Hedonism and Ski Slopes Are a Danish Architect’s Climate Fix

Saving the planet doesn’t need to entail self-deprivation.

Bjarke Ingels, the 46-year-old founder of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), is on a mission to transform ugly, environmentally suspect sites into architectural wonders that make the planet a cleaner, safer place.

The pièce de résistance of this vision can be found in Denmark, where Ingels is from. Copenhill is a waste-to-energy plant in the eastern outskirts of Copenhagen that’s been turned into a ski slope. Locals can slalom down the artificial hill, while beneath them about 600,000 tons of waste get converted into heating and electricity.

It took Ingels more than 10 years to finish the project, as he navigated his way around legislative and practical hurdles.

“Normally a power plant is designed to blow up the roof if there is an overpressure, but you can’t really do that when you have skiers on the roof,” Ingels said in an interview. “In general we had a cascade of dilemmas and we had to go through quite a few steps to make this kind of fantasy into reality.”

Hedonism and Ski Slopes Are a Danish Architect’s Climate Fix

Ingels calls Copenhill a prime example of “hedonistic sustainability.” The idea is to solve environmental issues in a way that leads to comfortable and useful constructions for local communities.

Another example is The Big U, a park on the southern tip of Manhattan (also dubbed the Dryline), which is being designed as a communal space for locals. But more importantly, the site is intended to provide protection from flooding, a key goal after Hurricane Sandy.

Ingels, along with 17 other innovators, was recently tapped by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as an adviser to help the European Union fulfill its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. Von der Leyen has talked of reviving a version of the Bauhaus movement. The idea is to combine beautiful design with practical applications that can be incorporated in Europe’s Green Deal.

Ingels says the project has enormous potential to change the way we live.

“Our cities and buildings are the main culprits in carbon emissions,” Ingels said. “By exploring new possibilities from different sectors I believe we can make doing the right thing for the future so desirable that it becomes irresistible.”

The Circular Economy

For Ingels, a key notion is rethinking the concept of pollution and waste. Instead of regarding it as a storage and disposal headache, the idea is to figure out how to turn it into a useful resource.

“The whole notion of [the] circular economy is to eliminate all the dead ends each time you have a byproduct,” he said. “Pollution is essentially a byproduct that has not yet been identified as a resource.”

The idea is to move away from a rigid notion of what sustainability is all about. Ingels talks of breaking free from what he calls a “Protestant concept” of environmentalism, as something “you have to endure.”

“The positive side effect of clean technology is that suddenly a power plant doesn’t have to be a negative,” he said.

Hedonism and Ski Slopes Are a Danish Architect’s Climate Fix

When Ingels thinks back on Copenhill, he admits it wasn’t a given that the project would turn out as well as it did.

“My biggest nightmare was that once it was finished, it would just feel like standing on the roof of a power plant,” he said. “But the first time we could walk out on the hill here, I realized this is not just the roof of a building, this is really a man-made mountain and in that sense it has a majestic feeling even beyond what I had hoped for.”

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