BIG Ideas for a Big City

Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) doesn’t merely create mind-blowing designs that expand the perception of what architecture can be. Their ideas can also expand the ways we look at urban development and revitalization.

Founded twelve years ago, BIG has designed projects around the world in such far-flung locales as Dubai, China, New York City, and Azerbaijan. Closer to home, they have been instrumental in the redevelopment of an area of Copenhagen, Ørestad, that has been taking place over the last decade. Their VM Houses and Mountain Dwellings, located there, are examples of how BIG uses architecture to create interaction points for people, to attract people to the urban core while maintaining a connection to the outdoors that many previously associated with suburbia.

BIG Partner and Business Development Director Kai-Uwe Bergmann recently visited us and shared some of the firm’s ideas ideas that can certainly inform our efforts to revitalize the urban heart of Las Vegas. Bergmann emphasizes the firm’s commitment to “encourage people to do certain things, to connect with one another in new ways” while utilizing their “positive” approach to architecture. He explains that positive approach is crucial when faced with the many challenges—economic, political, municipal—that are certain to be factors when pushing the architectural envelope. For a brilliant example of how BIG does that, check this out.

Here are some BIG ideas that can help us to revitalize our big city:

Use an Evolutionary Approach

BIG’s ideas are informed by the work of Charles Darwin and his principle that “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” BIG extrapolates that idea to the creative process, saying in their book Yes Is More: “Like Darwin describes creation as a process of excess and selection, we propose to let the forces of society, the multiple interests of everyone, decide which of our ideas can live, and which must die.”

In urban redevelopment, how can this principle be applied? Rather than creating “build to suit” structures that serve a single purpose, we can design buildings that can adapt over time. We can create buildings that enable people to utilize them for multiple purposes, like a coworking space for the theater, music, improv community that doubles as a performance space. We can create parks that are self-sustaining by anchoring them with businesses that attract users and generate revenue that can maintain the park itself. We can create adaptable spaces that will survive the test of time.

As Bergmann explains it, “we look for ways for buildings to live longer.” BIG strives to create buildings that will outlast their initial intended purposes, buildings that can find new uses over time as well as playing multiple roles in the lives of the cities in which they are built. The firm’s work on the SJakket Community Building is an excellent example of not only adaptive reuse, but also of creating a space that can change over time to reflect the needs of its users.

This is a striking contrast to the way we’ve done things in Las Vegas. We’re a city where many of our iconic structures are built with pre-planned blast points in the framework—we plan for the implosion, the demise of the building. Rather than celebrating preservation and adaptive reuse, we’ve literally celebrated demolition (see The Dunes).

At this juncture in our city’s history, it’s important to take a different tack as we revitalize Downtown and create a new heart of Las Vegas. Let’s instead create something that’s built to last. And let’s allow that idea to inform what we do we as we create a new kind of neighborhood, community, culture, economy, city. Let’s create a city that can withstand the buffeting forces of economic downturns, our desert climate, and social disconnection.

Pragmatic Utopianism

In Yes is More, Ingels explains that for too long, the views of those in the field of architecture have been divided between two opposing extremes. “Either naively utopian or petrifyingly pragmatic. Rather than choosing one over the other, BIG operates in the fertile overlap of the two opposites,” he writes.

Surely we must consider occupying that same space as we revitalize our city. We’ve learned the hard way over the last several years that our high-flying, living-large mentality and single industry focus cannot sustain us as a community or an economy as we move forward. And perhaps it may be pragmatic to simply throw up our hands and admit that the problems we face are too large. A pragmatist might simply turn and run.

Rather than choose either view, we can dream big and couple it with hard work. We can grow new businesses and build new places that draw us closer together. And most importantly, we can be open to all ideas creating a social architecture that follows Ingels assertion in favor of “An inclusive rather than an exclusive architecture. An architecture unburdened by the conceptual monogamy of commitment to a single idea or interest.”

Create a Place

“Create a place, not a building,” says Bergmann. For the better part of the last 20 years, Las Vegas has done an excellent job of doing just the opposite. The center of our town is populated by buildings that teem with life, but that life is not ours. The iconic structures of our city are primarily the playground of people who don’t call our city home.

Outside of that city center, we’ve built miles and miles of soulless strip malls, many of which are figuratively and literally vacant.

What if we reimagined that development and created a place where people want to gather? Not more chain stores devoid of soul. If we did that, wouldn’t we be diversifying our economy and creating jobs for our friends and neighbors?

What Las Vegas needs are hang-out places, things for our kids to do, and events that we can experience together. We certainly don’t need more sprawl; we’ve plenty of that. Instead, live/work spaces can make the frustrating and lonely morning commute obsolete. We need to build things that attract us to come together and serve as amenities for us (like this), not just for the millions who fly in and out of McCarran every year.

Even if our succeses are small, surely we will have made a big impact on the future of our community.

Want to learn more about Bjarke Ingels and the work of BIG? Click here. Or view Bjarke’s TED Talk.