Among Bjarke Ingels Group’s noted projects is a multicultural urban park in Copenhagen designed to address religious and cultural diversity. (Superflex)
Art and architecture critic

Bjarke Ingels, founder of the architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group, thinks he can change the NFL. After news leaked this month that his firm, known as BIG, has been tapped to design a new stadium for the Washington Redskins — Ingels not only defended his new client, he also waxed poetic about the power of sport to change society. And he sounded almost utopian in his confidence that smart design could push that evolution forward: “Nothing excites me more than to take active part in the evolution of that sport and its facilities to make football more exciting, more engaging, more inspiring and more safe in the future.”

To understand how strange this pairing of client and architect is, you have to contemplate two things: the deeply embedded social progressivism that has become the standard worldview of international architectural firms such as BIG; and organizations such as the NFL, a private club for 1 percenters that bullies municipalities and treats its own players’ health with indifference.

Can this marriage last? Is BIG motivated by naivete or cynicism? The answer to this last concern matters deeply in Washington, because of BIG’s other major local client: the Smithsonian Institution.

Almost everything about BIG, a Danish architecture firm with a growing U.S. portfolio, suggests that it is in the mainstream of international architectural idealism. Ingels’s firm stresses the virtues of sustainability and cultural development and pragmatic problem-solving that improve the lives of ordinary people. Among its celebrated projects is a multicultural urban park in Copenhagen specifically designed to address religious and cultural diversity, and the rising tension between immigrants from the Islamic world and other Danes. The firm also created an urban park that functions both as a power plant and a ski slope, with zero toxic emissions.

Architect Bjarke Ingels led a tour of the "HOT TO COLD: An odyssey of architectural adaptation" exhibit at the National Building Museum last year. (Matt Carbone)

“At its core, architecture is always an effort to make the existing environmental conditions more hospitable to human life,” Ingels said in the catalogue to a National Building Museum exhibition of his work last year.

Ingels responded to Washington Post questions about the NFL — including its dismal record when it comes to squeezing extortionate public financing from cities, and the growing crisis of traumatic brain injury among its players — with the same good-natured bravado that has made his designs so exciting and appealing. He wrote of the power of sport to cut across social and national lines with spectacles that bring communities together. He extolled the health benefits of sport in general, and then said: “BIG and I are proud to be part of imagining and designing the framework for the future of American Football.”

That’s a tall order, so let’s revisit the challenges he faces.

New stadiums are a terrible investment for everyone but the team owners, and the boondoggle of securing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to seal the deal is an egregious wealth redistribution to some of this country’s richest families. The league shows no gratitude or loyalty to cities that are stupid enough to pony up, as this month’s decision to move the Rams from St. Louis to a new stadium in Los Angeles demonstrates (yet again).

Even if you succeed by careful casuistry to the conclusion that professional sports have social value as entertainment and a focus for civic pride, the NFL is sitting on what could become an explosive scandal as more becomes known about the long-term effects of concussions and head injuries.

For more than two decades, the league minimized and dismissed a growing medical consensus about the impact of head injuries. In 2013, it settled a lawsuit filed by former players for $765 million, declaring, “There was no recognition that anything was caused by football,” in the words of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The National Building Museum's past exhibit "HOT TO COLD: An odyssey of architectural adaptation" featured the work of BIG. Pictured: Danish Expo Pavilion in Shanghai China. (Matt Carbone)

And there is almost certainly more coming — in September, pathologists reported that 87 out of 91 former players, now deceased, showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — and the scandal will probably unfold with the grim, train-wreck clarity of the tobacco giants’ fall from grace. But it is the Redskins’ name that should give anyone pause, including a progressive architect, about doing business with this franchise.

It will be fascinating to see what happens. In his email, Ingels gave a few clues about what he hoped to bring, architecturally, to the reform of the game.

“Does the typical NFL stadium have room for improvement?” wrote Ingels. “Yes most certainly. Is it waste of resources to have giant facilities that are only active 10 times a year. Obviously. Therefore we have worked with our team to imagine a facility that can be active both inside and outside all year and all week — not just on a game day. Also we have sought to distill the stadium experience — before, during and after the game — to its essential ingredients — to provide the greatest intimacy for the players and fans, and in doing so to create a more compact and efficient stadium as opposed to the colossal facilities of the past.”

There are few clues as to how he will deal with the league’s profit-driven fetish for luxury skyboxes, which make stadiums some of the most egregiously anti-democratic spaces on the planet. Or any indication about how he will deal with the likely requirement that the stadium be surrounded by parking. An NFL document laying out what has been called “Super Bowl specifications” leaked to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last year demanded 35,000 parking spaces for the big game day.

If the Redskins are indeed Ingels’s client, this will be the second local project the firm has taken on that is, from the outset, deeply problematic. The firm also has been tapped by the Smithsonian to design its new South Campus, the cluster of museums, gardens and underground spaces that will fan out east and west from the Castle building on the Mall. This is $2 billion enterprise that is overly ambitious and will put the institution on a desperate fundraising treadmill for decades to come. Even it gets built, it will almost inevitably corrupt the institution from the inside, empowering the money people over the scientists, scholars and curators, and entangling the organization in close and corrosive relations with large corporations and other deep-pocketed donors. With purse strings come other strings.

Architects aren’t saints. They serve power, and always have. And BIG has served some shady patrons in the past. Different firms negotiate the ethical challenges of serving the corrupt and cruel differently. Some see themselves as merely providers of a technical service and don’t claim any particular ethical high ground. Too many overestimate their own powers, and they assuage any concerns about the client with the moral fable that someone has to build the building, so better that it be built right.

Architecture is by its nature a self-critical enterprise. But too many architects don’t ask the most difficult question of all: Does this building absolutely need to be built? Firms that espouse lofty social goals as part of their basic organizational DNA have a harder time justifying projects that are egregiously wasteful, and associations that are morally compromising.

The NFL isn’t Kazakhstan, where BIG was hired to design a national library for the country's autocratic ruler (the project eventually fell through). But the NFL isn’t a client that BIG should be proud of. If the firm is indeed working for the Redskins, it makes one even more nervous about what will happen at the Smithsonian. With BIG on board, there was hope that some smart people would be at the Smithsonian table. Now, it looks as though those same smart people will be bringing a lot of cynicism to the mix, as well.