BIG’s 8 House: A Social Experiment to Create an Urban Neighbourhood

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After recently viewing the documentary “The Infinite of Happiness”, we revisited our 8 House tour to reflect upon its social experiment in creating an urban neighbourhood.

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From a distance afar, the dramatic slopes and unconventional silhouette of BIG’s 8 House looks as if it was a collapsed man-made disaster in the rural Ørestad neighbourhood of Copenhagen, Denmark. But far from being a disaster, to date, this odd looking mixed-use housing development is often praised for its bold design and ingenious social scheme.

As the mastermind of 8 House, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels envisions this 3-dimensional urban neighbourhood as a working iteration of the “streets in the sky” social concept. According to Ingels, 8 House succeeds in its social context through designing a continuous ramped walkway to connect the public street level to the penthouses.

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Ingels‘ “8 ramp” idea sounds intuitive to maximize social opportunities for its housing residents. But this Le Corbusier inspired community design ideology has been explored and developed into numerous versions of ill-fated British post-war social housing projects in the past. Using Robin Hood Gardens as an example, British Brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s well-intended and thoughtfully implemented socially inclusive design failed to win its residents’ heart, forcing the housing estate to face possible demolition for redevelopment.

So, does 8 House’s ramp design actually work as intended to promote social interactions? And does Ingels accomplish in designing a precedential 3-dimensional urban neighbourhood? These questions can only be answered by its primary users – 8 House residents.

The documentary “The Infinite Happiness” by Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine precisely provides the narrative of 8 House’s residents. With no structured storytelling, Bêka and Lemoine show the day-to-day activities within the proximity of 8 House. The residents are the protagonists of the film whereas the building becomes almost a backdrop that holds the community in place.

In 85 minutes, Beka and Lemoine document an unicyclist riding up and down 8 House, a birthday party transforming 8 House into a children’s urban jungle, a functional kindergarten for the residents, a group of self-initiated housing support volunteers named 8 Support, workshop spaces which welcomes all residents to use, and resident interviews about living inside this highly visited building.

Residents often praise the continuous public ramp design as an element to their community identity, resonating their perspective with Ingels’ social integration proposal. The strong connectivity between the public street and the private housing units increases opportunity for spontaneous encounters, encourages neighbour interactions, and thus strengthen the sense of community.

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While the residents mostly embrace the socialist community living, one may argue that the positive perception of the building is due to its specific demography – young families, matured couples, and individual professionals from a similar background who can afford and choose to live in 8 House. Therefore, 8 House’s social foundation is idealized, limiting its community to a certain group of people.

The success of 8 House should be viewed as a single entity, with its limitation being cultural and personal. Its design merit is unique, but by no means is it a cookie-cutter approach in building an urban community worldwide. This, Ingels agrees to as well.

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