"Possible Greenland" - The Earth as Common Ground. Interview with Bjarke Ingels
Text: Frank Kaltenbach
What's Greenland got to do with the Danish Pavilion? The largest island on Earth measuring 2,650 km in length, is part of Arctic North America geologically, but is a self-administered autonomous part of the Kingdom of Denmark politically. Only about 20% of Greenland is ice-free at present, but this is expected to change: the world population will increase by 50% in the next 40 years, climate change will cause Greenland's up to 2,000-metre-thick layer of ice to melt, and the increasing affluence of Asia and Africa will lead to an insatiable demand for resources.
The Arctic region is the area on the surface of the Earth affected most by global warming. A melting of the ice layer could result in an ice-free Northwest Passage along the west coast of Greenland in the future, opening up new sea routes between Asia, Europe and America, in addition to the Suez and Panama Canals. In the face of these developments, Greenland's geographic position may change from peripheral to a focus of worldwide attention, as the gateway to these new possibilities. But how can the 56,000 inhabitants of this island profit from these developments rather than merely satisfying foreign interests?
Greenland and Denmark have shared a common cultural and political history for centuries. It's therefore hardly surprising that the contributions in the Danish Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale 2012 were developed by mixed teams made up of architects and artists from Greenland and Denmark. "Greenland Connecting" is the contribution by the "Global Hub" team, consisting of Tegnestuen Nuuk, Inuk Silis Høegh and Julie Edel Harenberg from Greenland and the Danish office BIG–Bjarke Ingels Group .
How can best use of the potentials of trade and tourism be made, together with a sharp rise in the demand for better accessibility of the so far relatively remote island and better means of transportation? The most important mode of transport for reaching the scattered settlements is the aeroplane, while shipping is vital for transportation of goods. The Greenland Transport Commission therefore recommends moving the national transatlantic airport from Kangerlussuaq to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and, with approximately 16,000 inhabitants, the largest settlement in the country. As far as sea traffic is concerned, the Commission recommends opening up the passage to the north of Greenland, the so-called Northwest Passage , in order to make new sea routes accessible.
DETAIL editor Frank Kaltenbach interviewed Bjarke Ingels (BIG) about the "Air + Port" in Nuuk, which is to fulfil the future requirements of trade and tourism by a combination of an international airport with a transfer hub for shipping.
DETAIL: Bjarke, what is "Air + Port" about?
Bjarke Ingels: The whole idea of the project is to identify change - or imminent change - and to find out what the potential spin offs or consequences are.
DETAIL: Considering the recent developments in Greenland, how did you deal with such a complex project?
Bjarke Ingels: Our propositions as architects can become tools in the public debate about what to do and how to embrace the future. I think for that purpose, at an early stage, to make things very simple is important.
DETAIL: The scheme of your project looks very schematic and iconic. How do you set the concepts and how important are typology and/or aesthetics?
Bjarke Ingels: The Air + Port as the idea of a port and airfield overlay is a response to the different topography of a mountain in relation to an airfield. It is actually almost like a bridge spanning from summit to summit with the terminal building lying underneath the airfield. All these elements are quite complex but you distil them into their simplest form. The whole idea of combining an airport and a seaport is almost symbolized by the "+". Since so far we are trying to inform the public and initiate a political debate we really don't want to get lost in very complex details. When you see the Air + Port, it seems almost self-evident and straightforward. This makes it less fragile in a controversial discussion.
DETAIL: Yesterday in the discussion here in the Danish Pavilion there was the concern that with the new economic boom the Greenlanders will be "colonized" by foreign developers and firms from abroad. How do you think the Air + Port project will be to the benefit of the local society and not only help foreign companies to earn a lot of money?
Bjarke Ingels: I wouldn't be so xenophobic with regard to inviting skilled labour. As the Vice President mentioned when Norway discovered oil, they were definitely not an economic super power in the world. Since then they've become the richest country on the planet and now 86,000 people are employed in the oil industry.
Greenland currently has a population of 56,000 people - so they will need to bring people into the country to help with their contributions. The necessary investment in the industrial port deals with the repositioning in the global flow of goods and the need for shipping out resources. By combining that with the international airport in Nuuk you could actually create a much more financially sustainable service of air traffic. That would diminish the air fare prices for the everyday Greenlander and vastly improve their internal connectivity. It will make Greenland much more accessible to the rest of the world and vice versa. So already by combining the airport and the sea port we are creating a synergy that instantly improves the conditions for the Greenlanders, both in the short term and in the long term.
DETAIL: What is your approach, how did you start the project?
Bjarke Ingels: The first thing we did in this project was to travel to Greenland a few times in order to meet with the local collaborators. They also visited us in our office in Copenhagen to understand the way we work. In the beginning we tried to gather as much information as possible and tried to get a clear understanding of the different issues that are currently developing. That of course created a quite complex image, looking at the flow of goods, looking at the flow of people. We identified a lot of concerns and a lot of potential changes.
DETAIL: In what phase of development is the project? Will it be realised for sure, and if yes when – in 10 years, in 100 years or when all the glaciers are gone completely?
Bjarke Ingels: I think in architecture and urbanism nothing is ever certain. I was just speaking with the Vice President of Greenland yesterday. He said he read through the reports and statement by statement he agreed completely. However, there are still a lot of complex issues, like the existing airport belonging to another municipality, which does not want to give it up without a fight. At the same time, with all the reports by the Greenlandic Transport Commission, the officials unanimously endorse that an industrial harbour and an international airport is necessary in the long run. So I think the manifestation of the Air + Port is immanent within the foreseeable future.
DETAIL: How far have you already developed the scheme? Are there already any conceptual ground plans or layouts for circulation diagrams?
Bjarke Ingels: Not really. The project we've done is very much based on the hard facts we've been working on with the airport engineers. The orientation of the runway is the right one, the "island" where we have located the project is probably the right one. The position on the island could be debated though, also we would have to do some more water measurements. So of course there's still a lot more planning to do. But the whole project is based on five decades of research and sketching on the idea of a new airport. In that sense it is much more than some kind of out-of-the-blue concept.
DETAIL: Did you have any historical references? Projects regarding the combination of different types of infrastructure like airports and railwaystations have existed since the futurists.
Bjarke Ingels: We always try to establish as many references as we possibly can. I really believe you become a better architect by studying architecture. Of course, this idea of putting a Euclidean, almost 3-km-long, ultra-abstract runway through a sort of dramatic rocky landscape has some references to Superstudio as a continuous monument. Superstudio are the sort of utopian intellectuals we like to refer to. The big difference to Superstudio or the futurists is that we are not proposing some abstract idea, but actually presenting a very tangible proposition as a manifestation of a pragmatic utopia. It shows that within a specific view, operating in a specific set of conditions, you can actually create almost utopian visions.
DETAIL: I guess the need for having the combination of port and airport could be a universal solution not only for Nuuk. Are you already planning to apply the scheme to other places in the world?
Bjarke Ingels: I'm always very sceptical about universal applications but I definitely think this could be a possibility. It's transferable, and if nothing else the fact that it's so clear to communicate would make it capable of mediating the idea of hybridity and synergy. There are other examples that demonstrate that if a project is so clear that you can easily talk about it and easily show it, it will have greater resonance. Projects that clearly distil a single aspect into a very simple form have this potential to project ideas into the world, that are very complex to communicate otherwise.
DETAIL: Do you have an example?
Bjarke Ingels: The waste energy power plant we are doing in Copenhagen, which turns waste into energy and heat. Because of the magnitude of the building we proposed to put a public park on the roof, that is also a ski slope in winter. Just the idea that it's so easy to understand and the radical approach of having a public park and a playground on the roof as a piece of public infrastructure has made this project famous. Time Magazine awarded it as one of the 50 best ideas of the year, and it was shown on the CNN-television channel. This happened only because of the unconventional combination of social public programmes with public investments and infrastructure. It became an image for the idea of turning waste into energy.
DETAIL: Thank you very much for the interview.
The Architecture Biennale 2012 in Venice entitled "Common Ground" will run until 25 November 2012.