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INTERVIEW WITH BIG

THINK BIG

April 2016

Kai-Uwe Bergmann is one of 12 partners in the Bjarke Ingels Group generally known as BIG. Six partners work out of the original Copenhagen office, and six work out of the New York office which Bergmann runs as Managing Partner. He travels extensively for BIG to handle business development including international competitions and oversee his kind of projects – the ones that involve creating a master plan for an extensive area, generally in a city.

Bergmann joined BIG in 2006 less than a year after its establishment by Bjarke Ingels. He graduated from the University of Virginia and has taught architecture there and at IE University in Madrid, the New School of Architecture in San Diego, and the University of Miami. He is registered as an architect in seven U.S. states, the UK, and one province in Canada.

Today BIG has projects in 11 countries around the globe, and Bergmann spends two thirds of his time each year traveling among them to supervise and solve problems. Combining academic training, practical knowledge, and international expertise, Bergmann is the partner who reminds everyone associated with BIG about the firm’s principles and commitment to using architecture to improve people’s lives. He was interviewed by telephone from the New York office.

Q. Worldwide, how many employees does BIG have today?

We have 340 total, 220 in New York, and 120 in Copenhagen, our headquarters. As of April, we will have a project office in London as well. We will start with 15 employees in London.

Q.How many projects is BIG working on and where are they?

We have 50-60 on-going projects at any given time.  Of course, as we began in Scandinavia, we always have 6-8 projects there; since 2006 we began working in Asia including the Middle East and added North America in 2010 with the VIA 57th West project.

Q. By ongoing projects do you mean only under construction or also projects that are in a competition?

It means competitions as well as under construction. We include the competitions because we spend a good deal of time preparing for each one that we enter.

Q. Some architects feel that computer software is bad for architecture and insist on freehand drawings. Others prefer using technology. Where do you stand?

Any means possible. We use more than 60 software programs to design and develop our projects. We also draw by hand. Whatever works best in a given situation for the person or people designing the project.

Q. As a Partner in BIG who has been with the firm since 2006 and Managing Partner of the New York office, which projects are you in charge of?

They are primarily master plans for urban big-scale projects. One is the Pittsburgh Lower Hill Master Plan. Another is the Smithsonian Campus Master Plan that covers six of the Smithsonian institutions on the Washington Mall. Most challenging right now is the Big U involving making 10 miles of Manhattan’s coastline safe from the next huge hurricane and rising sea levels.

Q. This is a huge undertaking involving monies from the federal government and local government as well. How is it going?

There isn’t anything more difficult than getting everybody to move in the same direction. We have more than 25 public agencies involved as well as a number of local communities, but we are in this for the long haul. We hope within our lifetimes to make New York safer and more fun to live in for its residents.

This is our Central Park moment. We are planning for 10 miles of bicycle trails where the rider never has to cross a street – a beautiful landscape, safety, and exercise at the same time.

Q. You’re one of the experts in communication at BIG. How important is communication for an architect?

Extremely. If we want to connect with people – inhabitants and users of our designs – we have to speak the language and narrative of common values.

Q. So the right kind of communication is useful when you run into objections from residents or others concerned about one of your projects. How often does that happen?

There are NIMBYs [Not in My Back Yard] around the world. They are people who are afraid of the unknown and of change. We want to turn them into YIMBYs [Yes in My Back Yard].

I can give you an example. We’re building a waste to energy plant in Copenhagen – not something that most people would like to live near and not something to raise property values. But we added a ski slope that winds around the structure.

Copenhagen is a flat city that doesn’t get much snow. In fact, Denmark is pretty much at sea level and as flat as the Netherlands. Locals who love to ski have to travel several hours to the nearest slope. By adding the ski slope – which our energy company client welcomed – we created an amenity, an attraction, something that people would love to have next-door or easily accessible.

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