BIG's rendering for the Greenland National Gallery of Art Bjarke Ingels Group/Glassner Group

A new exhibition of projects by the wildly experimental Bjarke Ingels Group shows a commitment to functional sci-fi design.

According to Bjarke Ingels, design works like science fiction. He's in a position to know. Ingels captains one of the world's leading architecture firms, Bjarke Ingels Group, a team whose work might fairly be described as "out there."

"I'm a big fan of Philip K. Dick," Ingels says. "He says that science fiction is not a space opera, although it often takes place in space. It's not a story from the future, although it happens in the future. Science fiction is a story where some kind of innovation, often technological or scientific, triggers the plot, and the plot becomes a narrative exploration of the potential of that innovation."

Projects designed by BIG often wind up looking like they belong in Blade Runner. Yet the ideas that might've been called fiction a decade ago are increasingly finding their way into cities all over the world. "Hot to Cold: An Odyssey of Architectural Adaptation," an exhibition of the work of BIG now on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is part spaceopera, part futurism, and—best of all—part science.

Installation shot from "Hot to Cold" at the National Building Museum (Kevin Allen)

The whole planet is built into the premise of "Hot to Cold." The show is arranged by climate gradation: Building models suspended along the second-floor arcade proceed around the museum's grand hall from warm-weather places such as Malaysia and Qatar to sub-arctic climes such as Norway and Greenland. Some 60 projects represented in the show—accounting for more than a dozen nations across North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East—speak to BIG's sweeping ambitions.

"In the extreme climates, the architecture is totally informed by the climate," Ingels says. "In the more mild climates, other factors take over."

The show's geographic focus is more than a clever conceit. The frame helps to explain the firm's decisions. For the proposed Phoenix Observation Tower, for example, BIG decided on Frank Lloyd Wright as a reference. This makes sense: Wright's former home, Taliesin West, today the headquarters for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, is in Scottsdale, just outside Phoenix.

Phoenix Observation Tower rendering by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group)

Yet BIG didn't choose Taliesin West as a touchstone. The designers modeled the project—"the Big Pin"—after New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Whereas the Wright-designed Guggenheim faces inward, the spiraling platform of the Phoenix Observation Tower looks out, offering mighty views of the arid Arizona landscape. It's that flat, lonely desert horizon that will make the Big Pin a tourist destination to rival the Guggenheim.

"Architecture never happens inside a laboratory," Ingels says. "It's always in an existing condition full of forces that can inform the design decisions. One of the primary parameters of the context is the climate. You can never escape the climate."

Installation shot of BIG's model for the Smithsonian Institution and National Mall, on view at the National Building Museum (Matt Carbone)

"Hot to Cold" punctuates a major moment for both the firm and for Washington, D.C. In 2013, the Smithsonian Institution announced the selection of Bjarke Ingels Group to design a master plan for part of the National Mall. The patch spans many blocks and connects several museums, including the least-visited museums of the entire system (namely the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the National Museum of African Art).

Architects from BIG conducted interviews with about 35 museum directors and curators, including the chiefs at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Freer|Sackler, and the National Museum of African Art. Substantial portions of the latter museums are underground; part of the work involved with the commission is improving the daylighting, orientation, and views for these problem buildings.

Yet the biggest challenge—in the wake of a 2011 earthquake in Virginia that damaged the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral—is shoring up the Smithsonian "Castle," which is home to the institution's administrative headquarters and a visitor's center.

"We had to repair the roof membrane of the museums, which is underneath the garden, and we had to seismically reinforce the Castle. Looking at all these different things, individually, are rather big issues," Ingels says. "But by putting them together in a holistic master plan, you can create synergies."

Smithsonian Institution museums along the National Mall (Bjarke Ingels Group)

One option for reinforcing the Castle was to use steel, which Ingels likens to "invasive surgery." Instead, the BIG team is opting for a method called base isolation. Essentially, the architects will excavate the ground beneath the Castle and put a plate underneath the building. The Castle will stay as it is; in the event of a seismic event, it will never even feel it.

As long as they'll be messing around underneath the Castle, the architects figure they might as well add some space. In BIG's vision, the Castle's grand hall will be restored, with all the visitors-service stuff currently cluttering the place tucked below grade.  

"It's a fusion of a lot of different concerns that have come together in simple proposals," Ingels says. "For lack of a better term, we're killing multiple birds with one stone."

Earthquakes may be the least of BIG's troubles in Washington, D.C. Navigating the world's largest cultural bureaucracy—to create a master plan for the nation's first and foremost cultural treasury—is a hard ask. For their part, officials at the Smithsonian Institution say that they chose BIG in large part because the team put forward the best proposal for organizing the work.

The Smithsonian (Bjarke Ingels Group)

Mind you, the same firm steering a $2 billion plan that will take 20 years to execute parks its website at big.dk. In many ways, the 10-year-old firm thinks like a 10-year-old. The firm's plan for the Givskud Zoo in Denmark—where animals will roam fairly freely around the 13 million-square-foot preserve—features mirrored gondola cars and tricycles. By camouflaging the transit, the planners hope to make the zoo a less stressful experience for the animals.

The firm's first monograph was published as a graphic novel. And for another exhibit at the Building Museum last year, BIG built a labyrinth. But don't mistake a penchant for playfulness for a lack of gravity. Projects such as the Astana National Library are difficult, deadly serious designs. There's nothing silly about Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. It's home to one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. BIG's designs may be progressive, but in the main, the firm's politics are not.

Model of the W57 project for New York as seen suspended in the National Building Museum for "Hot to Cold" (Kevin Allen)

One project on view in particular shows how even a whimsical design is grounded in hard facts on the ground. In Vancouver, a new project designed by BIG will be situated at the juncture where the Greenville Street Bridge forks in three different directions—a situation that "shreds the neighborhood to pieces," Ingels says. The small triangular patch of land was just the start of the problems on the site: The city has a rule that no dwelling provide direct views into traffic on the bridge (and vice versa), meaning a 100-foot setback.

Given these constraints, BIG settled on a building design that liberates itself as it rises. The Vancouver House begins as a "flatiron" design on a 6,000-square-foot floor plate. After the tower clears the freeway, it gains square footage with every story.

"We have a small triangular footprint to build on, too small to really develop. So then we got the idea: If it's a minimum distance of 100 feet [from the highway], once we get 100 feet in the air, we'll come back out. Now we have a full rectangular floor plate—twice the size," Ingels says. "What looks like a very expressive sculptural design, almost a genie coming out of the bottle, is actually directly informed by the constraints and concerns of the site."

Ingels notes that the curve in the Vancouver House tower is illusory. Like most projects designed by BIG, the shape is the cumulative association of many similar units. Building blocks, as it were.

Rendering of the LEGO House designed by BIG in Bilund, Denmark (Bjarke Ingels Group)

The model for the LEGO House is one of few to be found on the exhibition's ground floor. More than 60 project models are suspended from the Building Museum's third floor, meeting viewers on the second stage at eye level. There, on the second-floor arcade, the models are met by accompanying info—photographs, project details, and so on.

It's a simple, elegant, and very BIG solution to a museum space that often feels better suited to events than buildings. Even from the ground floor, the exhibition is smart: Looking up, viewers see simple icons on the bottom side of the suspended platforms—icons represented the models that can be investigated from the arcade. "Hot to Cold" gives the arcade and the hall meaningful purpose. The exhibition fills the building better than any show in years.

Installation shot of BIG models suspended around the museum for "Hot to Cold." (Matt Carbone)

One after another, the models and projects show how BIG delights in a kind of sound-bite scope for design. A waste-conversion plant that is also a ski slope. A garden that lifts up along the edges like a napkin falling to the ground. Ingels tells me that he's a big fan of Gordon Bunshaft's Hirshhorn building: a hovering donut lit from the center.

In general, he's one for the elevator pitch. On the shape of W57, the pyramidal condo tower now under construction in New York, Ingels cites his 2012 profile in The New Yorker: "The form of W57 is what you might have if snow drifted steeply into the corner of a yard, and then you removed the yard."

Amagerforbrændingen waste-to-energy plant rendering for Copenhagen (Bjarke Ingels Group)
Installation shot of film from BIG's Superkilen urban park in Copenhagen (Kevin allen)

When Ingels says that he approaches architecture like science fiction, he isn't trying to elevate BIG. (Or not any more than he always is.) Ingels is grounding his work. A concept triggers the design process in the same way an idea kicks off a good post-apocalyptic short story. What if a virus made fast-moving zombies? What if building a library in the shape of a Möbius strip improved circulation?

The work of design is in exploring that singular factor and filling in the details, like Philip K. Dick says—the "cascading consequences," as Ingels puts it. "Hot to Cold" shows how BIG turns science fiction into reality.

Partners at BIG (Dean Kaufman)

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