On Friday, on the 33rd floor of a 99-year-old office building at 61 Broadway, the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels celebrated the tenth anniversary of BIG, the firm he named after himself (website: big.dk, which gives you some idea of where his head is at), and the fact that he’s become such a big deal and, with the nearly completed pyramidal apartment building on the western end of 57th Street and the 1,300-foot-tall teetering-stack-of-boxes scheme for 3 World Trade Center, about to have such a big impact on the city. Together with SHoP and Diller Scofidio + Renfro (but, notably, not so much Rem Koolhaas, the architect under whom Ingels got his start), it’s one of the firms that is building the most meaningful monuments for this swashbuckling and affluent newest New York, this high-value, high-functioning global amusement zone.
Of the three, BIG might be the best suited to this post-context city, if for no reason other than they seem to be having so much fun, making inspired and inspiring megastructures suitable for our app-centered civilization that are just dystopic enough to seem a bit witty. The invitation to the party itself (pictured), consisting of nothing but BIG buildings, clustered together, as sci-fi as Dubai, made me think a bit about what it is that a cosmopolis designed only by this architect would be like.
I’d briefly met Ingels earlier in the week, at a dinner at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg (itself a proving ground for much of this heroic newfangled Bloomberg-inian city-making) for the Plus Pool. It’s a proposal for a floating swimming hole, anchored off of the city, probably in the East River. It would use river water, made safe though a scaled-up version of a Brita-like technology, thereby helping in its (very) incremental way to clean the river as a whole (or so the people behind it told us at the party). But they, like the BIG party attendees, were also thrilled to be there doing something big to change (hack?) the city: think of it as customer-service urbanism. (Or maybe Uber urbanism?) As Archie Lee Coates IV, the executive director, put it: “We’re not doing this because we have to. We’re doing it because we want to.”
And because they feel they can. Yes, the Plus Pool is something of a giddy urban bauble, but this is in many ways for many people a giddy city. If it happens it will be because it marries two things our culture most values: It shows off the uses of an interesting and life-improving technology, and it’ll be an amenity that could meet the needs and self-mythologies of the people who are remaking this city in their own image (even while often complaining they can’t really afford to actually live here). It comes out of the same spirit of progress that gave us the Lowline, that proposed “underground park” in a disused former trolley station at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s an intriguing technology, consisting of a sort of mirror-and-piping system that brings sunlight underground (you can see a trial run of it this winter in a warehouse on Essex Street), in the service of something both useful and a bit whimsical.
Which is what BIG is all about, too, and what makes it the firm of the moment. At the party, the cleared-out open-plan office was dark, decorated with lots of Mylar balloons and distributed dangling disco balls, and young architects, woozy and sparklingly trim, queued up for drinks at either side of a bar set up in the middle of the room around a model of that 57th Street building, which rises like a great sail off the West Side Highway (or is it an Imperial Star Destroyer? Either is fun). You could see this party taking place there, in its future courtyard, with the same people present. There was dancing. There was pizza. It was supposed to go on until four in the morning. There were lots and lots of architectural models, each glamorous with their world-transforming confidence, movie sets for the metropolis of this very next minute. The party-party was okay, but on the streets of Manhattan BIG is throwing the party everyone wants to be at.