Bjarke Ingels brings a BIG idea to L.A.’s Arts District

Bjarke Ingels is bringing a BIG vision to the Arts District in downtown L.A. Will the anti-gentrification forces embrace a project that brings architectural ambition -- and massive change -- to the area?

Image by BIG (6)
Rendering of 670 Mesquit (courtesy BIG)

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his firm Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, is currently one of the most sought-after architects in the world.

And now he is bringing a BIG vision to the Arts District in downtown L.A., with a complex of housing, hotels and offices named 670 Mesquit. 

670 Mesquit would be located on the river’s edge below the new replacement 6th Street Viaduct on the site of the Rancho Cold Storage facility owned by the Gallo family.

It is conceived as a flexible arrangement of glass boxes within a giant concrete framework that would tap into the raw character of the formerly industrial neighborhood, even though its highest points would reach as high as 30 feet, and connect the district to the river and the forthcoming replacement 6th Street Viaduct (designed by Michael Maltzan with the City’s Bureau of Engineering.)

But will those nervous about gentrification in downtown LA and nearby Boyle Heights, or those fighting to slow growth in LA, embrace a project that brings architectural ambition — and massive change — to the area? 

Bjarke spoke with DnA about the thinking behind the design, the synergies that come from uniting “seemingly incompatible building types”, and what makes an architect different from a politician (clue: it’s about how each deals with conflict.)

Listen to the story above or read on for an extended interview.

BIG is known for upending conventional architecture solutions, with projects for clients ranging from the Danish government to Google and Lego. 

Past projects include an apartment building that looks like a mountain and a hospital that’s shaped like a snowflake. His office in New York was one of the winners of the post-Sandy resiliency design competition called Rebuild By Design, with a project called the Dryline.

The Dryline_Image by BIG_02
Rendering of the Dryline, a resiliency scheme for South Manhattan island (rendering courtesy BIG)

The firm just finished the city’s latest landmark: the pyramidal residential tower called VIA 57 West, which carves a communal space into a skyscraper, and the firm is also designing the new Two World Trade Center building as well as a Hyperloop between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and oddly enough, a rebrand of Nordic countries.

Ingels brings endless optimism to the pursuit of architecture, telling DnA, “Architecture at its core is the art and science of creating the city that we would like to live in — in the sense of creating an environment that maximizes our freedom and maximizes our possibilities. So if the city doesn’t fit with the way we want to live, we actually have the power through architecture to really change it and transform it so that it actually does create the possibilities that we want.”

Hyperloop (rendering courtesy BIG)
Hyperloop (rendering courtesy BIG)

One of the secrets of Ingels’ success is his ability to deliver his ideas with snappy branding and strong imagery (leading to criticism that he is less interested in a building’s details).

For example, he embraces energy efficient thinking while eschewing the notion that it should be boring, calling his approach one of “hedonistic sustainability.”

He finds ways to turn utilitarian projects into destinations, as in a project under construction now in Copenhagen which adds a ski slope to the roof of a power plant.

“We’re doing a power plant that is so clean that there’s only a little bit of steam and a small amount of CO2 coming out of the chimney, but no toxins,” he told DnA.

Amager Bakke Waste To Energy Plant in Copenhagen_Image by BIG & MIR
Amager Bakke waste-to-energy Plant in Copenhagen (Rendering courtesy BIG and MIR)

“So we got the idea that this power plant, which is a huge building — it’s going to be the biggest and tallest building in Copenhagen — we could actually turn it into a public park.

And because we have snow in Denmark right now in the winter but we have no hills we thought maybe this power plant could become a manmade Alpine ski slope… and that just means that a child born in Copenhagen this year will never know of a world where you can’t ski on the roof of power plants.”

If the design goes according to plan, the power plant’s CO2 emissions will come out not as a continuous stream of smoke, but in sudden bursts of smoke rings.

VIA at W57 Street_Image-by-Nic-Lehoux
VIA at W57 Street (photo: Nic Lehoux)

He applies this thinking to VIA 57 West, which he calls a “court scraper,” saying:

“The more you can actually harvest possibilities of synergy — rather than doing the traditional generic box and then adding some icing on top to make it look extra good –and if you actually really look into the very ingredients that the building is made of and put them together in an untraditional way you can create unexpected synergies and also discover architectural forms that would otherwise not exist.

We just finished this building here in New York that we’ve called a court scraper, because it is basically the combination of a skyscraper and a typical European Court building, where you have a perimeter where people live and then a big porch out as an oasis in the middle of the city block. They work in Europe because the buildings are five, to six, to seven stories tall. So you actually get sunlight and air into the courtyard.”

VIA at W57 (photo: Iwan Baan)
VIA at W57 (photo: Iwan Baan)

“But if you build something that is 40 floors around the courtyard it becomes a dark pit. And that’s why you don’t have a lot of these courtyards in American cities and especially in New York. So to make it happen the building is so dramatically asymmetrical that in the southwest corner it’s the height of a handrail.

But in the northeast corner it’s the height of a high rise. So the result is some kind of warped pyramid, or hyperbolic paraboloid, or a sail, or whatever you want to call it. But it actually allows this courtyard to function and have sunlight and even views over the Hudson River even though it actually has the density of a Manhattan skyscraper.

So by taking these two seemingly incompatible types and putting them together — the courtyard building into a skyscraper — we discover something that looks dramatically different because it performs dramatically differently.”

Image by BIG (5)
Rendering of 670 Mesquit (courtesy BIG).

Now Ingels hopes to go BIG in downtown LA’s Arts District with 670 Mesquit, a large complex of housing, offices, hotels and public spaces made up of glass boxes within a giant concrete framework that at its highest points would reach as high as 30 feet. But Ingels intends it to form a strong connection to the river and bridge.

“The arts district in downtown L.A. is exactly this kind of process where a neighborhood of manufacturing with warehouses and industrial sheds and cold storage buildings has begun to attract a new type of tenant or a new type of residence.

But then you can also create new pieces of infrastructure that actually come with positive social side effects. One example is the new bridge over the river (the six street replacement bridge) where that bridge is somehow a hybrid between something that could pass over the road and something that can get the people and the bicycles over the road. But it’s also a park that you might go to and hang out in — like in Paris a lot of the places where the lovers go to hang out is actually the bridges. So there are a lot of examples where something that is intended for one thing gets another quality.”

Image by BIG (4)
Rendering of 670 Mesquit (courtesy BIG)

“And what we try to do is with this new development is to embrace some of the local culture that has evolved in the arts district. And we were thinking like what draws people to the arts district is that the industrial architecture actually comes with certain qualities because they are not tailored for living or working but for manufacturing. They have much taller ceiling heights than normal, they have much bigger spans, much bigger floor plates. They have like raw materials, so that there’s like a freedom and flexibility that makes it capable of accommodating all kinds of activity.

“Also because we in Los Angeles probably one of the best climates in the world outdoor space is going to be very desirable.”

BIG’s concept is a modular, seemingly open-ended scheme combining the weight and rawness of a sturdy concrete frame on which hang airy, glass boxes.

Image by BIG (8)
Rendering of 670 Mesquit (courtesy BIG)

“If you look at our structure one way to describe it is it’s like two main volumes. One is as a kind of towel that sits along the fifth Street Bridge and steps up with terraces and it changes proportions slightly as it grows. The other one is a rather long building along the river. But that steps up towards the sixth Street Bridge and becomes taller and taller, creating really south facing terraces. But also it gets more and more slender because the site gets narrower and narrower and that means that the northern end is actually more ideally proportioned for apartments or condos or hotels.

“And then maybe I think one last thing that the project does is that obviously there’s a lot of effort going into transforming the L.A. River into a green and publicly accessible and enjoyable space. But the reverse is rather inaccessible because it is cut off from the surrounding neighborhood — in this case the train tracks — so in part of our project we’re proposing to actually create this elevated sculpture park that goes out over the train tracks and actually allows people to move through, past the market halls, the restaurants, the shops and the galleries and out onto this elevated deck like a sculpture park and then back down and connect to the river.

So in that sense then the project not only tries to sort of create this free and flexible framework for the people that are going to be occupying the structure, it also tries to really connect the Arts District all the way down to the river and to bring the river all the way into the district.”

Image by BIG (2)
Rendering of 670 Mesquit (courtesy BIG)

As for their actual uses, the clients have plans that include two hotels and 250 rental units and 30 stores. It’s a project that tends to the higher end of the market and it would require variances, or spot zoning. This comes just at the time Angelenos are divided around issues of development — from the Boyle Heights community on the other side of the river that is fighting the gentrification they believe is pricing them out to the slow-growthers who want to put an end to developments requiring spot zoning with Measure S.

DnA asked Ingels what he would say to those forces who are lined up in opposition to projects like this.

“A city is what happens when a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds come together and have to inhabit a limited amount of real estate in the way that maximizes the freedom of each and every individual without in turn inhibiting the expression of everybody else. So in that sense I think what’s already baked into the DNA of what we are proposing with this project is actually a structure that is so free and flexible that it can actually accommodate all kinds of functions but also very, very different kinds of tenants. And I know that our client is also looking into affordable rental units and including them in the mix.”

Danish Expo Pavilion 2010_Image by Iwan Baan_01
Danish Expo Pavilion 2010 (Photo: Iwan Baan)

Beyond his design skills and those of his 400 staff, Ingels possesses an outsize ability at persuading people to embrace his ideas, which he typically delivers with charm, passion and smart slogans.

DnA asked if he felt the job of architect these days involves also being a politician. To this he shared a telling anecdote drawn from politics in his native country.

“Normally I explain design as being like almost the opposite of politics because one of the problems of politics is that it somehow seems to derive from exacerbating an escalating conflict. The mechanism of politics is to get elected (so) politicians need to be profiled. And a great way to get your name in the paper is to say the opposite of someone else because then you are actively engaged in a conflict and conflict attracts eyeballs.

I think the most extreme case was a few years ago in the elections in Denmark when one of the major parties from one side of the political spectrum was accusing another party from the other side of the spectrum of having stolen their political program. So the big conflict was about the two parties actually wanting to do the same — which in any other context would be the very definition of harmony.

I think in design we actually have the possibility to look at the sometimes opposing interests and find ways to accommodate them in a way where there is actually space for both one and the other, and I use the conflict as a driving force of the design.”