'Big Time': Film Review

Courtesy of Mongrel Media
Not so sturdily constructed.

Kaspar Astrup Schroder's documentary profiles famed Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.

That filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schroder had uncommonly intimate access to his subject becomes apparent while watching Big Time. His documentary delivers a portrait of wunderkind Danish architect Bjarke Ingels as he leads his firm, the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), through several landmark projects. Shot over seven years, the film occasionally gets bogged down in the sort of minutiae that would have been better left on the cutting room floor, but it also provides an insightful depiction of the personal and professional travails that inevitably accompany career success.

Among Ingels' noteworthy buildings in his native country are a Copenhagen power plant featuring a ski slope on its roof and the world's tallest climbing wall, and the Danish Maritime Museum in Elsinore. The architect describes how he wanted the latter building not to compete with the view of Hamlet's castle located nearby. The museum is located in a former dry dock, with his design running afoul of the rules of an architectural competition and attracting lawsuits as a result. But as with so many aspects of his professional life, Ingels prevailed.

He opened a Manhattan branch of his firm while still in his late 30s in conjunction with landing such major projects as the VIA 57 West apartment complex and a skyscraper in the new World Trade Center development. Talking about his ideas for one of his buildings, Ingels says that he wants to create something uniquely "Scandimerican."

The documentary becomes more personal after Ingels suffers a concussion in a sports accident that leads to devastating headaches. A resulting MRI — he suffers an anxiety attack while attempting to take it — reveals a cyst on his brain. Musing that he will have the opportunity to build maybe 20 or 30 major buildings during his career, Ingels points out that many architects have met unfortunate ends, including Antoni Gaudi, who got hit by a tram, and Louis Kahn, who died of a heart attack in a restroom at Penn Station.

The documentary proves far more compelling when it concentrates on Ingels' professional accomplishments than his personal life. It's fascinating to listen to him describe his creative intentions behind his signature buildings and the myriad obstacles he faced while attempting to design and build them. Much less interesting is the footage of him jogging on the Brooklyn Bridge, having dinner with his elderly parents and sharing a limo ride with his girlfriend. On the other hand, the climactic scene in which Ingels displays an inability to tie a bow tie provides an amusing counterpoint to his reputation as a master builder.  

Articulate, charismatic, engaging and clearly brilliant, Ingels seems to have captivated the filmmaker so much that Big Time suffers as a result. Neither scholarly enough to fully satisfy architecture buffs nor distinctive enough as a biographical portrait, it falls somewhere in the bland middle. The film does, however, boast a stylishness befitting its subject, with the superb cinematography and musical score adding greatly to its overall impact.

Production: Sonntag Pictures, Good Company Pictures
Distributor: Mongel Media, Abramorama
Director: Kaspar Astrup Schroder
Producer: Sara Stockmann
Directors of photography: Rene Sascha Johannsen, Boris B. Betram, Henrik Bohn Ipsen
Editors: Bobbie Esra G. Pertan, Cathrine Ambus, Kaspar Astrup Schroder
Composer: Ali Helmwein

93 minutes