Changing Skyline: Optical illusion makes architect Bjarke Ingels' new Navy Yard building mesmerizing

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View of the 1200 Intrepid campus at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in South Philadelphia.

The heyday of the starchitect pretty much ended with the last recession, but there remains one rock-star designer who still commands the attention of people who normally pay little attention to the way buildings look: Bjarke Ingels. Just 41, the Danish-born architect has already been the subject of a New Yorker profile and a Charlie Rose interview. Ingels is a regular on the TED-talk circuit, and was in Philadelphia last month to give the prestigious Louis Kahn lecture.

Part of Ingels' appeal is his ability to bring irreverence and fun to architecture, similar to what Ikea did with furniture. Growing up, he wanted to be a cartoonist. He calls his firm BIG, as in Bjarke Ingels Group, which makes the URL for his Danish webpage BIG.dk. His designs will also make you laugh, although they can sometimes turn into punch lines. He once proposed a trash incinerator that blows smoke rings from its stack and has a ski slope on the roof. That one is no joke. It's under construction right now.

Determined to conquer America, Ingels moved his office to New York in 2012 and promptly secured two commissions, one in Manhattan, the other in Philadelphia. The New York project, as you might guess, is for a luxury apartment house, Via 57 West. Rising 34 stories over the Hudson River, it resembles a boat's main sail, with a deep tear ripped into its center for a lush interior park.

Ingels' Philadelphia commission is the polar opposite: a four-story, low-budget, speculative office building at the Navy Yard.

Size, it turns out, doesn't matter.

For architects, spec office buildings have long been seen as one of the profession's most banal forms, just a notch above the big-box store. Squat, utilitarian boxes of subdividable space, they crouch along our highways behind rings of asphalt. A spec office is not how a superstar usually makes a debut.

But much of Ingels work in Denmark has been for budget-minded developers, and he sees value in coming up with imaginative designs that can be built cost-effectively. So when Liberty Property Trust, the Navy Yard's developer, called, he embraced the challenge. Ingels says he considers the 92,000-square-foot building, called 1200 Intrepid Avenue, an "opportunity for innovation."

Ingels hasn't reinvented the form with 1200 Intrepid, but he does manage to inject it with an impressive level of pizzazz, imagination, and even refinement.

It's hard to tear yourself away from the Baroque, crashing wave of the building's dazzlingly white, main facade. While 1200 Intrepid is constructed entirely of flat concrete planks, each piece is set at an angle, so the composition gradually becomes a curving wall.

The optical effects are mesmerizing. If you stand at the corner and look across the breadth of the facade, the front wall appears to be tumbling to the ground like a collapsing row of dominos. The curves are reminiscent of a Richard Serra sculpture.

Step away from the building a bit, and the wall becomes a sheltering canopy over the sidewalk. The curve - actually, two intersecting curves - were shaped to echo the circular park across the street, a recent design by James Corner Field Operations.

One of the popular amenities in that park is a circular running track, used by the Navy Yard's growing office population. When I visited 1200 Intrepid with Ingels, he described the building as receiving "a pulse of energy" from the park that allowed "the powerful circle to expand beyond its limits."

Like all good architecture, it takes a while to absorb Ingels' details. The thick, 20-foot-high planks, poured and sandblasted at Lancaster County's High Concrete, appear identical, but come in five variations, as do the windows. Rather than being stacked, the concrete panels interlock in a basket-weave pattern. There are no horizontal panels. Your eye is pulled upward, instead. When you glimpse yourself in one of the windows, it's like looking into a carnival mirror.

The Navy Yard building probably won't get the same media attention as the enormous Via 57. (The building has 709 units, 142 affordable.) But 1200 Intrepid offers a more distilled expression of Ingels' architectural philosophy. He has frequently complained about the polarization of architecture between expensive, one-off signature buildings and "the petrifyingly pragmatic" designs done for bottom-line-minded clients.

Although 1200 Intrepid struts like a high-design building, its total development costs weren't off the charts, about $375 per square foot. While Liberty Property says that is slightly more than its previous Navy Yard projects, it's still less than a typical building by a big-name designer.

Ingels kept costs down by treating the side and rear facades as flat walls. As you round the corner, the building reverts to office-park type. Yet the basket-weave arrangement and the window reflections ensure that these sides aren't boring. Frank Gehry has pulled a similar trick many times, surrounding one spectacular facade with three ordinary ones.

Unlike the typical highway office, 1200 Intrepid doesn't overwhelm visitors with the magnificence of its entrance. The two modest front doors, each set in the openings between the panels, preserve the basket-weave rhythm. They also recall the split entrance at Robert Venturi's Guild House.

That modesty doesn't mean there are no surprises inside. The understated atrium is finished, Scandinavian-style, in blond wood. But look up, and your head will spin. Ingels has created a giant periscope, complete with angled mirrors, that offers a view of the Navy ships docked several blocks away. At each level, the square atrium opening rotates slightly. Each level is outlined in lights, adding to the funhouse feeling.

On the office floors, sharply canted front windows create a bit of vertigo, but offer terrific views of the Navy Yard's growing office cluster. The area remains a strange hybrid - part sprawling office park, part aspiring urban core - but is growing denser with each new building.

Maybe one day, the Yard's many surface parking lots will be filled in. Imagine how thrilling it would be to see Ingels' cascading facade popping out from amid a tight row of urban buildings. For now, this ambitious stand-alone office will have to do.

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