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For the past couple of years, Washington has been getting to know architect Bjarke Ingels. The photogenic, 41-year-old Dane who leads the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is now a global design star, supervising two huge projects in New York: W57, a pyramid of apartments being built in Midtown, and a skyscraper at Two World Trade Center. His firm is also working on a new campus for Google in Silicon Valley.
Busy as he’s been elsewhere, Ingels has kept coming back to D.C. In 2014 he gave us the BIG Maze at the National Building Museum, and soon after, the excellent exhibition “Hot to Cold,” also at the NBM. Right before that show opened, a clearer rationale emerged for all the time spent in Washington: The Smithsonian announced it had selected BIG for a $2 billion renovation of the Mall’s south campus.
That seemed to be the whole story—architectural whiz kid takes Washington, and the world. But yesterday, the Sports Business Journal broke some BIG (sorry) news: The firm will design a new stadium for Washington’s NFL team, probably in partnership with a firm specializing in sports-architecture. The ’Skins haven’t announced a location for their new facility, but are expected to reveal plans later this month.
If the report is accurate, it’s a glaring misstep by Ingels and BIG. The Pigskins are one of the most loathed franchises in the NFL, and Dan Snyder is the most hated owner in the league, maybe “in sports, period,” according to Sports Illustrated. A major reason is his adamant refusal to change a team name which many, many people say is racist. Let’s not let making the playoffs gloss over this.
The National Congress of American Indians and numerous Native American tribes have called for the team’s name to be changed, along with civil rights organizations, members of Congress, and President Obama. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the team’s trademark registration in 2014 on the grounds that it’s disparaging to Native Americans. A poll commissioned by the City Paper and the Kojo Nnamdi Show revealed that a majority of D.C. voters find the moniker insulting. Yet Snyder remains determined to keep it, once telling USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple.”
Ingels is not exactly a bleeding-heart designer for social justice causes—the main tenant of Two World Trade Center will be Rupert Murdoch, after all—but he clearly does think a lot about how architecture can improve the world. The project that put BIG on the international stage, the 8 House development in Copenhagen, was vaguely utopian: a self-contained modernist village of apartments, townhouses, offices, shops, and courtyards. One of Ingels’ better known designs is a waste-to-energy power plant that doubles as a ski slope—it’s green infrastructure you can have fun with, a principle that Ingels calls “hedonistic sustainability.” Recently, the firm completed a major climate–resiliency plan for New York City.
So what does Ingels have to gain by allying himself with an offensively named, overpriced sports franchise, with an ownership that has sold airline peanuts and stale beer to beleaguered fans? Ingels isn’t lacking for work, and he’s already won the best commission in Washington! Maybe he and BIG’s other principals really wanted to design an American sports stadium. Fair enough: They would only have had to wait a year or two, max, until a more palatable opportunity came along. BIG established its U.S. office back in 2011, so the principals couldn’t have been ignorant of the controversy over the Washington team’s name.
We’ll have to wait until the team unveils the design concept later this month to know what Ingels has in mind for the stadium. In November, he told Women’s Wear Daily that the work he was doing for a (then mysterious) NFL franchise “could represent a paradigm change in stadium design.” It’s possible: This is a guy who designed a building where you can ride your bike up a ramp to the 10th floor. But the most inventive design in the world couldn’t overcome the stench of the ’Skins brand.
Ingels is far from the first prominent architect to sign on with an odious client. (He himself began to design a national library for Kazakhstan, a country under dictatorship, in 2009 before that project fell apart.) It could be a lot worse. An NFL owner is not a dictator; a racist brand is not on the same scale as construction-worker deaths. Still, this project will dim the aura around Ingels, and the negatives could overshadow other projects that BIG does, like one announced just yesterday—a pinwheeling high school in Arlington that the firm is co-designing with Leo A Daly.
I know that FedExField is crummy and Washington football fans deserve better. But ’Skins officials don’t deserve an architect of Ingels’ caliber. When the stadium is eventually built—wherever that may be—they’ll get to drape themselves in the mantle of innovative design, environmental leadership, and maybe even community building. That’s a form of “hedonistic sustainability” that will taste bitter in a lot of mouths.
Google campus via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0 license