Kai-Uwe Bergmann, From Erector Set to World Architecture Stage

BIG’s business-development guru talks architecture around the world

We’re in the midst of an urban population explosion, so the news media trumpets around the world. “Demographers predict that New York alone will add one million more residents by 2040,” notes the Living Cities Competition brief. “Finding housing will pose a crisis for hundreds of thousands of them, unless new residential towers are built to house this urban influx.” With these developments in mind, I went for some enlightenment to one of the judges in the Living Cities Competition, Kai-Uwe Bergmann, whose firm is responsible for innovative and striking housing designs in cities, from Copenhagen and New York.

A partner in BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) Bergmann heads up the firm’s business development in 15 different countries. He’s a registered architect in the US, UK, and Denmark and a LEED AP; he was the project manager on the first carbon-neutral master plan in Central Asia’s Baku in Azerbaijan. Here he talks about building and materials practices around the world, the advantages of steel construction, and the energy a new generation of architects is bringing to the profession.

The Mountain by BIG

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Courtesy BIG

Susan S. Szenasy: It’s common knowledge that the 21st century city is in a growth pattern, which means the influx of large numbers of people to urban regions; they all need to be housed. In what area of the world are you seeing, or is BIG working on, projects that can influence the ways the rest of us think of housing in dense urban areas? 

Kai-Uwe Bergmann: We have projects in the cities where we live, Copenhagen and New York, which address this very issue of creating more dense housing for these populations, but we do this without losing the intimacy that each of us so uniquely and universally claims. Some examples are VM Houses, The Mountain, 8 House in Copenhagen and our West 57th Residences in New York.

Another project that will soon begin construction is our Transitlager Residences for UBS Bank in Basel, Switzerland. Here, instead of razing a 1970’s concrete warehouse, we enliven it with live/work apartments that also satiate a growing need for reuse by stacking three new floors of housing above the existing structure, thereby preserving our planet and refurbishing it to the way we wish to live today.

SSS: Your work in 15 different countries puts you in touch with probably 15 different approaches to the materials used to build residential buildings around the world. Is there one place that welcomes the use of all available structural materials? And if so, what’s your assessment of the results?

KUB: Each country and construction culture does things according to their environment, trades, and available materials so it does vary very much from place to place. In Denmark they use a lot of pre-fabricated concrete elements for everything from structural members to flooring to fascia. In the US there’s a preference to build either wood frame construction for low-rise projects and stick-frame steel for larger projects. Perhaps concrete or a composite of the two is used for more complex buildings. Canada builds residential buildings in site-cast concrete; this is also done in the Middle East and Asia where labor is less expensive. It’s really a fascinating study to see how each country and culture builds and how then this influences the architect’s design.

W 57th St Residences by BIG

Courtesy BIG

SSS: What are the advantages to using steel construction in high-rise residential buildings, especially in cities like New York where new structures are wedged into densely built neighborhoods?

KUB: Steel is an enormously flexible material. It’s perfect for a project like the West 57th Residences, as the shape can easily be made by building it in steel. Ever since my first days with an erector set, I have been bolting together beams and columns to create any shape that my imagination could contrive. The many bridges connecting Manhattan to the outer boroughs are fine examples as to how steel can take any shape or form that you can dream up. These bridges have left a legacy of engineering and construction know-how that still can be experienced.

SSS: BIG is working on a large project in New York City, and this puts you on the front lines of New York City construction practice. What is different about this city’s processes as opposed to places like Central Asia, where BIG is working on a carbon neutral master plan?

KUB: We have several ongoing projects in Asia, including our first high-rise, a 220-meter tall office building in Shenzhen that will serve as the headquarters for the city’s main energy company. I feel that much of Asia is experiencing the same type of unregulated building boom that characterized Manhattan during the 1920’s through 1960’s when most of Midtown and Downtown were built.

Building in New York now requires one to understand the regulatory environment and to make sure that daylight finds its way onto the sidewalks, that the life safety and well being of the residents and users are considered, and that the adjacent buildings and neighbors to the project are also considered and heard. All of these reviews and regulations ensure that the experience and legacy of our forefathers are considered when adding to the richness of Manhattan . . . whereas in Asia, they are still busy creating their own skylines in many cities.

SSS: You teach at IE University in Madrid and New School of Architecture in San Diego. What can youthful energy, fresh out of design schools bring to the profession?  What’s your best hope for them and the contributions they can make to bring our built environment in tune with the natural environment?

KUB: When I teach I always emphasize two things to all my students: Know your history and travel as much as you can. It is important to understand that the work we do is an evolution of what has come before; that there are already a lot of great ideas that have been put forth and that we can add to or enhance. In order to see this treasure trove of what has come before, it is important to travel and witness it firsthand . . . and not be content on seeing it only in books or presented in darkened rooms during a lecture. I see great promise in the students I have taught. They are curious and not content with what they know but hungry to learn and experience more.

Metropolis, the Steel Institute of New York, and the Ornamental Metal Institute of New York invite visionary ideas for  the residential high-rise of tomorrow. To help balance out NYC’s building materials preference, enter the Living Cities Design Competition.

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