BIG, or whoever tries harder, wins…
Frédéric Bonnet, 2014
This article critically presents BIG, the winning agency for the Europacity project, planned for the Triangle de Gonesse. The author paints a picture of an excessive project, where sociological, geographical and urban planning considerations have been deliberately left aside in order to seduce elected officials with an extremely well-tuned communication and commercial discourse.
« Yes is more » is the title of a best-selling book by the Danish agency Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a comics interpretation of the photo novels and iconographic compilation paperback published by the big brothers OMA and MVRDV. A quantitative statement in the form of a half-sarcastic, half-provocative nod to the « less is more » of the very strict Mies van der Rohe. The story goes that Mies, on a weekend in the New Canaan glass house designed by Philip Johnson, could not sleep, disturbed by the corner post of the glass walls of this landscaped belvedere. This architectural nightmare is not likely to haunt Bjarke Ingels, 40 years old on the dot this year, leader and founder of the BIG agency, winner of the « Europa City » project on the Gonesse plateau near Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle. For this agency of 130 people, located in Copenhagen, New York and now Beijing, more is never the enemy of good: who tries harder, wins, could be a translation of this lapidary Yes is more.
This relaxed attitude must have fitted in well with the commercial ambitions of Immochan, the developer of Europa City. This is no mere coincidence, the chance of a project. All of BIG’s discourse - the « language elements », as the communicators would say - perfectly matches the wildest dreams of the aces of financial and real estate marketing. Certainly, the agency, in its fundamental expectations, insists on the alliance between utopia and pragmatism. According to BIG, today there is on the one hand utopian delusions encouraged by digital virtuosity, architectures of pixels and bits, but which are never embodied ; on the other hand, a shoddy pragmatism, driven by stereotyped models according to the « standing » of the developers. This is somewhat true, it must be admitted. But the agency is situated in an in-between, an architecture with a stomach, without any concession to habit or banality, which is realized in spite of - or thanks to - « coups » whose audacity and emphasis seem to have no limit. Inverted pyramids, intertwined loops, Babylonian tiered buildings. BIG is to architecture what extreme sports promoters are to rock climbing and long jumping. The simple perfection of the gesture is boring without the risk and the fun. We understand that in truth and dare parties, daring will take precedence over truth, and for a long time… All this is as fresh as a comic, full of humor, with a virtuoso pedagogy of making off - when you buy the film for its extras… - and private jokes of insomniac gamers. And inevitably, it sells well.
I remember participating in a jury in Finland, for a chic yet Lappish « ski-resort ". Despite the good starting level of the three other competitors (Finnish, Swedish), despite the anonymity, the BIG team revealed itself as soon as the panels were unpacked: a testosterone-like rendering, an avalanche of elegant drawings, a multiplication of explanatory diagrams, graphic demonstrations of boundless skill. In short, a work of slaves, or of maniacal and undeniably talented cocaine addicts. The whole gave, as a « BIG picture ", as they say over there, a series of undulated and intertwined buildings, where appeared as well the street - and in Lapland, it is necessary to do it -, as the seaside hotel in front of the great landscape, and whose waves of the undulating roof would have been as many departure tracks towards the curves of the boreal tunturi. More than a utopia, the project combines playful desires, sympathetic urbanity and lyrical emphasis on the landscape. From a commercial point of view, it is quite pragmatic : everything is there - warm, funny, grand, stunning, sporty. Obviously, the project won hands down. The success of BIG’s project for the « city of the human body » in Montpellier is not surprising either. It is true that the mitochondria of the plan pay much more homage to scissiparity than to the most elementary urbanity. Nice image, once again, simple as a logo, like a Mother’s Day drawing. These projects are never short on special effects or constructive subtleties. In these times of crisis, one wonders what magic mirror leads elected officials to choose these ostensibly expensive solutions, when frugality could, on the contrary, reconnect with the founding principles of architecture, closer to Alberti than to Disneyworld. Witches have a future.
And it’s a recipe that works. The success is such that one is almost moved that these radiant thirty-somethings have succeeded in covering the planet with concepts that are as effective plastically as they are socially approximate. Bjarke Ingels travels the earth and the virtual space with the same radiant smile and hallucinated eyes as on the first day, his calculated or not glance expresses the ecstasy of the little boy in front of his beautiful brand new fire truck. His optimism is such that one hesitates to put forward any criticism. Yet the creation of « ideal places from a social, economic and environmental point of view« , according to BIG, leaves one wondering. These architects would they have exceeded the masters communicators of their clients freshly emerged from the best business schools, and who hardly formalize the gaps between the openings that the advertising promotes and what the product, captive, encloses notwithstanding. In this case, BIG’s argument for Europa City leaves us stunned. We look at the shape : a disproportionate disc, perfectly autonomous, closed in on itself, well detached from the vague mass plan suggested all around. We read the text : « a new type of shopping center that merges with the urban fabric, that includes, rather than excludes, the city all around ". The architects claim the mix of programs as the height of inventiveness, but one guesses that the « mix » between « leisure, culture, entertainment and commerce« , distributed according to « six different sectors, each of which celebrates a different way of life » fits impeccably with an unabashed market study. Everyone will find something to his or her liking : it is diversity in reverse, the catalog of possible stereotypes, the recycling of the depths of cash-drawer sociology. The rhetoric of contrasts is astounding : the circular boulevard allows one to lose oneself without ever losing the overall vision, the dense city is combined with the great landscape - none of this is visible in the drawings. The whole thing is highly environmental, creative as can be in ecological terms, the ski slope being maintained presumably by the energy residues of the gyms, unless it’s the commercial alleys that heat the spas, which irrigate (with chlorine ?) the trees of the park… A real ecoloprogrammatic orgy. BIG, when you look at it from afar, it’s pretty, when you read it up close, it’s terrifying. Terrific ?
We look again at the drawing. It is indeed a building of 800,000 m2 whose roof has been adorned with green. One does not find there the least suspicion of urbanity. In short, the words are wrong, the words are crazy, and the whole thing sounds like a lot of nonsense. Applause.
Will we regret the casualness of BIG, preserved from the grace of fair measure, and whose delighted cynicism amazes? That the market installs such machines, what can we really do about it ? But the intellectual swindle is doing well, that’s for sure.
To access the PDF version of issue of Tous Urbains, n° 6
To go further
The site of the Danish agency Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)
The project of the « cité du corps humain » in Montpellier
To go further on the alternative projects to Europacity and the social expectations that emerged from the participatory workshops