Documentary Review: ‘Big Time’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

There is a very particular delight in listening to a master explain his or her field of study with an approach that is both enthusiastic and readily understandable to the layman. Director Kaspar Astrup Schröder takes full advantage of this by placing his subject, eminent architect Bjarke Ingels, at a broad drafting table. Whether he sketches out his own designs for a new apartment block or the famous silhouette of Sydney’s opera house, Ingels walks you through the conception and execution of each building by way of his personal working philosophy. It’s a lovely technique often deployed in Big Time (a play on the name of Ingels’ firm and his professional success); those unfamiliar with the field of architecture will not find themselves lost in a maze of technical jargon, while the more informed among us will find no shortage of insights.

Big Time follows a seven year period in Mr. Ingels’ career, from 2009 to 2016. During this time Ingels focuses on the international expansion of his firm BIG, particularly into the American market. He opens a second office in New York City, the site of his residential project VIA 57 West as well as the firm’s redesign of Two World Trade Center. Periods of such rapid growth can alternatively be viewed as a time of increased turmoil, which certainly holds true for Ingels. While we follow his successful inroads to the world of Manhattan property development, made possible in part due to Ingels’ acquaintance with Douglas Durst, chairman of the Durst Organization and brother to the ominously hiccupping Robert Durst, we’re privy to the slow unraveling of BIG’s Copenhagen branch.

Without Bjarke’s physical presence the firm loses bidding wars for lucrative contracts, depriving them of much-needed funds while the NYC office continues its expansion. At one point (the passage of time remains hazy throughout the film) Ingels suffers a health scare that threatens to deprive him of an architect’s most important asset: his mind. With a tendency towards reservedness, Ingels does not indulge in any hand-wringing on camera. He does, however, provide a brief history of other architects who passed away at the zenith of their careers.

If there is a shortfall to Big Time, it is in a relaxed narrative structure directly at odds with Ingels’ modern precision. Predicaments like Bjarke’s medical concern or the growing pains of his business, naturally possessed of urgency, lose some of their edge when presented outside a sense of time. As the focus of Big Time, however, Bjarke Ingels makes for a fascinating subject. He has all the affable warmth of your favorite college professor without the artificial sheen of grandstanding. The documentary is a little less revealing than it claims—we meet his family for a brief time at the film’s start, and his girlfriend slips in right at the end with no backstory given—and ends a little abruptly. Perhaps in keeping with its more lax approach, Big Time does not wrap up on any central thesis or lesson. Yet the passion and quiet charisma, not to mention the considerable achievements, of Ingels are reason enough for its production, which will hopefully serve to reinvigorate a similar sense of enthusiasm in viewers.

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