BIG Shows Us That Infrastructure Can Be Beautiful

BIG incinerator
credit: Lloyd Alter

This is an incinerator. It burns garbage. It's stunning both in how it looks and how it works. This is infrastructure. It is a big industrial facility where they burn garbage to generate electricity and enough hot water to heat 150,000 homes. It's designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG, who won an architectural competition. This would never get built in North America. Many governments have unwritten policies that anything that taxpayer money is spent on should be miserable and mean, because nobody wants to be seen as spending taxes on frills. One architect told me of government offices that had gorgeous high ceilings and the politicians came in and insisted it be changed -- it was too nice. An incinerator? it must be utilitarian and industrial. Oh, and there had better be a giant fence around it to keep the terrorists far away.

credit: BIG

But then we're not in Kansas anymore; we are in Copenhagen, where they take public space and public investment very seriously. And everything Bjarke and BIG does has a twist, something to grab the audience. This building happens to have the only ski hill in Denmark and a whole lot more. Instead of being basic and ugly, it is 4 billion kroner (about a billion bucks) of beautiful building. Instead of being secured with fences, it is a true public facility with Europe's highest climbing wall, a rooftop bar and, of course, a ski slope. I was there with other writers and journalists, as guests of Wonderful Copenhagen, which certainly knows how to put on a tour, prior to the INDEX: Design to Improve Life Awards.

credit: Working side of building/ Lloyd Alter

We approached from the working side of the building, where the garbage trucks arrive and enter to dump their load. It's a lot of garbage; in 2015 ARC converted 395,000 tonnes of waste into 901,000 MWh of energy, of which 766,000 MWh was heat, equivalent to the consumption of 150,000 homes, and 135,000 MWh of electricity.

credit: Climbing wall location/ Lloyd Alter

The public side of the building has an 86 meter (282') climbing wall going in that slot between the "bricks", which sounds totally terrifying. I have spent some time in climbing gyms and I just cannot imagine what they will do when some kid flips out at 250 feet and won't let go of the wall.

credit: "bricks" / Lloyd Alter

Bjarke Ingels has never seen a standard detail that he hasn't wanted to throw in the trash, and reinvents the wheel constantly. I have noted that this is problematic, worrying about his New York building on E57 and his Maritime Museum. Here, each of these 3.33 meter (10'-10") by 1.2 meter (4') bricks have stainless steel planter troughs built into the top, all of which drain from one to the other. The real wall is behind, and the bricks are more like a stainless steel brick veneer rainscreen, but it is still pure Bjarke, a totally new way of doing things unlike what any other architect would consider.

credit: Catwalk/ Lloyd Alter

Excuse the camera shake, but I am afraid of heights and was hyperventilating as I walked out onto this catwalk at about the 10th floor level inside the plant. Unlike the old plant I toured a few years ago, there was not a whiff of garbage smell, just noise and a lot of big machinery, mostly filters.

credit: Lloyd Alter

The brick pattern and windows carry through even to the working area of the incinerator, making it a dramatic interior space. Visitors will have to look through a big picture window to see this, but at least they will get a peek.

credit: ARC

It's all very clean; really, most of the building is taken up with the cleaning and purifying equipment. From my previous description:

Technically, the plant will handle about the same amount of garbage as the current one. However it will use a "wet" smoke cleaning system that will remove 85% of nitrous oxide, 99.9% of hydrochloric acid, 99.5% of sulfur. It will get 25% more energy out of more efficient turbines, squeezing almost every watt out of the exhaust and running at, they claim, 100% efficiency.
credit: offices/ Lloyd Alter

The administrative offices are going to be quite spectacular, especially when the planters are full and growing.

credit: rooftop/ Lloyd Alter

Then there is the roof. It is high and very dramatic; here we are standing on the terrace of the future rooftop bar.

credit: View from roof/ Lloyd Alter

The view from the roof is spectacular; here at the top of the ski slope you can see the bridge to Sweden, wind turbines, and all of Copenhagen. The ski run will be plastic so that it can be used year round; it is modelled after real hills and will have flatter spots, steeper spots, windy places and protected ones.

credit: Garbage trucks/ Lloyd Alter

From this side, it is clearly an industrial facility, already processing a lot of garbage and with trucks almost running down Mike Chino, editor of Inhabitat. There are so many questions about burning garbage; as Tom Szaky has written in TreeHugger, it is a disincentive to recycling because they need fuel and are even importing garbage. As David Suzuki has written:

Incineration is also expensive and inefficient. Once we start the practice, we come to rely on waste as a fuel commodity, and it's tough to go back to more environmentally sound methods of dealing with it. As has been seen in Sweden and Germany, improving efforts to reduce, re-use and recycle can actually result in shortages of waste "fuel"!

It still produces a lot of CO2 which they justify the way people pushing biofuels do -- that it is not new carbon. In fact, garbage produces more CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity than burning coal does. (That figure does not include the heat energy which is used in Copenhagen.)

credit: Lloyd Alter

On the other hand, they are not schlepping garbage to distant landfill sites, they are not using fossil fuels to heat 150,000 houses, and they have built this monument as a public facility.

credit: View from city/ Lloyd Alter

And try to imagine what would happen in a big North American city if you could see some big ugly power plant thing in the background of a postcard of the kissing bridge. People would go insane. But when infrastructure is beautiful you don't mind looking at it. For more information on Denmark's waste to energy, see our earlier slideshow, Waste-to-energy in Denmark: The present and the future, where I toured the old plant with the smokestacks surrounding the new Amager Bakke project, and which are being removed from the postcard view next year. And again, thanks to Henrik Thierlein and the team at Wonderful Copenhagen for making this possible.