"If I was misogynist would I hire a woman as my CEO?" says Bjarke Ingels

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"If I was misogynist would I hire a woman as my CEO?" says Bjarke Ingels

Bjarke Ingels has hit back at accusations of sexism at his architecture firm, following the controversy over that Instagram post.

Speaking to Dezeen, the Danish architect said: "Being a white male makes anything I say sort of misquoted and twisted. Anything that I say about this will be misinterpreted."

"I was shocked at the bullshit people were writing," added Ingels, 42, referring to the recent Instagram debacle that saw him defending the gender balance among the highest ranks of his firm, BIG.

The photograph he posted of the studio's 12 partners – 11 male and one female –  was provocatively titled BIG BOYS&GIRL. It attracted suitably reactive comments questioning not only Ingels' personal commitment to diversity but the gender imbalance across the architecture industry as a whole.

"If I was misogynist would I hire a woman as my CEO? Probably not," he said. "I grew up in Denmark for crying out loud. Denmark is probably one of the places where equality is actually fully achieved. Our political system is practically a matriarchy."

Ingels said the gender balance of staff working in his Copenhagen and New York offices is approaching 50/50. But the lack of female architects at the top of the firm is in line with the dismal industry standard, which sees less than 20 per cent of female architects make it to partner level.

"Maybe the bigger we get, maybe when we are a thousand people, it's going to start looking more like even-steven," said Ingels.

"Maybe our work appeals to some people more than others. But the opportunities that I present to my colleagues are completely uninfluenced by gender, race, sexual orientation or religion," he added.

"I really focus on the ball, I really focus on the work and I really focus on creating all the growth opportunities for anyone in the organisation that's willing to do it."

Sheela Maini Søgaard, the only female partner at BIG and a non-architect, holds a general management role.

Following the social media backlash against the Instagram post, she told Dezeen the firm was committed to gender equality and that she is working hard to create opportunities for women.

Meanwhile Ingels changed the image's caption to express his "surprise" at the discussion it had sparked:

Several comments on the post pointed to architecture's notoriously poor work-life balance, and the lack of support for career progression for women jugging families with full-time jobs.

During the interview, which followed the premiere of the BIG Time documentary at the Copenhagen Architecture Festival, he also discussed architecture's long-hours culture, as well as his upcoming move back to Europe.

Architecture's long-hours culture 

Ingels told Dezeen that when it comes to average working hours the "rules don't apply" for architecture, claiming the typical Danish working week of 37 hours would be unsustainable for the profession.

"If you are working in a post office or in a supermarket or if you are a mail man or even if you're a nurse you are somehow at work when you're at work and when you leave someone takes over and it doesn't matter if it's you on the job in the post office on Friday, it could be the other guy or girl," said Ingels.

"I think for those professions you can totally do that, but in the creative profession where you are designing something or engineering something or creating a piece of software and where there's deadlines, and where it's not a function that you're fulfilling but you're taking something that doesn't exist and you're making it exist, there those rules don't apply," he continued.

"That's the price you pay, but the reward you get is that you do something incredibly meaningful if you actually love what you're doing and you're doing meaningful work."

Ingels admits his gruelling work regime has had a negative impact on both his personal life and health in the documentary, which charts the last seven years of his career.

During that time he has expanded his team from 80 to 440 and set up an office in New York, in addition to the firm's original Copenhagen base. Ingels himself has been based in New York since the office opened in 2012.

He said the timing of his move accidentally but "miraculously"coincided with the beginning of the city's building boom, with the firm picking up major commissions including the VIA 57 West "courtscraper". BIG is now working on a complex in LA's Arts District and late last year completed a pair of twisting skyscrapers in Miami.

Return to Copenhagen

But Ingels is now planning his move back to Copenhagen for the end of 2017, this time to purposely coincide with the building boom he's spotted beginning in Europe, and particularly around the Mediterranean.

"When I moved to America everybody was asking why the hell are you going to America, it’s over, you should be going east. But it turned out our timing was miraculous," said Ingels.

"It was definitely not a calculated move, it was more like a spontaneous chance of adventure but i do sense that that escalation of opportunity that happened over 10 years in the US is happening in Europe right now and even in the Mediterranean, which is the slowest recovering, seems to be getting into gear," he continued. "So I'm actually moving my centre of gravity to Copenhagen to the end of this year."

Ingels has already lined up an array of projects in Europe, from a bottling factory for San Pellegrino in Italy, to a panda enclosure at a Danish zoo and a Paris metro station.

The architect came in just shy of the top spot on the inaugural Dezeen Hot List, a guide to the key players in the industry.

Read an edited version of the interview transcript:


Jessica Mairs: I went to the premiere of BIG Time last night. The documentary was filmed over seven years but the director picked out one very particular storyline – how do you feel about how you're portrayed?

Bjarke Ingels: I've been very interested from the beginning in trying to make a film that feels more like a film than a documentary, and in trying to give it a story arc so there was an emotional investment with the characters and through that emotional investment in the characters you would listen to some of the things they say about architecture.

I seem quite a lot like I see myself, so I think that feels relatively authentic. And I'm obviously very excited that the architect gets the girl in the end.

Jessica Mairs: It focuses a lot on architecture's long hours culture, and the impact that has had on your personal life and health.

Bjarke Ingels: If you love what you do there is no more meaningful thing to do. Just because something is tough doesn't mean that it isn't worth doing, on the contrary.

To be realistic about how things must be, because in Denmark you know the average work week is 37 hours and I think there was a political party that came in with the idea to lower it to 25 hours and if you are working in a post office or in a supermarket or if you are a mail man or even if you're a nurse you are somehow at work when you're at work and when you leave someone takes over and it doesn't matter if it's you on the job in the post office on Friday, it could be the other guy or girl.

So I think for those professions you can totally do that but in the creative profession where you are designing something or engineering something or creating a piece of software and where there's deadlines, and where it's not a function that you're fulfilling but you're taking something that doesn't exist and you're making it exist there those rules don't apply. So that's the price you pay but the reward you get is that you do something incredibly meaningful if you actually love what you're doing and you're doing meaningful work.

Jessica Mairs: Is there increased pressure being the figurehead of such a large firm?

Bjarke Ingels: We've organised BIG slightly differently than a typical office in that I'm not the CEO of BIG, I'm also not the business management director. Many of my partners and associates go to conferences, do lectures so in that sense I think we're constantly liberating my work load from what I used to do and bringing that more onto the shoulders of the partners and freeing me up to be the creative director and in that sense have a meaningful role in all the projects we do.

Eventually they get happy but it's also an educational process that they have to understand that the project leader and the parent in charge that actually shows up are super talented, skilled both competent and they really get what they're expecting to get and they'll actually get more of me if I don't have to show up.

Clients were used to me showing up for everything so since then we've grown into 440 people, so now there's a different expectation level. But I think one of the things now is that we've really worked a lot on communicating clearly that my contribution is much greater when I'm at home in the office with the team than if I'm travelling to all kinds of meetings.

Jessica Mairs: Does the expansion of Copenhagen and New York reflect the work that's available there?

Bjarke Ingels: New York boomed and we reached 200 people two years ago and we've stayed at that level. We did migrate 20 people to London so in that sense we did drain some talent but over the last year we’ve gone to 220 people here.

When I moved to America everybody was asking why the hell are you going to America, it's over, you should be going east. But it turned out our timing was miraculous, it was definitely not a calculated move, it was more like a spontaneous chance of adventure. But I do sense that that escalation of opportunity that happened over 10 years in the US is happening in Europe right now and even the Mediterranean, which is the slowest recovering, seem to be getting into gear.

I'm actually moving my centre of gravity to Copenhagen to the end of this year. I'll still be frequenting New York but I will somehow tip the balance and make Copenhagen my home again.

Jessica Mairs: Your recent Instagram post of your partners in New York sparked a lot of controversy over gender equality, not only within BIG but the architecture profession as a whole. Why do you think women are absent from senior roles firms, and what is BIG doing to foster that going forward?

Bjarke Ingels: First of all, I grew up in Denmark for crying out loud. Denmark is probably one of the places where equality is actually fully achieved, our political system is practically a matriarchy apart from lately all the women have actually gone into European political.

I know that I don't think of people as neither races or gender, everybody has equal opportunity. Anything that I say about this will misinterpreted. I was shocked at the bullshit people were writing. Understand that this is a company that originates in Denmark where the population is 90 or 95 per cent white and there are hardly any people of African descent in Denmark because we didn’t have any African colonies and whatever, you would be a fool to move here unless you're a fugitive from war because the weather sucks and the taxes are insane.

I think our office is two thirds international and it's approaching 50 per cent female. I really focus on the ball, I really focus on the work and I really focus on creating all the growth opportunities for anyone in the organisation that's willing to do it and I can just see that it is developing and maybe also the bigger we get – maybe when we are a thousand people – if you're making a statistical survey you need at least a thousand subjects before you start having something that has a plus/minus statistical accuracy. Maybe when we're a thousand people company it's going to start looking more like even-steven. I can see a lot of factors, but I've just learned that being a white male makes anything I say sort of misquoted and twisted. If I was misogynist would I hire a woman as my CEO? Probably not.

The more we become a major organisation, the more we might start looking statistically representative but we are actually a creative artistic consultancy and therefore the people who choose to work with us have to somehow want to do the stuff we do. That's why we can't go out and hire any architect. Maybe our work appeals to some people more than others, I can't say it. I just know that the opportunities that I present to my colleagues are completely uninfluenced by gender, race, sexual orientation or religion.

Photography is by Kasper Nybo.