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Adelaide Film Festival review: Big Time

Film

“Imagine the way you want to live and then build it.” Big Time, a documentary profile of Bjarke Ingels — founder of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) — takes us deep inside the mind of a design master.

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The Danish architect is famous internationally for his residential complexes, museums and public buildings, and his thinking extends so far beyond the square you can’t even see it in the distance.

Why not put a ski slope on top of a power plant? Why not re-engineer the same power plant’s tower to blow steam rings? As Ingels sketches his visions, he shares his hopes that his childhood desires of walking on the roof can one day be reached at the scale of an entire city.

The documentary was filmed over five years (from 2011 to 2016) by director Kaspar Astrup Schröder, who already had a close relationship with Ingels via a personal connection. The extended time frame and unlimited access allowed Schröder to capture much more than Ingels’ working life, and the result is an absorbing portrait of the man.

Bjarke Ingels was a talented child who wanted to translate his passion for comic books into a career. His parents had other ideas. They enrolled him at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts and now he tells stories with buildings instead. His childhood home (a modernist house with views to an ocean, forest and lake) continues to be his inspiration.

How to marry the practical needs of the client with the aesthetic vision of the architect? Big Time reveals some of the seemingly endless struggles faced when dealing with difficult sites and divergent opinions.

One example is the Danish Maritime Museum in Elsinore, situated in an old dry dock. After winning a design competition, Ingels and his team pull off what he describes as a “radical act of preservation and interpretation”. Their museum transforms the site without disturbing its historic surroundings.

Fame soon brings business opportunities further afield, including collaborations with Douglas Durst and Larry Silverstein, NY developers who both wish to work with Ingels to build sustainable skyscrapers that push the boundaries of design.

All the while there is the possibility that something could derail Ingels’ stellar trajectory to the pinnacle of his field. When spreading himself thin begins to have consequences for BIG’s bottom line, and the travelling, long working hours and constant negotiations with clients add to the demands on his health, the young architect contemplates the possibility of a life unfulfilled.

Yes, there have been colossal professional achievements by age 40, but has it been at the expense of personal fulfilment?

Schröder wanted his film to be about “more than just pretty pictures”. Old black and white photos of iconic buildings provide a contrast to colour images of Ingels’ breathtakingly original projects, including 8 House (2010) and The Mountain Dwellings (2008).

The film is certainly beautiful to watch. There’s a dream-like quality enhanced by a superb soundtrack, but more time to take in the scope of BIG’s previous and upcoming constructions would have been welcome.

No matter what path we choose in life, at some stage we’re all forced to engage in our own search for meaning and happiness. Big Time inspires viewers to ask themselves one question. What kind of life do we want to live?

Big Time screened at the Adelaide Film Festival for one night only. Read more Film Festival stories and reviews here.

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