Everybody knows the lightbulb moment: that magic spark, where in one second all the puzzle pieces come together into a brilliant idea. But that is of course utter bullshit. An inspiring exhibition about the work of BIG architects shows how a creative process actually looks.
It is a playground for architecture lovers. Inside BLOX, a new building on the waterfront of Copenhagen’s city centre, is an exhibition from the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). It is an overload of images, graphics, drawings, video images, and of course models of buildings.
But what is actually the most interesting part, is the dozens of very small models (out of paper, foam or other easy-to-use materials) for EVERY building they designed. It is a tactile way to discover whether shapes actually work, whether dimensions are alright. Often there is no similarity at all with the final product. More often these are small variations of the same.
This is what experimentation and creativity looks like. It starts with one or two ideas. And you start playing with them, in a low-cost manner. With 3D printers you can actually make cheap, high-quality models in a matter of hours. But at BIG they apparently choose an even quicker and more cost-effective way in the early stages. Before they move into computer design, and then a bigger and more expensive (and more difficult to amend) model.
Why is it so interesting? Because the ‘lightbulb moment’ prejudice has people wait for the magic moment, which might never come. Creativity is a matter of hard (and fun) work, BIG shows.
The American tech writer Steven Berlin Johnson noticed the same in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when you talk to people, when you flip through magazines, watch art, when you go jogging. That is also why huge innovations rarely happen on their own. If Darwin hadn’t come up with his evolution theory, someone else would have within a couple of years, several scientists were on a similar path. And there are countless examples of this.
BIG’s way of working is a good example of this phenomenon. Their ideas don’t start from scratch. As Bjarke Ingels writes in one of the areas of the exhibition, there are usually two types of architecture: one that says that you should completely break free from architectural history, from any constraints, and from the surrounding area of the new design. This often leads to spectacular buildings that have no relation to their environment (hello Calatrava! Hello Frank Gehry!).
The other one says that one should take the existing buildings in the area as a template, to make sure that new things fit in perfectly. That, as Ingels notes, often leads to a standstill. BIG pleads for responsive architecture: designs that react to what is already there, without entirely copying it. Moderate progress, yes. Or evolutionary architecture, as I would like to call it. Upgrading and expanding current forms with new shapes and with new materials. That is also why there is no blueprint for BIG’s architecture: some elements (for example a circular design for museums) are recurring, but never in the same shape or style.
What to learn from all that? For myself, the idea that it is always a good idea (and lots of fun) to play around with one or more ideas. To twist and tweak it, until it feels right.
One of my personal hobbies actually is to design dream houses. And this year the iPad Pro with pencil proved to be an ideal tool for that. As you can see below, I started with a basic idea: to design a beach house for sunnier climates (Portugal, Mexico) with a central area that would be shielded from wind and maybe rain as well. This led to a triangular design with an inner open-air courtyard, in several variations.
As it turned out, triangular is inconvenient for building. And a normal rectangular building was too boring for me. So I turned the rectangular design by 45 degrees, to have an unusual orientation. And after several drawings of this ridiculously big and unaffordable house, I took a proper software programme (Roomle, by Ikea) to get a better feeling whether the proportions were right, and I could actually walk around in my dreamhouse.
I will very likely never do anything with the design. But it’s huge fun to play around with ideas, to tinker with them until they turn into something better. If only one person in the world feels inspired to do so as well after reading this article, mission has been accomplished.