Q+A: Kai-Uwe Bergmann, Bjarke Ingels Group

If you think about it, we don't often stop to think about what makes our living spaces, working areas, parks and sanctuaries beautiful. What is it about these spaces that make us want to be in them? Who is behind the design of these spaces that create a feeling of inspiration? With any space, there is always a talented team of designers, architects, and planners who have developed a concept of what they want an area to look and feel like–meeting a client's brief, but also reflecting what we as a society find important, such as being more sustainable and energy conscious. 

One group that is behind some of New York’s iconic buildings–such as The Spiral tower adjacent to Hudson Yards–is the Bjarke Ingels Group, also known as BIG. BIG is a global architecture firm with multiple locations around the world, including one right here in Dumbo. 

We sat down with FAIA and BIG partner Kai-Uwe Bergmann to talk about how BIG started, memorable projects he has worked on, and what we can expect to see in the new decade when it comes to design and urban planning.

Kai-Uwe Bergmann, Bjarke Ingels Group
Kai-Uwe Bergmann, Bjarke Ingels Group

How did BIG start and what was the vision?

"BIG" stands for Bjarke Ingels Group, and wouldn’t be "BIG" without Bjarke Ingels. Bjarke is a Danish architect who started his architecture firm in 2005, which in architectural terms is relatively young - around 15 years. About nine years ago, we were given the chance to work on a project in Manhattan called “VIA” on West 57th Street, so Bjarke moved and opened up a branch here in New York. In the past nine years, we have been in four physical locations. We first started off on Varick Street in Tribeca, then moved to Chelsea and then downtown to the Financial District.

For us, coming to Dumbo in many ways is our first foray into Brooklyn. Moving to Brooklyn also made sense, as we realized that around 90% of our team live in Brooklyn, and most of them either bike, walk or take the subway. Personally, Bjarke and I are both Dumbonians. I actually lived across the street from our office, and before the opening of the Dumbo office, Bjarke had also already moved to Brooklyn.

Since opening up a New York location, have there been any memorable projects you have worked on?

We have been very lucky to work on a number of projects in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the first one being the Courtscraper or VIA project. We also have a couple of residential projects in Harlem, as well as in the Meatpacking District with the XI Tower. Since Hurricane Sandy happened in 2012, we have also been working on a resilience plan for most of Manhattan to help protect the area from rising sea levels. Right here from our office we can look across to the East River and see the first phase of that project, which is super exciting to watch. Likewise, we are also working on projects right here in our backyard such as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and just up the river in Williamsburg, we have a project with Two Trees to reimagine the waterfront there.

BIG Office, Dumbo, Brooklyn
BIG Office, Dumbo, Brooklyn

We really enjoy designing and for us, it doesn’t stop at buildings or cities–it is anything we can touch

Your office was designed by the BIG team. Did the history or landscape of Dumbo play a role in how the space we designed?

Yes! If you look around our office, we really are about keeping everything open. The building we are in is a Robert Gair building, a historic structure currently owned by Two Trees. Our feeling about the history of Dumbo and these buildings is to do as minimal intervention as possible. All our meeting rooms are glass, which helps create an open environment and allows for lots of daylight to pass through.

At BIG, we don’t just have architects. We also have landscape architects, interior designers, space planners, and master planners. If you go anywhere in our office, from the meeting room chairs to the water features, light fixtures or even the sofa in the lobby–we designed it. We really enjoy designing and for us, it doesn’t stop at buildings or cities it is anything we can touch.

When did you arrive in Dumbo, and was there a particular vision you had in mind for the space?

We have been in Dumbo since 2018, so a little over two years and we absolutely love it. We took some time to build out the space and have around 250 architects working here at our office. The space is wonderful and includes room to build models, a materials library and a canteen and prep kitchen as we cater lunch for our team. We also hold lectures here and have a beautiful rooftop which was designed by Field Operations, so it really is, especially when you consider the proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, a wonderful space to be in. When I come into the office, I don’t feel like I'm at work, I just feel like the office is part of a really great lifestyle.

BIG Office, Dumbo, Brooklyn
BIG Office, Dumbo, Brooklyn

Do you feel how you designed your office space impacts how your team works?

Yes! I think that our open structure is one of collaboration, conversation, dialogue and encouraging people to work across desks. It would be a very different type of work environment and collaboration if we had built walls from one space to another.

Does your team use any specific tools to collaborate and communicate with to ensure information continually flows?

We have a few tools. One is TV monitors that are directly hooked up to our other offices, and provide a live feed which allows for easier communication between the different locations. We also have regular check-ins across all of the offices so people can exchange information. For us, we want everyone to feel like they are apart of BIG no matter where they are based.

I think, of course, how information is shared between our team here in our Dumbo location is important. However, because we are global and have locations in Copenhagen, London, and Barcelona, it is more about the communication between our offices and how knowledge can be transferred.

Cities like New York and Dumbo are great places to live in, and as we think about being more sustainable and more energy conscious, the way of life in a place like Dumbo is a way forward

The theme of this year’s Annual meeting is Futurists! How is BIG changing the game in the architecture field? What are you excited about seeing in this space in the next decade?

I think we are going to start to see automation and certain digital tools becoming much more integrated into our daily lives than we have ever seen before. However, I don’t think we should think of it in a dystopian view or negative. I feel many places will benefit from these digital tools with the quality of life in those areas being impacted in a positive way.

Cities like New York and Dumbo are great places to live in, and as we think about being more sustainable and more energy conscious, the way of life in a place like Dumbo is a way forward. So, if we can demonstrate that Dumbo is a place for you to work and play and is an area that is not one-dimensional, that would be a great way to move the city forward.

The great thing about Dumbo is that it has never stood still, it’s been expanding for the last twenty years and there has been tremendous change. I came here for the first time in 2004/2005 and since then over the last 16 years, I have seen so much change.

BIG Office, Dumbo, Brooklyn
BIG Office, Dumbo, Brooklyn

What is your favorite spot here in Dumbo?

First and foremost, the park provides so much as a natural resource and the programming that is offered. Having a one-year-old girl, Jane’s Carousel is the most magical place for her and that was an amazing gift that the Walentas family gave to this neighborhood. I think one cannot undervalue the importance of those green areas especially when you build as densely and compactly here in Dumbo.

For me also, a hidden gem is the Atrium. From breakfast, all the way to your nightcap, it really is a place in the neighborhood where the food is made with care. I couldn’t imagine Dumbo without it.