The future is all about tubes. At least, that’s what Virgin Hyperloop would have you believe. The company recently released a series of images and a short film to give a flavour of how its far-future transport network will actually function from a passenger’s point of view. Hyperloops, which use frictionless vacuum tubes to enable passenger pods to reach vast speeds, are gaining currency and credibility around the world. The basic concept has been around for centuries, but its modern iteration was popularised by Elon Musk at the turn of the last decade.

Today there are a number of companies competing for funds, partners and routes around the globe. Virgin Hyperloop is perhaps furthest down the line, running human trials on its own test tracks in Nevada, and committing themselves to creating an affordable business model that compares to the cost of driving, not flying. The architect Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG has a long-running collaboration with Virgin Hyperloop to give form to the massive infrastructure required by this multi-billion-dollar technology.

We spoke to Bjarke Ingels about how his architecture is laying the groundwork for future transportation. 

The Virgin Hyperloop will consist of a number of individual 28-seater pods
The Virgin Hyperloop will consist of a number of individual 28-seater pods, interior designed by Teague

Wallpaper*: How long have you been working on this project? 

Bjarke Ingels: It’s been a long journey. I believe we started working with the Hyperloop guys five years ago. It’s very interesting to be part of a journey where the technology has kept transforming and evolving. In that sense it felt like absolute victory to be able to design the first test vessel, to have an opportunity to try to create something that evokes speed but also feels like it travels inside a void. It’s not aerodynamic in the traditional sense but it still has to be evocative of travelling at an extreme speed in great comfort. I think we’ve tried to bring some of that vibe to these latest designs. You could say that both airports and train stations have become shopping malls, basically commercializing the waiting time. The economic incentive has gone towards delaying departure and extending the journey rather than shortening it. What we are really trying to do with Hyperloop is to make it as blatant and as immediate as possible. It’s about the destination. 

W*: It seems that the laws of physics dictate a huge amount of what you can do in terms of space. How do you accommodate these immense speeds?

BI: The system is a vacuum tube so you have to pass through an airlock, so the design has to accommodate these elements. You’re essentially going from a normal atmosphere into somewhere that’s equivalent to outer space. The architecture is geared towards making that transition as a seamless as possible. We looked at many different forms of mobility to see if we could combine the best of all worlds. The modern ‘destination dispatch elevator’ became a bit of a reference point. If you go into a modern high-rise you tell the central nervous system of the building which floor you want. It knows where everyone wants to go and groups you with the people going the same way. It reduces travel time and demand load. In a similar way, with Hyperloop you arrive at the Portal it’ll already know where you’re going so you’ll be directed straight to the right pod [shaped by industrial designers Teague]. The building can still be a lovely and beautiful experience, with people waiting for others to arrive, but it has to offer seamless and effortless navigation.  

W*: These are conceptual ideas that are designed to encourage cities and countries to make the colossal investment. Where do you personally think we will see the first Hyperloop? 

BI: You should speak to the Hyperloop guys about that. I have a feeling that all the studies and conversations are heading something that’s going to be a reality.

Virgin Hyperloop station, envisaged by Bjarke Ingels

W*: BIG usually responds to place and creates buildings that address their immediate environment and the communities that are going to use them. This concept shows how the technology works but suggests it can essentially be plugged into any culture. Is this a weird back-to-front way for an architect to work?

BI:  There’s a beautiful poem by Antonio Machado, ‘Caminante no hay Camino’, which means ‘Wayfarer, there is no path’. It goes ‘Wayfarer, there is no way. Make your way by going farther.’ Increasingly, when you are involved in giving form to the future, rather than making an elegant version of something that has been done before, you are literally walking an unpaved path. When you look back, the steps you made are now the beginnings of a path. As architects, we’re not used to doing that. But it is the essence of entrepreneurship. For Hyperloop to make the journey from fantasy to reality, we have to get closer and closer to materialising it in a way that is tangible, credible and desirable. I think that the Hyperloop will be a bit like wireless and cell phones, in the sense that many regions skipped the landline and gone straight to Wi-Fi – perhaps even more will once [Space X’s] Starlink becomes ubiquitous and omnipresent. Similarly, there are places around the world that could skip the stage of installing thousands of miles of conventional tracks and jump straight to Hyperloop. The centre of the world isn’t New York or London, it’s more like Dubai or Mumbai. My bet would be that where you’re really going to see the Hyperloop make a dent in space-time is among the people in Asia and Africa. 

W*: Will there be any point in continuing to build airports in the future? 

BI: The writer and theorist Paul Virilio had this theory of ‘dromology,’ from dromus, the Greek word for ‘running’. It’s the idea that although increased speed changes things it doesn’t mean that slower speeds cease to exist, but it has less critical impact. Hyperloop is just another avenue for delivering those high speeds, but with all the advantages of connecting dense urban areas to other dense urban areas. It’s like a metro system, but a cosmopolitan one, a Cosmo, I guess, one that interconnects whole cities, not districts. This is where it will make a tremendous difference. With urban mobility, we now know that the answer is not a single silver bullet solution for everything. That’s what we thought the car was – so much so that the US ripped up all the train tracks and the tram lines and the metro systems. It’s increasingly clear that what you need today is a multimodal network. The Hyperloop is incredibly well positioned to be a part of this digitally and physically connected multi-modal transportation network. An instant jump from one city to another, without having to journey out of town to an airport. It could be the missing piece in the intercity connectivity of the future.§

The Virgin Hyperloop portal is designed by Bjarke Ingels and his team at BIG
The Virgin Hyperloop portal is designed by Bjarke Ingels and his team at BIG

 

Inside the Virgin Hyperloop portal
The ’boarding gates’ for the individual pods 

 

Inside the Virgin Hyperloop pod
Inside the 28-person Virgin Hyperloop pod