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Starchitect Bjarke Ingels Dishes on The BIG Maze and More

[Photo by R. Lopez for Curbed DC]

It's only just become apparent, but superstar architect Bjarke Ingels has been spending a lot of time in D.C. Although his delightfully quirky, geometric work has yet to make its debut on the D.C. skyline, over the weekend, it made its debut inside the National Building Museum in the form of The BIG Maze. This uniquely fun labyrinth is the first of two exhibitions that Ingels has planned for the museum's Great Hall and while walking through the plywood walls, he took a moment to talk to Curbed regarding the concepts behind its design.

Have you ever used maze elements in any previous works?

Not literally. I think there's something about a maze and architecture that is related in a sense that it has to do with complexity. When you look at the computer programming you say complexity is defined as the capacity to transmit the maximum amount of information with the minimum amount of data. So the fewer keystrokes you need to get the computer to do a certain operation, the more complex it is.

I think the concept of the maze is that it almost inflates the feeling of complexity. It might actually be quite simple. You might only have ten dead ends or something in the whole maze but you create the illusion of a world that is much bigger than what it actually is. So, there's something about getting the maximum bang for your buck that you in a lot within architecture. To distill it down to the absolute necessary but still creating a world of opportunities.

It also seems like coming in that there's an element of psychological success upon reaching the middle.

They say in screenwriting that the basic ingredients of a good story are a protagonist with a clearly defined goal and seemingly insurmountable obstacles in achieving that goal because conflict triggers empathy that makes you engaged in the story. Then finally when you reach the goal it's so much more rewarding. So, in that sense, there's some storytelling elements in a maze that you try to create as many obstacles before reaching the well-defined goal. Then I think the architectural innovation is probably that typically a maze is a rather monotonous spatial experience where everything in the space is different.

So, what prompted the arched walls and the ability to see the way out?

It's the idea that the space we're in is three-dimensional and when you're here looking up, it's such an amazing experience that we thought we would just play with the third dimension. Otherwise, mazes are two-dimensional by definition. So, we made a three-dimensional maze. First, we tried to do it by literally having a cube and circus net. It became wonderfully expensive. So, we found another way where it stays two-dimensional, the floor, but then the walls around you constantly change.

I think actually when you walk around and you look up, you have these quite amazing situations where for instance [he walks to the corner] — here it gets like a really narrow canyon and then when you get close to the center, it becomes this concave value. It's a pretty unusual proportion for a space to have something that is this tall and slim. So, as the proportions change, even though it has uniform width, the proportion is much tighter than where we were standing before.

It seems like the children that have come through intuitively know where to go. Is that what you expected?

We actually had no way of knowing. I think the intuition, we do get a certain guideline from the fact that you sense that the lower the walls are, the closer you are to the center. But that also means that sometimes you have to go counter to your intuition. For example, to reach the center here, you have to go all the way to the perimeter and then go back. In that sense, it gives you additional information, but it can be misleading information.

Is this your first time doing any work in D.C.?

Obviously, we're working on a big project for the Smithsonian. We're doing an exhibition here at the National Building Museum in January but we're doing a huge master plan for the Smithsonian — actually design work. It's going to be made public in the fall. So, we've been coming here quite a bit the past two years. When we got the job it was a reminder of how very welcoming America is for immigrants. I've only had my green card for two years, but the Washington Business Journal referred to me as Danish-born architect Bjarke Ingels. I like this idea that I was completely accepted as an American although born in Denmark. It's a good thing about the United States.

Regarding the exhibition in January, how do you think the people that go through this maze now will be able to connect the dots to what you have to offer in the future? How will it fit together?

I think first and foremost it fits together in the sense that both projects celebrate the big space. I think the big space is very enjoyed in terms of events. In terms of exhibitions, maybe not so much. I think the fact that we're turning the whole atrium into the exhibition is going to be another way of reminding people of what a spectacular space it is and what it can be used for.

Are you headed immediately back to New York? I know the pyramid has caused a lot of excitement.

It's funny that you mention the pyramid. The Durst pyramid and the maze have something geometrically in common in that all the cross-sections of the pyramid are straight lines but it describes a hyperbolic paraboloid. Here all the cross-sections that you can see are perfectly straight lines but as a result, you almost describe these arches. It is a cone that has been subtracted from a cube. It's this weird combination of something that is actually straight lines that then describes these curving geometries. Maybe we do have certain obsessions we can't escape no matter what we do.
· Bjarke Ingels tapped for Smithsonian master plan [WBJ]
· The National Building Museum [Official Site]
· Come Get Lost in D.C.'s New Bjarke Ingels Maze [CDC]

National Building Museum

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