What if the one thing that makes BIG “BIG” was suddenly stripped away right at the apex of its potential? That’s the question posed by the trailer for Kaspar Astrup Schrøder’s documentary BIG TIME, which ominously illustrated a possible problem with Bjarke Ingels’ health.
Schrøder’s documentary highlights the intense journey of Bjarke Ingels, the founder of Bjarke Ingels Group, through the past few years of his life. This unique insight into what exactly it’s like to be an architect on top of the world ultimately poses a question that needs to be answered by anyone seeking to reshape the world through design. How do you handle the responsibility of forming the future you want to live in?
Architects spend their lives crafting spaces for people to inhabit. We celebrate these spaces for their intricate details and carefully authored experiences, but there’s a certain irony in the fact that we see little of the spaces that the architects themselves inhabit daily—their homes. Ingels’ home is clean and elegant, while naturally maintaining a sense of playfulness. It is clear that his move to New York City is not quite complete, but even there we see Ingels taking advantage of the opportunity to improve the space around him.
Ingels speaks in the film about continually designing for the framework of the future that you want to see. This responsibility is not taken lightly by Ingels and his team, and it is clear that he and his partners are under immense pressure to perform. With BIG’s designs (and especially its founder) consistently in the spotlight, any client wanting to work with BIG is expecting to get one thing—Bjarke. But it is revealed in the film that the growing need for Ingels’ presence in the states to manage landmark projects has led to a decrease in production for BIG’s Copenhagen office. BIG’s business model thrives off edgy and innovative competition commissions, but it’s clear that without Ingels, BIG is different.
The culture at BIG is young. The firm’s oldest partner is in his early 50s, while we witness Ingels’ own 40th birthday celebration in the film (he is now 43). The youthful spirit of BIG’s studio is visible in the remote celebration of their founder’s birthday via webcam between the NYC and Copenhagen offices. But during the festivities, something is off with Ingels. We are left to wonder, are the stresses of running one of the world’s most high-profile architecture firms catching up to the 40-year-old visionary?
The formalities and stresses of opening a new office on a different continent are not the only things that threaten to take away BIG’s fearless leader. Due to lingering complications from a concussion he sustained during a party (something about being hit in the head by a baseball bat—never really a good thing), he is in evident and severe pain for quite some time. He admits that rest is essential when you have a concussion, “but it is difficult to turn off your brain. To not exercise is quite simple, but to not think is nearly impossible.” A doctor recommends an MRI and tells him that the chances of discovering something are slim, but Ingels’ stress is evident. “I would rather lose my arm than not be able to use my head,” he says. Spoiler alert: Bjarke finds out that there is nothing seriously wrong, but the scare causes him to fear that he may have come to the end of his time to make meaningful contributions to the world through design.
In the big picture, the buildings that BIG builds are only a very small fraction of the entire built environment. It is this realization that causes Bjarke to question his legacy. Has he done everything he can to make a positive impact on the world through the work he has completed? What then would have been said for the work he never completed if the result of his apparent illness had ended his career?
It has been well documented that architecture as a profession does not manage work-life balance well. Many are under the impression that as architects, it is necessary to work 60+ hour weeks in order to be successful. As students, it is seen as necessary to stay in studio until the wee hours of the morning in order to finish a project. It is in this work-life balance that many sacrifice perhaps the most important thing to maintain if you desire to be successful—your health. Ingels is an extreme example due to the complication of his growing fame, but at the same time, he is a perfect example of the importance of making an effort to make health a priority. We shouldn’t wait until we are inside an MRI machine to recognize the importance of a balanced lifestyle. The truth is, we never know which building could be our last, but that does not mean we should accelerate the process by neglecting our own well-being.
The question therefore becomes: how do you handle the responsibility of shaping the future while prioritizing your life so that you don’t neglect the importance of self-preservation? BIG TIME should ultimately serve as a source of motivation. We should be inspired by the opportunity afforded to us as architects and designers to shape the world around us according to how we see it. But we should also recognize the immense pressure that comes with that. The ability to offset that pressure with a conscious effort toward a healthy life is what will make the difference if we truly want to make a positive impact on the world.