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Designing for a dictator

Can designing for a dictator actually be virtuous? That’s the question posed by editor of Co.Design Cliff Kuang when he speaks to contemporary architect Bjarke Ingels of architect firm BIG. The firm is famous for a number of international projects, but the recent commission by the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev – who runs an infamously dictatorial and corrupt government —  to build the Astana National Library, is undoubtedly the most controversial yet. 

Baby-faced starchitect Bjarke Ingels sits down with Co.Design to discuss a controversial commission and saving Brazil from the Olympics curse.

Just shy of 36 years old, Bjarke Ingels is, without a doubt, the most precocious contemporary architect on the international scene today. And his firm, BIG -- short for Bjarke Ingels Group -- is about to become even more prominent. After several splashy commissions in their home-base of Denmark, the firm is now opening a New York office that will work on several high-profile projects in the city, including a high-rise condo in Manhattan and other, big-time commissions that remain confidential for now. 

Ingels cut his teeth working for Rem Koolhaas at OMA and just like the master, Ingels's buildings have a severe, monolithic aesthetic. But when explained, they reveal an irresistible logic. Ingels recently sat down with Co.Design to talk about his upcoming works and what may be his most controversial commission yet, the Astana National Library, commissioned by the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who oversees an infamously dictatorial and corrupt government. 

Ingels was on a short jaunt in New York, to sign a new lease on an apartment in TriBeCa. And he'd just bought an old Porsche to commute between New York and Boston, for a teaching gig at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

We talked about how better architecture might solve the curse of hosting the Olympics; why designing for a dictator can still be virtuous; and why surf & turf is the quintessential American meal. 

So what are you going to be teaching up in Boston? 

Between 2014 and 2016, Rio de Janiero is going to host both the World Cup and the Olympics. So we're going to be looking at ways to transform the who investment into something that Brazil can benefit from in the long-term. Because generally the Olympics have a traumatic impact on the host city. It usually creates a construction bubble that leaves behind empty spaces forever. 

What's funny is that right when I agreed to teach this class, The Economist had a cover with the famous Christos statue with rocket fins photoshopped onto it, with the headline "Brazil Takes Off." The economy has become an amazing locomotive for the South America -- it's bigger than all of Latin America put together -- but Rio also has tremendous social challenges. We want to see if we might solve these with investments for the Olympics. 

So how might one of those solutions work? 

My girlfriend and I just went on holiday in Rio, and we stayed in a small favela of 2000 inhabitants. The reason we could stay in a hotel run by a local artist is that a decade ago the SWAT team moved their headquarters there. Having 600 armed men having coffee in the neighborhood every morning suddenly cleaned things up. 

But what I noticed was that with their spiraling roads and nested buildings and maze of tiny shops, the favelas have a type of architecture shared by the wealthiest parts of Italy, along the Amalfi coast. The only difference is that Italy has better plumbing and white paint. So the favelas are actually a pretty desirable type of city planning. We might be able to find ways to create some kind of positive gentrification where old and new residents could coinhabitat the area -- rather than erasing those neighborhoods. This wouldn't just be philanthropy, but sane investment at the same time. 

Is the Brazilian government taking these sorts of ideas seriously? 

Well, they're going to be only hiring local architects for the work, but we want to present the results of studio in the form of a newspaper or a magazine that we can present to local officials. 

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