Imagining the Modern 03 Kai-Uwe Bergmann Lecture

This is a guest post by my friend Joe Adiutori, Jr. We met through the Young Architects Forum, where he now serves as Communications Chair. He’s a good man, and thorough, so settle in for some deep coverage of BIG’s projects and Kai’s lecture. All images are taken from BIG’s website and are the property of BIG. Click the images for more information on the projects.

Kai-Uwe Bergmann, AIA of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), spoke to a crowd of several hundred people on Thursday, January 28, 2016. The lecture was held in the extravagant and ornate Carnegie Music Hall of Oakland. After some very thoughtful introductions, Kai-Uwe Bergmann took to the stage. His first act was to take a nice sip from a very small bottle of water. He spoke very highly of the venue, saying it was an inspiring place to discuss architecture. The presentation would cover several projects from “Hot to Cold.” This method isn’t just a very interesting and colorful way to present and analyze architecture, but is actually the title of the firm’s book, released last year.

This “odyssey of architectural adaptation” was logically sound and gave better insight on how the firm carefully considers design opportunities around the globe. Bergmann stressed the importance of context, site and how the environment can impact design. Ultimately, in both extremely hot and cold climates the façade is first and foremost the leading design consideration that shapes a project. In contrast, mild climates provide the opportunity for the building program to considerably influence the design. During this time, he briefly contrasted the International Style with the Vernacular. He made mention of Phillip Johnson’s “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1932. As well as, showing examples from Architecture without Architects, a book published by Bernard Rudofsky, in 1964. The contrast was clear. The International Style is characterized by simple geometry and lack of ornamentation. It was the style by architects for architects across the globe, regardless of site. Meanwhile, the Vernacular is design by the people and for the people. It is functional, practical and of it’s place and time. Kai-Uwe Bergmann stated that the work of BIG is somewhere in between and coined it as “Engineering without Engines.”

Things heated up rather quickly, as the first project was located in Malaysia. The Kuala Lumpur Signature Tower needed to act as a catalyst for a new business district, but be respectful of the ruling Petronas Towers nearby in the old business district. The project does not aim to compete, but rather reinvent the tower typology. Ultimately, it will complement its neighbor in a creative way. The design uses an expanding profile to passively shade from the top down and provide additional area in the most desirable part of the building. The double wrapped skin of the facade controls sunlight and glare while allowing for operable windows and natural ventilation. Furthermore, the building program is separated by green oases, which provide unique vistas of the city.

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BIG’s creative spirit shines brightly in the Hualien Residences located in Taiwan. Channeling inspiration from the region, BIG implements pitched roofs at varying angles to create peaks and valleys throughout the project. The organic nature of the slopes is in direct contrast to the rectilinear floor plan and regular structural grid. The valleys provide points for circulation across the site. Vertical circulation is centered within each rising hill. All slopes support vegetation and provide environmental benefits, such as evaporative cooling and rainwater retention. Bergmann urged all in attendance to appreciate the generosity of design and space. This practice can be clearly seen at transitional spaces between inside and outside. These “Inhabited Hills” further showcases the firm’s skill at creating unique public space that also considers the environment.

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Moving stateside, Bergmann drew our attention to VIA at West 57 th Street, a mixed-use project in New York City scheduled for completion this spring. Drawing inspiration from history, BIG discovered a lost typology, the courtyard building – popular during the 1920’s & 30’s. Since the introduction of the International Style, many buildings in New York have consisted of podiums with tall towers. Realizing the merits of each typology, the firm decided to merge the Skyscraper with the Courtyard building. Thereby, creating the Courtscraper. (Yes, the name is awful; they should have called it a SkyYard.) But the design actually makes sense. Atop a full podium, the design implements a compact perimeter block with a pleasant interior court and gradually ascends in one corner to the heights of a tower.

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Anticipation had been building with each passing project. But finally it was time! A dreamy aerial view of the Lower Hill project was cast across the silky white screen.

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Once again, he invited us to take a trip across time. An urban neighborhood rich in diversity, this was a place where many immigrants began their American journey. The Lower Hill had also been a vibrant center for African American culture and jazz. Despite the success of this area, civil servants felt it appropriate to claim this land for urban renewal in the 1950s. In 1943, George E. Evans, a member of City Council, wrote that “approximately 90 per cent of the buildings in The Hill District are sub-standard and have long outlived their usefulness, and so there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.” According to the Pittsburgh Housing Association, the redevelopment displaced over 8,000 residents. While arguably this transition may have brought about some positive change to the Steel City it could never heal the wounds of a community that lost its heart and soul.

This first Pittsburgh “renaissance” brought forth the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways as well as the Civic Auditorium Amphitheater. This unique architectural marvel could warrant its own lecture. But the highlights were covered quite well. The venue began as a place for the opera and the orchestra before hosting iconic acts such as “Judas Priest and The Beatles.” The last tidbit focused on the Pennsylvania State Bird, the penguin. (Disclaimer: the State Bird of Pennsylvania is the Ruffed Grouse.) This is a great local example where architecture does more! The Pittsburgh Dome referred to many as “The Igloo” inspired the name of the city’s beloved NHL franchise, the Pittsburgh Penguins. After this fond trip down memory lane, Bergmann dove into the Pittsburgh Lower Hill Master Plan, which hopefully will someday have a way cooler name.

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A crisp and clear vision was expressed and supported by an array of diagrams and renderings. The BIG design ideas focused on public green space, site accessibility, and using the topography intelligently. A variety of public spaces were showed, from the large open grassy lawn to the small parkette. This approach creates unique spaces throughout the site and encourages one to ascend to the top for a magnificent view of the city. Putting emphasis on accessibility, the design provides pathways with a 5% slope thereby allowing people to crawl, roll and stroll freely around the 28-acre site with ease. The 140-foot change in elevation also benefited the designers. Taller buildings could be built downhill without compromising views of the terrace housing blocks above. With this kind of strategy, the master plan provides appropriate outdoors space from the urban to the neighborhood scale.

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The architectural aficionados in the audience gushed with excitement. As the Q&A session would show later on, some folks didn’t grasp the design quite as well and many would seize the opportunity to voice concerns about affordable housing.

After the main event, it was time for some more “cool” projects. This one had a great name, A Lady Among Cowboys. Bergmann tells us the familiar tale of many North American cities. A dense urban core of office towers surrounded by low-density suburban homes. BIG seizes this opportunity to provide the Telus Corporation with a unique and autonomous office tower, but also improve the urban core of Calgary, Alberta. An efficient office tower blends elegantly into a leaner residential tower above. A smooth glass façade evolves as the program transitions and becomes thoughtful apartments with balconies.

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Moving forward, the next project conveyed BIG’s willingness to think, well, big. Bergmann gives another brilliant history lesson, explaining the design of the Copenhagen transportation system from 1947 – 5 separate light rail lines diverge from the historic urban core, thereby preserving beautiful park space between. Going beyond the initial scope and scale this project endeavors to create a regional solution that will foster sustainable growth over the next 50 years. The introduction of a new line that bisects the existing lines will improve transportation across the metropolitan area. Furthermore, the new line would extend beyond the city and establish a loop connecting nearby Sweden and surrounding coastal cities, thereby, creating Loop City. The brilliance of this project continued into the design of the individual rail stations.

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Later deemed the “star of the show” at the happy hour hosted by AIA Pitttsburgh’s Young Architects Forum, the “Art Bridge” is a great amalgam of BIG’s talents. Located just north of Oslo, this hybrid of architecture, infrastructure and sculpture simplifies existing museum circulation and also elevates the experience of the art situated within the natural landscape. The design of the Kistefos Museum responds to the site and adds a literal twist to maneuver from a lower forested area to a higher hillside across the river. As a result, the project benefits from the diversity of spaces created. Furthermore, the strategic placement of glazing transitions from above to the side, for sunlight and views respectively.

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The last project of the evening, the Amager Bakke Waste-to- Energy Plant in Copenhagen, was another fine example of architecture going above and beyond expectations. Located in an industrial area that has slowly gained popularity as an extreme sports destination, BIG expands this condition by creating a waste-to- energy plant that is iconic and innovative. Bergmann discusses the impact of the design on community perception and appreciation. Specifically, how funds have now been allocated from legal fees to the marketing budget. The building roof will contain a forested area and an artificial ski slope. The vertical access to the slopes will provide educational views into the facility as well as views toward the city. Finally, to promote public awareness and understanding of consumption, the smokestack creates a smoke ring whenever 1-ton of fossil CO 2 is released.

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The presentation came to an amusing conclusion as Bergmann’s laptop alerted the crowd to a low battery. The power cord was plugged into the computer, but not the outlet. After a fair amount of laughter, the congregation respectfully transitioned into applause.

The Q&A Session mainly focused on the Lower Hill Master Plan. Most notably, Bergmann expressed the adversity he faced from contractors about the terrace housing meriting a “premium geometry cost.” He contributed this concern to fear of the unknown. His closing remarks encouraged all to seize the opportunity to improve and develop the remaining vacant lots scattered across the Hill District, which comprise an area 5.6 times the amount of the Lower Hill site.

Overall, it seems that BIG has a habit of doing something simple yet significant. An architecture that appears timeless, but is rooted deep in history and culture. Each project had a distinctive terroir paired with a basic diagram. This constantly culminated into architecture that is respectful to people and place, but continually challenges society to expect more. In Pittsburgh expectations are high as the city is experiencing a new rebirth. Perhaps, it is not a question of if, but how and when this hallowed land regains its soul. Will this be an invasion, a metamorphosis or a resurrection via architecture? It is clear that a great mind is shaping the Lower Hill Master Plan. Anyone can see that the body of work is quite stunning. However, only time will tell if the spirit can be successful and the heart of the Hill be healed.

Editor’s Note: I crafted a quote regarding BIG’s Lower Hill plan for an earlier version of Joe’s article. I’ll include it here by way of conclusion.

I’m now conflicted as to BIG’s stance on affordable housing in the Lower Hill. I attended all of the public meetings regarding the plans for the Civic Arena site and it’s clear that the community in the Hill District is very concerned about the affordability of living units on that site, to the exclusion of nearly every other issue. Throughout all three public sessions, BIG’s response to questions about affordable housing was, more or less, ‘the decision to exceed the legal minimum requirements for affordable housing is at the discretion of the developer. We don’t have control over that.’ That’s a totally valid argument, one that I frankly wish they would have explained more thoroughly in order to have more productive charrettes. But then during the lecture, Kai showed several projects (most notably Loop City) that reached well beyond the traditional duties of the architect. It makes me wonder, did the design team have ideas that they weren’t able to explore in the master plan? Will they have more freedom to explore them as they execute the first phase of the development? Or are they content to wash their hands and point to the developer?

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