BIG Joke

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), People’s Building, Shanghai, 2004

With what framework can one evaluate the projects of Bjarke Ingels Group? They seem too casual, too whimsical for serious criticism. Their design process puts such great emphasis on the authorship of each project that the final products cannot be judged based on their forms alone. Instead, the forms are inextricably paired with their design narratives. An evaluative framework therefore has to be built around the connection between the narratives and the buildings, as well as the between the buildings and their cultural contexts.

Such a framework already exists: the joke. Jokes are specific machines in which the resolution of a narrative (called the punchline) has a reflexive function. In one performative action, the punchline produces a humorous effect and the justification for the telling of the narrative in the first place. As with all jokes, BIG’s projects can be evaluated by the strength of their punchlines.

In a typical BIG project, concepts are generalized and instrumentalized to produce a linear narrative. A causal system is set up: generic masses are manipulated into sculptural forms through the invocation of sun angles, view corridors, or other such performance criteria. As the audience, we presume that the result justifies the process.

In most BIG projects, however, this justification is suspect. Their projects are typically of the “shaggy-dog” type, in which the narrative plays on the audience’s preconception of a standard joke. The audience’s expectation of a meaningful resolution keeps them listening while the narrative is drawn out for a much longer time than they anticipated. Instead of producing any humorous effect, the joke ends in a pointless, unrelated, or unsatisfactory form. The joke is on the audience for listening in the first place. Whether this effect is intentional or not on the part of BIG is irrelevant. The “shaggy-dog” technique keeps the audience wanting more in the hopes that one story will eventually be funny.

At their best, however, BIG are funny. They are able to generate forms that both justify their narratives and transcend them, becoming more than the sums of their parts. The People’s Building for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is a prime example. The form of the tower is derived from a seemingly logical step-by-step process of overcoming constraints. View corridors from a major street to the river must be maintained, the boardwalk must run uninterrupted, etc. But the resultant form is not just the product of these design constraints. It is also the Chinese character for people, the character personified and used as the mascot for the Expo. The seemingly straightforward resolution of pragmatic site issues into a signifying product makes this particular form a successful punchline. With the People’s Building, BIG’s narrative approach to design doesn’t result in yet another complex but inert form; it produces a humorous and culturally resonant punchline. The work is a joke.

It takes a lot of effort to be funny. At least somebody is trying.

Mark Talbot