Film Review: Big Time

The work and mind of an architect come thrillingly to life in this smooth, intelligent doc about a certified modern genius.
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One World Trade Center, with its gleaming Freedom Tower, now thrillingly overshadows all of Manhattan and has truly become a part of New York City, having replaced the doomed Twin Towers, with all of their unspeakably sad history and nostalgic associations. Up next is Two World Trade Center, and the man who will be responsible for this edifice (and most desirable of architectural commissions) is Bjarke Ingels, the red-hot subject of Kaspar Astrup Schröder‘s doc Big Time.

A very natty Larry Silverstein, the developer of Two World Trade, extols Ingels and his team as both fascinating and enjoyable, which will probably be your exact reaction to this very elegantly done film. Ingels himself, brilliant, baby-faced and intense, is a more than fit camera subject, exuding charisma and intelligence as he makes quick yet strikingly graphic sketches of buildings and articulates his ideas as only a truly great communicator can. The doc benefits greatly from the extraordinarily apt and crisp cinematography by Rene Johannesen, Boris B. Betram and Henrik Bohn Ipsen and a fetching music score by Ali Helmwein.

Born in 1974, Ingels was a decidedly different sort of child, breezing easily through school but mainly absorbed in comic books and wanting to be an artist in the field. His childhood home in Denmark lent itself easily to him walking on its roof, to his parents’ dismay, and this incongruous notion obviously stayed with him when his path turned to architecture. He made his first mark in his country with a Copenhagen power plant featuring a ski slope on its roof (and smoke rings emitted by its chimney), as well as the Danish Maritime Museum in Elsinore, right next to the famed castle of the actual Prince Hamlet.

In 2009, he founded BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), with its company philosophy of a futuristic yet humanly accessible approach that combined the design elements of art and architecture, while factoring in both urbanism and nature. All of these found a striking synthesis in his fantastic “Scandimerican” apartment complex on West 57th Street, which he wanted to mirror in one block the entire construct of the urban sprawl of Manhattan around the oasis that is Central Park. I know Anita Durst, the daughter of Douglas Durst, the developer of that space, and she once told me that her father told her, “Dursts don’t talk.” Well, he certainly does here, and is full of enthusiasm for and rightful pride in his architect.

The film attains a certain amount of human drama, in the midst of all the tallying of architectural glories, with the frustrations of aesthetic compromise that inevitably come into play and the onset of Ingels’ severe headaches brought on by a concussion during a baseball game. It is discovered that he has a cyst in his brain, which leads to inevitable thoughts of mortality for him, always bearing in mind the roster of great architects who died too young, of unnatural causes: Gaudi (run over by a Barcelona tram), Le Corbusier (drowning), Eero Saarinen (dead at 51, during a brain operation), and his favorite, Louis Kahn (found dead of a heart attack in a Penn Station men’s room).

“At the end of the day, you only get twenty or thirty buildings” and “I’d rather lose an arm than my ability to think” are but two of his darker ponderings, but the film ends on a sweet note with his marriage to a lovely woman, Ruth Otero (also an architect), the long-awaited love of his life, in which he charms us once again with his inability to do his own bow tie.

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