Bjarke Ingels and Kim Stanley Robinson at IDEAS CITY

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[transcript by Paul Rivers for City Atlas]

Joseph Grima (director of IDEAS CITY):

Bjarke Ingels, to those of you who are students here at Cooper Union, needs no introduction, and I think many of the rest of you will have also heard of him or seen his work here in New York.

As many of you know, he’s working on an extraordinary housing development on West 57th Street and upcoming projects just here in Manhattan also involve probably at least two other projects, one colloquially known as the Dryline – a storm defense system intended to protect Manhattan from the coming of a second Sandy, but to also create a new park that which will stretch along much of its coastline and other projects that are… I think are still in the pipeline and have only been rumored so far.

I don’t think its an exaggeration to say he’s transforming the shape of New York as we know it today. And that’s just here in New York, elsewhere he is also working on a major, extraordinary new almost sci-fi project on the Google Campus in Palo Alto and countless other projects all over the world, and all of that by age 40, so one can only imagine what he will be doing in the coming years.

So I wrote to Bjarke and I said, “if you could chose anybody in the world to have a conversation with at IDEAS CITY, who would that be, and I didn’t hear back from him for a few days, then a week passed, then a couple of weeks, and then suddenly in the middle of the night, I got a text message, and he said Kim Stanley Robinson, that was just the three words.

I had kind of almost forgotten about it then, and suddenly I realized what a logical choice this is.

In the field of technology today, you increasingly realize that actually what is happening is that brilliant minds, brilliant doers, makers, are reading science fiction novels and just taking them not as some sort of imaginary map of some imaginary distant reality, but actually taking them as a kind of manual for how to shape the city of the future, the world of the future that we will inhabit.

So Kim Stanley Robinson is a logical choice for Bjarke in that he has been since 1990…between 1993 and 1999 he wrote three novels that really redefined the genre of science fiction, the Mars trilogy as they’re known is really considered by scientists among others to really be a roadmap towards the colonization of Mars. So I’d like to welcome to the stage these two extraordinary figures and I can’t wait to hear them tell us about the future that awaits us essentially. Thank you very much.

Bjarke Ingels: Thank you, so maybe I should…thank you for coming to New York, Stan.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Real pleasure.

Maybe I should justify why I…uh well Joseph did a good job…why an architect would be so inspired by a writer, especially a science fiction writer, and I know that you…wrote your thesis on Phillip K. Dick, and I quite often use one of Phillip K. Dick’s definitions of science fiction as a reason why anyone should be interested in science fiction. Which is that he wrote, and I might misquote it slightly but the spirit is, he wrote that: science fiction is not a space opera although it often takes space in space, its not a story from the future although it often takes place in the future but science fiction is literary, where the plot is triggered by some form of innovation, and this innovation is often technological but it can also be social, political, cultural, biological, what everybody basically takes the world as we know it, changes one important fact, or factor and then the whole novel becomes a narrative exploration of the potential of that idea, the consequences, the cascading consequences, the side effects, the conflicts, the possibilities that erupt from this one changed factor.

Just like in my mind almost all aspects of life, but especially in design when you’re doing something, when you’re trying to design a building or a city or whatever, you try to look for things that might’ve changed or could change, then once you try to alter that one variable, the whole design process becomes a design exploration of the potential of that change.

And also, I normally explain to people that don’t know what architecture or design is that at the core of it, it is the art and science of turning fiction into fact. That you spend a lot of time solving problems, getting permits, etc and then once you’re done, suddenly what started out as a wild idea is now concrete reality and simply the world as we know it, so in that sense there is often this amazing potential in finding fictions that you would want to see turned into fact and maybe just before I hand it over to you with a serious question, we found a video…because the other day I stumbled upon a video that this Swedish amatuer animator did, that is actually a.. it’s a three-minute film that realizes and visualizes a lot of the ideas that Stan has brought forward in his books and I think it’s a pretty good example of a series of fictions that I would love to see turned into fact. Could you show the video?

-VIDEO- 6:13-9:35

Thanks. So what kind of thing…like you mentioned…because of course one of the first frontiers of space exploration is, today people happily go up into sort of 3 or 4 miles of height to places where you can’t really survive without assistance on planet earth. And these are sort of examples of space tourism, when that becomes an option.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes but — I want to — for people who aren’t familiar with my work, to assert that I am a realist.

And I come from California, and therefore looking at the world today I see the world that we live in as a kind of large science fiction novel that we’re all writing together. Because all these innovations are coming and happening so fast that in effect we are already in a science fiction novel and always will be. So to write science fiction is to do a kind of realism, and just like your quote from Phillip K. Dick was very, very apt, because you change one thing and you can follow the ramifications out into a scenario, and its not really predicting the future, but just expressing what might happen from the things that we’re doing now. And then they recombine with each other and make a story.

And I guess the other thing I want to say is that you do the hard part like…like Bjarke talked about turning fiction into fact, and for me we do that all the time but that’s actually very hard to accomplish in the real world. And I do like the opposite, I turn fact which is our current reality, very science fictional, into fictions to try to tell stories of where we might go and how it might work.

And ultimately when Bjarke and I met, what I saw in his work…in you know he said something like, anytime you confront a dilemma, always say yes. And so there was this kind of utopian coping with the situation at hand, and making the best of it. There was a kind of joyfulness even in the kind of emergency century that we’re entering, with all of the climate change problem, and all the problems that we face.

Nevertheless you designed your way out of it by coping with it as best you can, and it isn’t just disaster maintenance, its actually growth into something that could be quite magnificent. So I do the easy part, I look at the situation and say well, it could be so great, lets build a city on Mars in which they could go down a mile inside a cylinder and that way they stay warm, or build on the inside of a crater on top of a lava ponds, and I can just say make it so or I can write the sentences. Actually turning it into real structures in the real world.. I am enormously impressed by because I think that’s the hard part.

Ingels: Actually those things on Mars, the funny thing is that the first time I got the Red Mars in my hands and started reading it I was actually on a ship, on an expedition in the Northeast of Greenland, which is…it’s a huge nature park, its an extremely harsh climate, by law you’re not allowed to get off the boat without wearing a survival suit, like you don’t need oxygen but everything else, like you will die if you drop in the water, you actually have to carry a rifle, like with these huge cartridges that are like bear cartridges because there’s polar bears.

So, and I was on a boat with scientists and artists, almost like the first 100 colonizers of Mars, in Red Mars which is like a group of scientists, and it felt incredibly relevant to my current situation.

We also have the E.U Commissioner for the Environment here in the room, and the interesting thing about what happens in Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, is that they actually talk about stewardship of a planet,  as something proactive, for instance the preservationists, they wanna keep Mars as uninhabitable, like the way we found it, whereas the terraformers, they want to create global warming because Mars is very cold, they want to pollute the atmosphere with CO2 and other gases, of course oxygen and nitrogen, to make the air breathable. They want to bring invasive species from Planet Earth, to start creating a biosphere, so its almost like turning the whole idea of global warming and the environmental challenges we are facing now on planet Earth inside out, the concept is a proactive issue.

Well ever since I wrote these books that its kind of a funhouse mirror a reflection of what we have done here, in both cases we’re stuck with planetary management, and we… management is maybe the wrong word, because we don’t know enough to do it well.

We don’t have that much power. If we push Earth’s environment past certain tipping points, ocean salinity, or average temperature, things will spiral quickly out of any possibility of us coming back from that.

We don’t have that much power, so its not geoengineering which implies more control than we have, its more like geo-finessing where we hope to tweak things in the right direction and avoid doing bad things in the first place.

So I like that the Mars book serves as a thought experiment where you think about… on Mars its terraforming, on Earth we call it geoengineering because its too painful of a joke to talk about terraforming Earth.

But the issues are the same, we have an impact on the climate, we have an impact on the environment, we need to make a stable civilization, we need to be in a stable balance with the planetary systems, the flows of energy, the ability to get rid of wastes, all of these things have to be put into a long term balance, and if they aren’t none of these space dreams of enjoying the solar system, our local neighborhood will come to pass, and they’ll be rendered irrelevant.

Its important I think coming from my perspective to insist that Earth is the permanent center of the story, there’s no planet B, Mars won’t do us any good unless Earth is in a stable long term balance. Because the project of inhabiting Mars and the solar system will take either centuries of thousands of years, so the time scales are grotesquely off, we have a decades…an emergency that is hitting us in the next few years and decades, and a potential that extends off beyond that; if we were able to solve our problems here then we could have quite an extraordinary time in our solar system, which is close enough to play around in, and can be both useful and beautiful.

Ingels: Excuse me, I also think its kinda helpful when you see the.. exactly the monuments, almost catastrophic scale of interventions that are necessary on Mars to start bringing it like towards…there’s this whole array of efforts including creating like these off world solar focusers that create these hot beams that emit tons of matter and CO2 into the atmosphere. They’re triggering volcanic eruptions, all kinds of elements of like massive disasters, global warming…

You can make a narrative that the three books take place over a span of 100 or 150 years, simply because things work so incredibly slowly, which again reminds you again how much easier it is to actually proactively take care of the planet that actually comes with a fully-inhabitable ecosystem, rather than making one in another location.

So true. We started the industrial revolution with 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide, now we’re at 400, the effects are obvious. We can burn about 500 more gigatons of carbon and stay within that two degrees limit that scientists have declared might be safe and not spiral into disasters, but we’ve identified 2500 gigatons of fossil carbon already, and so that means that there are about 2000 gigatons of fossil carbon that are stranded assets, that we have to not burn and its worth about 1,600 trillion dollars at current prices.

So there are people on this planet that are gonna want to burn that, they are going to be careless of the consequences, they are gonna convince themselves that it’s ok, and the rest of us are going to have to insist that we not burn the four-fifths of the carbon that we identified.

Well this is alarming and I think we need the tools of thought and we need post capitalism. And we need a way to price properly the negative externalities as economists used to put it, because those aren’t externalities those are internalities, and we’re really just deferring these costs onto future generations, but they pay a horrible price compared to the price that we would pay.

So the president of the World Bank said last year we need to put a price on carbon, this was remarkable coming from the head of global capitalism, or one of the heads, the market system doesn’t work, it under prices things, you’re not paying the true costs, so here the technology involved is economics and justice and language and the rule of law, these are all technologies as well as the machineries, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Maybe two things that I add to that, I think what you’re talking about, the human element that there’s like too much temptation to this like short-sighted profit or this like…a lot of disagreement I think one of the things that’s fascinating in the Mars trilogy is that you have a planet that is highly populated by basically scientists and engineers, so people that really know how to act, people that have the skills and the tools and the technology and the ability to act and solve resolutely, and do what’s necessary but then when it comes to at some point, without spoiling too much, Mars acquires independence from Earth, you know, any colony always ends up rebelling the old world.

And in this case they have to find out what’s going to be the political system, and for me I was actually…I was having a hard time coming through because a major part of book 2 is like there are these endless quarrels about which political system to implement, which ideology.

It was driving me nuts like all these people that had like amazing capacity to act were completely numbed by their annoying disagreements.

Well as I said I am a realist and…people are never going to agree about these things and that’s really what politics is, you need working majorities of 51% or 55% or 60%, you’re never going to get 100%, nor anything close so you have to find out all the details of these things and there’s lots of different potential plans, and lots of different ways of describing the issues involved. Different economic systems, different social systems, you could say going from global capitalism to global social democracy.

I mean if you could instantaneously enact the laws of Denmark internationally everywhere on Earth that would be a big step in the right direction. And then further steps could follow from there, so this is a hard thing to argue in the United States where we don’t have a social democrat party but what you can say is public utility districts or what you can say is government of the people by the people and for the people and speak out against oligarchy and wealth and speak towards democratization of wealth and power.

You know de-oligarchify, this is my current phrase, so these are.. these are still technical discussions and their gonna cause endless arguments, and I do think that given that that’s true maybe we should reel it back to design into some of the things that you’re doing. It was mentioned in the introduction that the so called Dryline, and I myself am really interested in hearing more about this and I bet a lot of people are. Its more of a concept or a mystery to us now and I wondered if you could tell us more.

It actually falls quite nicely into this balance that you always center your narratives about. On one hand the social…the social political aspect and the other hand the hot science and engineering, in the case of the Dryline like after Sandy it became quite evident that with rising temperatures the Hurricane belt on the Atlantic has expanded north and south, which means that certainly states that aren’t really used to like frequent and strong, storms are suddenly getting them more and more frequently and then it just so happens that the funnel shape of the New York bite makes all of the East coast of the tri-state area function as a gigantic funnel that brings storm surge into the mouth of the Hudson River that basically puts 50% of the city at risk.

So something needs to be done, and there we try to sort of… in a way to combine the..  environmental engineering with the social engineering and if you look at the New York sea history the development of New York City has been very much shaped by two giants and the encounter between them.

Bob Moses – Robert Moses the power broker – a public servant with almost unlimited power, very top-down with often devastating impact on the neighborhoods he intervened in,  like necessary projects but very heavy handed and very top down. At some point he tried to typically run a highway through Greenwich village, he encountered resistance from Jane Jacobs who had rallied the local grassroots and eventually in a sort of David Goliath moment of New York City development defeated the plan and saved the village. So for the Dryline we though this needs to be almost like the love child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, like anyway because to protect the city from storm surge you need a holistic and contiguous approach of like 12 miles of continuous waterfront protection.

Its very very heavy on engineering, it needs to be sort of coordinated collectively, but to make it urbanistically successful it needs to have an enclosed dialogue with the local communities, so it doesn’t become a wall that separate’s the life of the city from the water around it, but it is actually welcomed. Because when you have to…to make massive projects you have to move a lot of soil, you have to bring in a lot of steel, you can do it just as a single serving, purpose of creating a dike and that’s it, or you can try to say that while we’re doing it why don’t we ask everybody what are their greatest fears for this? What are their greatest concerns? What are their desires for their community, what’s on their wish list, what would be amazing and then try to see that while doing to protection you can do it in such a way that it also becomes parks or landscapes or pavilion and so, etc. So its in a way trying to bring the human element, and the sort of hot science element in a form of synergy.

Actually I was thinking maybe there was this interesting…back to your point about capitalist and alternate modes, that normally I say as an architect to be quite often up against the standard solution, and the standard solution is often serving a single criteria.

And a typical example could be a sort of Robert Moses public housing project. Where you know you need x amounts of residential units, maybe you want daylight from 2 sides, you need a minimum distance to the next building, there’s a certain efficiency of an elevator that goes x amount of floors, then maybe you need another elevator, you stop there, so you end up having a slab and then an offset and then the next slab and an offset and the next slab, so your serving that one criteria.  It’s a standard solution that’s perfect if you only look at that but it doesn’t say anything about life between the buildings, it doesn’t say anything about a diversity of households, it doesn’t say anything about which programs are necessary to create a neighborhood that’s active 24/7, it doesn’t say anything about like the necessity of diversity both ethnically, culturally but also economically.

So in a way what we try to do quite often is to… because the standard solution is hard to avoid because its so good at solving that one criteria.

So our primary weapon when we try to design things is to add more criteria, to remind the decision makers that this is not enough. You also have to look at this, you also have to look at this, you have to look at this, and suddenly by piling up concerns and demands and criteria the standard solution doesn’t work any longer and you find more…you actually force the architecture out of the constraint and the straightjacket of the standard solution and into more sort of adventurous forms and I think maybe back to your economical or capitalistic model – you’re saying one of the problems of capitalism, is it the beauty of capitalism is that it allows for the distribution and the trade of services, you don’t have to shoot your own animals and sow your own plants and weave your own clothes. You can write books and you can do it beautifully, and then you can use the value created from your writing to eat and clothe. So, but of.. but of couse its, right now it’s a quite primitive system.

Yep.

Right now its quarterly profit and shareholder value as if that were it. So if you added in the terms your describing, this is just what I was saying, you’ve come to a dilemma and you say yes, this is exactly what I think Bjarke is describing in a different way.

What you add I think is full employment, adequacy for all, and this recent idea for Thomas Piketty, progressive taxation, not just on income which is a great idea, but a progressive taxation on capital assets, a truly transformative single additive to the mix because suddenly the public sphere and everybody begins to share their wealth, and the arguments against it, progressive taxation on capital assets, are almost completely empty.

The fulminations of the Wall Street Journal, or the Economist, against this idea of Piketty’s were actually completely without content, because it’s a very good idea with no good argument against it except the people who have these agglomerations of capital don’t like the idea because it seems like it might reduce power. Beyond that there’s no good argument against it, the fact that the rich might not like your idea is really not one of the most powerful arguments against it.

So I think there are tweaks in our system, additions, new extra criteria when added to it, you still would have trade, you would still even have a market, it wouldn’t be a free market but its not a free market now. Carbon for instance is grotesquely subsidized, and if it weren’t it could be that solar and wind power already outcompeted, but we have a government that is maybe democratic or maybe bought or maybe it’s a battleground in between those situations. And we know that’s the case so there are fights to be had. What I find is impressive is in this incredibly conflicted and you might even say locked moment of political battle that you can still get things done in the real world, and I’m wondering when you have ideas when you have a project or proposal or someone comes to you with a question, what would you describe as the major resistance? If you could make a change to get more done as an architect and designer, what might that be? It might probably not be just one thing but…

I think, to at least have enough of the ear of the chief decision makers to be able to make an argument that goes…I think anytime you wanna sort of not just reconfirm the status quo but you need to dig a little bit deeper into the root causes because quite often in architecture you are being asked to answer a very well defined question but if you have access to probing a little bit through analysis, or through meetings and questions and access to certain key experts within a certain field, when you can go slightly deeper, you can maybe say okay so maybe this doesn’t necessarily have to be the questions…

You know, why has the question been formulated like this? What are the root causes, what are the key criteria and then you can somehow come back…like for instance…so that’s why quite often if you only have access to the mid management it can be a little bit difficult, or very difficult if not impossible to change the game, or to reframe.

Whereas if you really do get the access to the chief decision makers you might be able to address the concerns and the core values with a completely unexpected answer.

In a way I quite often compare a great idea to a good joke. Quite often we joke around in the studio as a work in process but that because similar to science fiction actually, the anatomy of a joke is that you have a builder which sits you in a recognizable situation, and you kinda see where it going, and then the punchline is completely unexpected but still makes perfect sense, and its funny. It makes you laugh and its the same so…the joke reveals an alternate consequence or an alternate reality within the reality that you already know and recognize. It’s the same like in a…like with a great idea that you have a whole argument that builds up describing and analyzing and dissecting the world as you know it and then the answer is completely unexpected but makes perfect sense.

For instance one of the projects I pride myself in is probably the closest to science fiction that we have realized or we’re building right now, is that we’re doing this waste to energy power plant in Copenhagen, where it’s the biggest and tallest building in Copenhagen, it turns trash into district heating and electricity, and there’s a lot of good things about it, but the best thing about it is that it is completely non-toxic, it’s the cleanest way waste to energy power plant in the world. It emits steam and a small amount of co2.

The problem was, we were invited for the competition – so why would they want to do anything but the business as usual and the trick is that the CEO of the company she’s a strong believer in her industry and the technology that she’s spearheading but nobody knows, nobody can see that its totally clean, on the contrary like you know it just looks like.

So when we proposed the idea to use the roofscape of the power plant to turn it into a public park, where you can ski in the winter in Denmark, because we have snow, but we don’t have hills suddenly and normally you would want to be as far away from a power plant as possible because you know…but here you literally have clean mountain air on the roof of a power plant so suddenly we  make something blatantly visible, its like a physical manifestation of something that would other wise be invisible almost like they’re…

I know your last book is about shamanism, shaman is like you take something from the spirit world and you manifest it into the physical world, that’s almost what we’re trying to do. We’re taking the invisibility of the clean technology and making it evident that you have a ski slope on the roof of a power plant. And I think there its just, we had a CEO who was aware of…that she somehow had a strength in her product that was invisible, and by making it physically manifest everybody could somehow sign up on this idea that otherwise would almost seem insane.

When we proposed it, we were working on the competition and I got a phone call from my CEO and it she was like she was calling to like… to get me to calm the fuck down, she was like sort of, Bjarke this is a one billion dollar project in our hometown, we would really want to win this, don’t screw it up with the stupid ski slope. What are you doing?

Yeah yeah.

But I gave her the argument, and she said yeah okay, I’ll talk care of my side of the business and you take care of your side.  But it is somehow this idea that you need to somehow be able to tap into the bigger picture. And I was a little bit interested in your cube monetary system, I don’t know if it gets too complex.

Well let me follow up though on what you’re saying yes because the general point I’m gonna make outta that is that there’s this surplus of joy or inventiveness, that okay it’s a necessity that we clean up waste and turn it into energy is like convergence where all the systems of civilization feed into a big larger cycle that works and then the stylishness of that is part of the pleasure of it so, its not like we need the power. We’re, we…there’s so much waste in our technological base as it is right now that you can imagine us as being a kind of diffuse…it’s a pretty dirty tech that we’ve quickly gotten to in a kind of brutalist way.

As you clean it up its not like you lose privileges but you can actually got to the young and you can say its not as if back in the I don’t know 1950’s we lived high on the hog and now you have to be poor and live like saints because we destroyed the world, its actually it was a little bit stupid back then and now clean style stylishness you can live better than when you’re more out in the world, less cocooned in crap and you have a sweet technology that takes care of these problems in a cyclical way, that you can pass on to the future generation.

And so the ski slope on top is kind of the objective correlative of that, which we would say in English class. It lets you see the spirit involved in that lets do this stuff, joyfully with the idea that we can….

The utopian possibility is still there, 7 billion people can live on this planet in adequacy, stably over the long haul with really smart agriculture, really smart tech, really smart design, it is not at all physically impossible.

Its politically difficult and we have some bad infrastructure that has its own path dependencies, that we have to work through, and we have to work through it really fast because we are in somewhat of a little bit of a long emergency, although that’s a contradiction in terms. But we have to do it really fast and the more everybody gets on board with it not just in ideas or words like mine, but objects and structures and infrastructures like Bjarke’s case. That’s where I think the convergence really comes together and it’s a beautiful thing.

There, I think also like this idea of not being so wasteful, because of course I just… the power plant, the scrubbers that extract the co2, they actually end up with a lot of co2 that actually has market value, because you can do stuff with it, so you end up actually extracting a lot of resources that in their own right don’t become pollution, they actually become potential profit. I also maybe I think one of the reasons looking toward again space and this idea of surviving in space, because of course there the resources are so scarce that you need to make ecosystems.

Circular.

Yes sort of you need to retain the water by filtering it and bringing it back, you need to create these uh, loops… And I was thinking that.. I thought that was an interesting thought that… When your living on Mars, everybody is so basically dependent on those main utilities: power, oxygen, water, food, etc that you can’t actually survive as a homeless because you wouldn’t be able to breath or you would freeze to death, and starve you know like it is.. 40:55 so you can’t be homeless. So therefore somehow socialism or social democracy comes much more naturally in an environment where nobody can even question the basic needs as a birthright.

Yeah I think this is the… Then you think to yourself, but wait Earth is also a spaceship, the spaceship Earth image from the 70’s is a beautiful image and important. There are no negative externalities, and also there is no planet B that we can escape to if we wreck this one. So it all comes down to making the cycles work here and part of that would be… one of the methods to make those cycles work is social justice itself.

So you have food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education and the right to work for everybody, at that point there isn’t the wastefulness of the poor who have top soil loss and deforestation because they need to feed their family that night, nor the wastefulness of the hyper-rich with just conspicuous consumption.

There’s like this group in Zurich called the 2000 watt society, just living off of 2000 watts per year …that that’s the average amount of watts that everybody on the planet right now has and this group in Switzerland has decided that you can live on the average with the 7 billion and a half available right now in energy terms, be very comfortable.

So that’s the promise I think, and I think we’re running close to the end of our time here, so maybe it’s a good place to end. But except, I want to end with a thank you not only for inviting me, but also for doing this work, because I now say you know an ounce of…an ounce of laws is worth 10,000 pounds of rhetoric.

I can write any kind of story you want. But getting things built in the real world is just really what we all need to do now, so it’s a kind of an exemplary figure and its really a pleasure to watch your work and to talk with you here.

And I want to say like maybe I…  I… since I still.. like being forty and lets say if I retire at 80 I have 40 years to try to realize a few of your basic fictions! And I would definitely love to do so.

Okay I want to go body surfing on the rings of Saturn if I have to pick one image, lets work on that one okay. Alright.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much!