you get further every time,” says Bjarke Ingels.
“Sometimes things might have an almost revolutionary impact or look truly ground-breaking when you experience them first-hand – but on closer inspection you will often discover that the real innovation is a very evident enhancement,” says Bjarke Ingels before concluding, “I recognize it in our own field, where the breakthroughs are often adjustments and refinements to things we’ve done in the past. And if something strikes you as brilliant, you get the nagging feeling that it must have been done before because it is so obvious.”
The difference between the brilliant and the banal is razor thin. By putting people first and constantly reiterating, you will follow the right path, if you ask Bjarke Ingels. We agree.