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"Starchitect" Bjarke Ingels' billion-dollar designs

​He's young, Danish and the current star of the world's architectural scene, handling over 60 major projects including the Googleplex and Two World Trade Center

The following script is from "Starchitect" which aired on March 13, 2016. Morley Safer is the correspondent. Katy Textor, producer.

It was the pioneer of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, who said houses were machines for living in -- and, at the ripe old age of 41, Bjarke Ingels is turning out a lot of unusual machines.

He is the architect of the moment -- a starchitect -- designing everything from skyscrapers to an NFL stadium. But, as Morley Safer discovered, young Mister Ingles' designs, can be inventive, can be provocative and are anything but boring.

Bjarke Ingels
CBS News

[Bjarke Ingels is having his moment.]

Bjarke Ingels: When you see it from the memorial...

He's not only designing the final tower at the World Trade Center.

[Bjarke Ingels: Basically we are at the middle of the ski slope so it continues all the way down to there.]

He is trotting the globe, with some 60 projects in the works.

[Bjarke Ingels: It's still very much a work in progress...]

There's the Googleplex, Google's futuristic complex of domes planned for its campus in Silicon Valley...

[Bjarke Ingels: We were quite worried about that distance.]

And the new Lego headquarters in his native Denmark. In New York City alone, he has five major projects underway including this spiraling office tower planned for Hudson Yards.

Morley Safer: That is a great view of New York.

So we decided to take to the Hudson River to have a look.

Starting with this...a massive, almost finished apartment complex for all those young and restless New Yorkers striving to make their first millions.

Morley Safer: Tell me why you call it the courtscraper?

Bjarke Ingels: It is the unlikely child of a New York skyscraper, and if you like a Copenhagen courtyard building.

"Courtscraper" in NYC

Morley Safer: But it's also a pyramid, it also could be a sail.

Bjarke Ingels: Exactly.

Bjarke Ingels: Eventually we just realized we had to make it much more extreme. So it became a single tower, to the east that then drops towards the water. The roof itself is something you call a saddle shape, or in geometric terms you call it a hyperbolic paraboloid. It's almost like--

Morley Safer: Say that three times quickly.

Bjarke Ingels: Yeah, exactly.

Morley Safer: Are you surprised how good it is, or how bad it is or how unique it is?

Bjarke Ingels: It's paradoxical for an architect. The only thing you can see is all the battles you lost, and, you know, all the compromises that had to be made, or the f***-ups that couldn't be fixed. You're gonna have to bleep that out.

The rise and rise of young Mr. Ingels started here in Copenhagen where he grew up. His father an engineer, his mother a dentist.

Bjarke Ingels: I wanted to be a cartoonist, but there was no cartoon academy. So I enrolled in the Royal Danish Art Academy School of Architecture. But then I really got smitten by architecture.

Bjarke Ingels: We don't want any verticals...

From the beginning, Ingels says he set out to disrupt modern architecture's tyranny of what he calls the formulaic, boring box.

"I wanted to be a cartoonist, but there was no cartoon academy. So I enrolled in the Royal Danish Art Academy School of Architecture. But then I really got smitten by architecture."

Bjarke Ingels: When I started studying architecture, people would say, you know, "Can you tell me why are all modern buildings so boring?" Because, like, people had this idea that in the good old days architecture had, like, ornament and little towers and spires and gargoyles, and today, it just becomes very practical.

After graduation, Ingels lasted just two years working for famed architect Rem Koolhaas before setting out on his own. In 2005, he formed BIG, for the Bjarke Ingels Group, from his tiny apartment in Copenhagen.

Bjarke Ingels: Denmark is one of the smallest countries on the planet. And there was something funny about calling a company BIG. I think if I would have started BIG in America, I would probably never have called it BIG. There was nothing but, a little bit of local small country humor in the idea.

Almost immediately he began to win design competitions making a name for himself with inventive, often whimsical designs for what can be often deadly boring, suburban apartment buildings.

Bjarke Ingels: Five years ago, we had built a few projects in Copenhagen that were in a way ordinary projects, like, housing and parking and shops and offices, but we had put them together in a way that created the-- maybe remarkable results. And suddenly, we got an invitation to come to New York and look at the site on 57th Street. And in a way, I had nothing better to do, so I thought, "Why don't I move to New York and see how it goes?"

It went pretty well. He now oversees 300 employees between offices in New York and Copenhagen.

Bjarke Ingels: The more it looks like a megalomaniacal.

Ingels believes his success comes from his ability to combine the practical with the fantastical. Like this harbor bath in Copenhagen where swimmers can swim in the city's harbor --- or how about this? The design for the just unveiled new Redskins stadium, complete with a moat for all those kayaking tailgaters.

Bjarke Ingels: Tailgating literally becomes a picnic in the park.

Design for Redskins stadium

The culture at BIG is intense but in off-hours, blowing off steam dressed as your favorite comic book hero isn't uncommon. That's the boss armed with a gun full of tequila.

Bjarke Ingels: The way we work is maybe unlike certain architects that have a very particular style where it is the auteur. It has to be the design principal who makes the strokes of genius. I don't have to come up with the best idea. It is my job to make sure that it is always the best idea that wins.

Michael Kimmelman: I think Bjarke is really a wonderful spokesman for himself and, I would say also for the possibility that architecture can really make life better for people.

Michael Kimmelman is the architecture critic for the New York Times.He says Ingels has combined natural talent with a mastery of marketing -- a so-called "starchitect."

Michael Kimmelman: It's rare that you get architects who are really in their 30s and 40s who get to build big projects. And Bjarke has figured that out partly by selling a certain youthful notion of the oldest starchitect model which is a glamour and spectacle. And he does something that I think is very important nowadays, which is to combine a notion of his own work with some larger social purpose.

Morley Safer: But the thing that strikes me is a lot of people are willing to lay down billions of dollars--

Michael Kimmelman: Billions, yeah, with a "b", yeah.

Morley Safer: --on this kid.

Michael Kimmelman: Yeah. It's true it is a gamble. He's got a lot of work coming down the pike. How is he going to make sure that work is not recycled, is original, that it's finished well?

Morley Safer: There must be criticism by other architects.

Bjarke Ingels: The more you are up to something interesting, the more it's gonna inspire praise and criticism.

Morley Safer: And in your case?

Bjarke Ingels: We have a fair amount of sunshine and the opposite. And I think if you were t-- if you were to take all of that to heart, you wouldn't be able to, you know, draw a line or lay a brick.

Ingels has become a celebrity at home in Denmark where he's designing the new headquarters of the most iconic of toymakers, Lego.

At the topping off ceremony in October -- townspeople waited in line in the rain to catch a glimpse of the new building and its architect.

Bjarke Ingels: That steel is the tieback

That fame has also allowed him to take more risks and add more spectacles to his creations.

This is a chimney that belches steam rings. It will go atop a green garbage incinerating power plant in Copenhagen. The roof doubles as a ski slope.

Morley Safer: I mean, the building says, "Come and look at me."

Bjarke Ingels: Yeah, since this power plant is really saving a lot of CO2 emissions, it's almost a complete reversal of the symbolism of a chimney.

The idea for the outrageous structure originally started as a joke.

Bjarke Ingels: Normally, you would want to be as far away from a power plant as possible because it's polluting, it's noisy, it's smelly. But this is so clean that you essentially have clean mountain air on the roof of it, and we thought, "Maybe it would make sense to make it a ski slope." And so,"Yeah, great idea, like, let's get serious." But then, when you stop laughing, it felt like, "Wait a minute, maybe this is not so stupid, maybe it's actually a good idea."

Morley Safer: Never mind the "starchitect" appellation. You're a activist.

Bjarke Ingels: If you're just reaffirming the status quo, then you are missing the point that the city is never complete. So every project we do somehow has to count.

Particularily this one. The design for Two World Trade Center -- the final tower set to rise on the site.

Bjarke Ingels: Two World Trade is roughly gonna be as tall as One World Trade, but without the spire. And if you see it from here it would appear as a series of seven city blocks of different proportions stepping up towards the sky.

Morley Safer: It must have been a very difficult assignment given that so much part of New York is hallowed ground.

Bjarke Ingels: Oh, yes. Also, because the site is so complex. There's, like, 11 subway lines. There's, like, multiple like highways, service roads, power plants. Like, the entire underground is like an anthill of complexity. So I w-- I was, like, really scared that now we were getting, like, the opportunity of a lifetime, and we would be so restricted that it would be almost impossible to come up with something.

Larry Silverstein: His designs can be counted on to be different.

Developer Larry Silverstein bought the original Twin Towers just weeks before the attacks on 9/11, and has spent the last 14 years on the site's redevelopment.

Morley Safer: Did you have any qualms about this very, very young architect? I mean, most architects don't come into their own until their 60s or even 80s.

Larry Silverstein: And here he is, 40 looking like 20. I said, "Silverstein, it's time for you to realize, right, we're in-- we're in another era." Right. The fact that I'm almost 85 years of age, maybe it's time for me to begin to be a little more flexible when it comes to these things.

The seasoned developer who has seen it all and the young starchitect have become an architectural odd couple.

Larry Silverstein: I find this very tough for women to walk on for anybody in heels. If you talk to our people, our maintenance people they will tell you this has become an unmitigated disaster.

The rebuilding effort at the World Trade Center has been long and tortured full of false starts and unrealized plans. Tower 2 is no different. In 2005, the job designing it had gone to preeminent architect Norman Foster, a British lord no less but the proposed tower was never built. When Rupert Murdoch and his son James decided to move Fox's headquarters to the site, they brought in Ingels and Foster's design was scrapped.

Michael Kimmelman: There was a palace coup and Foster was out. But Foster was designing really a different project for another client.

Morley Safer: You were chosen over one of the world's leading architectural firms--Norman Foster. How'd you pull that off?

Bjarke Ingels: The design that had already been designed for the site was very much designed in the thinking of the old financial district and as the whole neighborhood has changed what was needed was a different kind of building. And sometimes the set up needs to change.

Which it did yet again when Rupert Murdoch went from Daddy Warbucks to Scrooge and pulled out of the deal to move to Two World Trade, leaving Silverstein on the hook to find a new tenant and get the building built.

Bjarke Ingels: The second we have designed them and built them they belong to everybody.

As for Ingels, he is acutely aware of his responsibility with the tower's design, knowing that 9/11 is forever etched in all of our minds.

Bjarke Ingels: I got a letter from a brother of a firefighter that gave his life at the 9/11. And he just wrote me to say that, I see it as a giant staircase to heaven evoking the heroic stair climb of the first responders at 9/11. And to him he thought the skyline of Manhattan itself would commemorate the heroism, and sacrifice of 9/11. I couldn't claim that we had, that we have thought of it like that. But now, I can't think of the building without also seeing that interpretation.

Morley Safer: The-- I-- it must be a great honor to have gotten that commission.

Bjarke Ingels: It's probably the most watched skyline in the world. So it's definitely a place where you better get it right.

  • Morley Safer

    Morley Safer’s distinctive style and the broad range of his much-honored work have made him a giant in broadcast journalism and a mainstay of 60 Minutes since 1970.