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Pyramid Scheme

Ingel's pavilion at the Expo 2010 Shanghai; bottom, the Mountain Dwellings, in Ørestad.  

In a gridded city, reason would seem to dictate an architecture of seamless planes and perpendicular lines, but Ingels has found a more efficient eccentricity. Balconies slash the inclined plane. The apartments slant away from the corridor like fishbones so that windows on 58th Street frame westward views. Ingels is a virtuoso of repetitive protrusions: Instead of facing the building with a slick screen of glass, he breaks it into a Cubist expanse of windowed bays.

The design still has a long parade of approvals to win, beginning with a community- board presentation on February 9, but already it’s clear that without giving up a rentable square foot, busting a frugal developer’s budget, or requesting more than minor tweaks to city rules, Ingels has reinvented a type of architecture that seemed immune to innovation. To understand just how difficult that is to pull off, it helps to look a few blocks away, at Eleventh Avenue and 54th Street, where Ten Arquitectos is making a similar attempt to bundle greenery, rental apartments, and commercial space into an unorthodox topography. There, in a building to be called Clinton Park and now under construction, an S-shaped slab with a terraced roof climbs from a low-rise to a block-long tower. The separate parts join awkwardly, with none of the Durst project’s choreographic grace.

In videos of his interviews and talks, Ingels comes across as a supercharged amalgam of talent, charm, and overpowering ego. In person, he adopts a slightly sheepish version of his public persona, as if not quite sure how his brashness will play. Gauging reactions is not just an aspect of his temperament, but a strategy of radical adorableness. An inspiration is sometimes indistinguishable from a sales pitch. To prove that an apparently lunatic quartet of Himalaya-shaped towers could be constructed with simple materials and traditional techniques, he had his staff erect a room-size model out of 250,000 Lego bricks.

When it was time to issue the firm’s first monograph, instead of producing another sober coffee-table-crusher, he decided to make it a graphic novel, starring himself. With his superhero’s jaw and camera-ready uniform (black hoodie over black T-shirt emblazoned with a speech-bubble logo), he makes a plausible Architectureman. Still, it was a characteristically cheeky move: The darling of academe risked looking unserious, and potential clients might shudder at the thought of one day turning up as comic-book villains. But Ingels wanted to present built works as endpoints of stories that included wrong turns and setbacks as well as bolts of insight. (One frame shows a client reacting to a proposal in alarm: “He thought it looked like something designed by Darth Vader.”) And lest readers be misled into thinking Ingels was being self-deprecating, the book begins with a declaration of lineage. A suite of full-page photographs of prophets and their evolving mottos—Mies van der Rohe (“Less Is More”), Robert Venturi (“Less Is a Bore”), Philip Johnson (“I’m a Whore”), Ingels’s former employer Rem Koolhaas (“More Is More”), and Barack Obama (“Yes, We Can!”)—culminates in a picture of Ingels himself. The book’s ringingly cryptic title is an amalgam of all these slogans: Yes Is More.

The swashbuckling architect makes an odd pair with Douglas Durst, the shy, shambling scion of the New York real-estate family who is introducing Ingels to America. Durst was a prime mover in the reinvention of Times Square—he put up the Condé Nast Building and the crystal tower at One Bryant Park—but he has generally opted for experienced, deliberate firms like FXFowle and its spinoff, Cook + Fox. A revolutionary he is not. When the Copenhagen City Council invited Durst (whose wife, Susanne, is Danish) to give a talk about green high-rises in 2006, an affably obnoxious young architect waylaid him afterward to ask: “Why do all your buildings look like buildings?” By rights, Durst should have snickered and walked away. Instead, he kept in touch, caught a show of Ingels’s work at the Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Then, two years ago, Durst needed a new idea. He had controlled the 57th Street lot for nearly a decade, and in that time it had generated a procession of abortive ideas: a data-processing center that seemed too vulnerable after 9/11, a private school that was never able to get financing, a residential skyscraper that proved impractical, and a more modest low-rise that would wrap around a courtyard. On another trip to Copenhagen, Durst toured BIG’s offices and was impressed that such a young firm should have so many and such varied projects under construction, ranging from the Danish pavilion for the Expo 2010 Shanghai to a fantastical national library in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.