The BIG founder broke the competition rules to win the Danish Maritime Museum in Helsingør. But the finished project, an “invisible icon” mostly concealed behind the walls of a dry dock, suggests that the notorious architectural prankster may be growing up
The museum was the first competition BIG won," says Bjarke Ingels, speaking on a train somewhere between Geneva and Milan. "I was 31 when I read the brief, and I was 39 when it opened. I spent my thirties doing this project."
Ingels' practice BIG (it stands for Bjarke Ingels Group) won the architectural competition for the £36m Danish Maritime Museum in Helsingør in 2006 and immediately found itself at the centre of a lawsuit.
The Danish Architects' Association felt the proposal defied one of the competition rules: that the scheme had to be contained within the site's dry dock walls. BIG had done something different. "It seemed as if EU law and competition criteria were preventing one of the main reasons to hire a design consultant: to come up with solutions you wouldn't be able to come up with yourself. It totally undermines the profession," Ingels says.
"I thought it was narrow-minded of them to go that route." Ingels likens the situation to the Fosbury Flop, when the high jumper Dick Fosbury developed a new technique for the athletic event that was initially viewed with hostility. In Helsingør, the architects, like Fosbury, persevered with their contentious approach, and, like Fosbury, they won. And the museum is all the better for it.
"We joked that we had a Hamlet complex when conceiving this project," says David Zahle, the director at BIG who led the project. "We said it had to be, and not to be at the same time. It had to be an invisible icon."
The need for this oxymoronic typology stems from the demands that followed the inscription of Kronborg Castle on the Unesco World Heritage Sites list in 2000. The Renaissance pile – an earlier incarnation of which had provided the setting for the Shakespeare play – had to be restored to a state that the heritage police would consider original.
As the first floor of the castle was occupied by the maritime museum, the artefacts were boxed up and packed out – they were not original enough. The Helsingør authorities decided that the new home for the museum was to be a dry dock, built in 1953 on the plain next to the castle.
"It had been full of water for 25 years and they decided to put a museum in it," Zahle recalls. "We couldn't see what we were getting into. When we started drawing there was a lot built on imagination."
Three bridges cross the space, one of which descends into the dock, ricocheting off a wall and into the entrance. The concrete shell of the dock is left exposed as an artefact, its presence an indicator of scale and context for the models and displaced paraphernalia inside the museum.
Beneath the bridges are the temporary exhibition spaces, the auditorium and the cafe – BIG saw these areas as the most busiest parts of the museum, more likely to pique the interest of passers-by, and worked to make them the most visible part of the invisible icon. The permanent collection is hidden beneath the ground and behind the 1.5m-thick concrete walls of the dock.
"We wanted to avoid doing a spectacular shape. We wanted to create intrigue," Zahle says. "It was about minimising architectural elements. [The building] is just a frame around the dock."
Unesco stated that the view of the castle must not be obstructed, so the building could not protrude more than 1m from the top of the dock wall. The town insisted that the architect retained a 13m-wide path needed to link the town square to the castle and an 8m-long promenade at the sea wall.
Moreover, BIG wanted to supply 4,500sq m of floor space, almost twice what the dock could offer. "It all seemed to point against using the historical dock," Zahle says. "So we asked the engineers if we could insulate the dock from the back, and keep the structure empty." Inserting an insulated sheet wall 5m beyond the perimeter of the dock wall gave the architects the opportunity they needed.
"We thought, rather than dig around it, stick in the insulation and then fill it up again, we should put the museum out there," Zahle adds. "This would allow us to exhibit the texture of the dock and give us the space we wanted."
The exhibition occupies a void created through abstracting, and excavating, a shift in the maritime landscape. When the dock was constructed in 1953, it was aligned with the industrial quay line, dating from around 1910. BIG, however, plotted a rectangle to be excavated that was perpendicular to the 15th-century dock.
It is a simple architectural diagram that belies the complexity of the effort to create a new space around the old. "In computer programming, complexity is defined as the capacity to transmit the maximum amount of information with the minimum amount of data," Ingels says.
"So the fewer the keystrokes, or line strokes in this case, that you use to deliver the same impact, the greater the complexity is." As a result of this simple/complex theory, the subterranean space for the exhibition is squeezed at two points where the dock sits diagonally across the excavation.
The museum follows a linear path that descends slowly around the perimeter of the dock, the spaces opening up from tight corridors to larger exhibition halls. In the permanent collection, the spaces are cluttered with a hyperactive exhibition design by Kossmann.dejong – where you can tattoo yourself like a sailor or enjoy the titillation
But the spatial sequence is coherent and easily navigable: it is a simple loop that breaks out on to the bridges that slash through the dock. BIG has packed in permanent and temporary exhibition space,
The walkways beneath the bridge decks are where the museum is most visible and, sadly, most clumsily executed. "We wanted
The walkways link across the void of the dock, each flanked with delicately hung glass that prevents deep shadows from being cast inside the subterranean space. However, the floor plates tilt in order to compensate for the change in levels across the space, and this squeezes a few areas to the point of uselessness, with the effect of extinguishing any desire to linger.
Thick iron chains suspend the platform from the deck above – I assume that they are decorative, but Zahle is quick to correct me. "They are structural," he says. "The bridges above act as a beam, and therefore we could hang a lightweight 60cm deck from them using the chains. The structure above is doing all the work."
The lightness of the bridges does bring an energy to the dock, although this is undercut by the fact that they are filled with the ponderous silhouettes of visitors.
"In the maritime museum you can see what we can do, for the first time, with a cultural institution," Ingels says. "We have, I think, seven projects under construction around the world; we have matured quite a bit. I think BIG achieved a certain notoriety quite early on based as much, or more, on promise rather than realisation. I think that gave rise to a misconception that we were more about ideas and less about details. We worked hard to make things happen."
Ingels' story is well known: a "child of Rem" at OMA in the late 1990s, the five-year collaboration with Julien De Smedt at PLOT, then the comic-book manifesto Yes is More, followed by some high-profile and critically lauded housing projects such as 8 House and the Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen.
This serious work was completed alongside Jackass-style pranks such as "stealing" the Little Mermaid statue from the Copenhagen waterside to sit in the Danish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010. Ingels has a track record that must make his OMA contemporaries green with envy: for all the posing of Ole Scheeren and the earnestness of REX, few of his immediate peers have built as much or established such a strong international persona – arguably, not even De Smedt.
Underneath the devil-may-care appearance of BIG, there is grit. Commissions continue to be won, and when institutes claim that you are fighting dirty for competition wins, it suggests that you continue to unnerve many within the profession.
The completion of the museum also points towards one of BIG's, or at least Ingels', current preoccupations – the cultural reinterpretation of industrial infrastructure. "One of the greatest art museums in London is a former power plant. One of the most popular parks in New York is a decommissioned rail line.
The maritime museum is a former dry dock," Ingels says. "On our most recent projects we are trying to impregnate these pieces of infrastructure with proactive social side-effects." This can be seen, most obviously, in two schemes, one on site and one in development. The Amager Resource Centre in Copenhagen is a waste-to-energy power station that incorporates a ski slope along its roof.
"Back in the day you would stay as far away as possible from a power plant due to the toxic emissions. Now, they only really produce steam and carbon dioxide. You have fresh air on the roof and that opens up a whole new possibility for synergy," he says excitedly.
"Here we have a cold climate but no hills. Alpine skiing is a virgin activity in Denmark – we can introduce it. You saw how bad it was when we won zero medals [at the Winter Olympics] in Sochi." In New York, meanwhile, alongside the substantial housing project W57, BIG has spent nine months developing the Big U, a 10-mile flood defence cum elevated path.
"Instead of the high line, it is the dry line," says Ingels, proving that laboured jokes about projects may emanate from the top at BIG. "It is a series of elements – furniture, landscape, pavilions – that won't be seen as a barrier between the city and the water, but a place for urban activity. In case of an event [like Hurricane Sandy in 2012] it will protect the city from flooding."
With a built portfolio that is beginning to speak for itself, a more mature, thoughtful architect is emerging – one that retains a sense of humour while completing the job at hand. The bad jokes and leather jackets may remain, but as Ingels enters his forties, he might just have left the comic-book provocateur behind.