Do Visionary Architecture and Public Crowdfunding Mix?

BIG’s Kickstarter campaign to seed fund one of the firm’s quirkiest designs has led to questions of the role of invention, public engagement, and money in architecture.

Launched in mid-August, BIG’s Kickstarter page has raised over $26,000, which will go toward funding ongoing research for a component of the firm’s Waste-to-Energy power plant in Copenhagen.

Courtesy BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group

A version of this article originally appeared on ArchDaily, where it also ran as part of their AD Discussion Series.

A little over two weeks ago, BIG launched a Kickstarter campaign, aiming to fund the ongoing research and prototyping of the “steam ring generator” designed to crown the firm’s Waste-to-Energy power plant in Copenhagen. The campaign quickly picked up a lot of steam (pun intended) in the design press. This led me to a minefield of questions about the role of invention, public engagement, and money in architecture.

Of course, BIG are far from the first to attempt to crowdfund an architectural project. Previous projects, however, have generally focused on otherwise unfundable proposals for the public good, barely-sane moonshots, or complex investment structures, which, depending on your viewpoint, may or may not even count as crowdfunding. BIG are perhaps the first example of a leading architectural firm attempting to crowdfund the design of a project that is already half-built, causing some people to ask: “Why wasn’t this money included in the project’s budget?”

On the face of it, this question was answered by BIG founder and director Bjarke Ingels in a recent Fast Co.Design article that broke the news about the Kickstarter. Ingels explained that his firm had founded a special department within the company, called “BIG Ideas,” to tackle design challenges exactly like the steam ring generator. “Because the power plant is publicly owned, they can’t spend money on art, so we have to seed fund the generator ourselves,” Ingels said.

But is this a reasonable excuse for shifting the responsibility of funding part of the design onto the architect? Why can’t the power plant spend public money on art, if that art is designed to convey an important message to the public?

To look at the issue another way, should it be so easy to label a significant part of the concept design as “public art” and withhold funding from it? And is this a fault of the power plant being over-zealous value engineers, or does the fault lie with BIG for designing an easily sacrificed bauble that should have been more integrated into the overall project?

Other questions surrounding the Kickstarter campaign concern the responsibility of BIG to their “funders.” Should people really be expected to help pay for something that, for over four years, was assumed to be a fully-funded part of the design? Should the designs have been published, and so raising people’s expectations, if there was no commitment to fund it from the client? Should there have been more transparency about this from the start?

One fairly compelling reason for the Kickstarter offered by Ingels to Fast Co.Design is that “as architects, we are too often limited by the building products that we can specify,” and as “there were no smoke ring-emitting manufacturers in the yellow pages,” it was necessary to think outside the box about how to make the steam ring generator happen. Speaking to Wired, Ingels goes further: “Often we are the last ones to enter into the game of imagining the future of our cities, because we have to wait for someone to announce a competition. […] One of the inhibitions of the architecture profession is we are limited by the vision of our clients put forward.” Perhaps the Kickstarter is a much-needed step for architects to reclaim their status as a creator and occasional inventor, rather than simply a specifier?

But even this raises as many questions as it solves, as others have asked about who will own the patent rights to the resultant technology in this situation. The answer, obviously, is BIG, as it would be near impossible to navigate the legal implications of every backer owning a portion of those rights. By using Kickstarter rather than approaching traditional investors, is BIG gaming the system and exploiting those willing to help fund this commercial venture?

Finally, let’s take a look at the rewards listed on the Kickstarter campaign: $250 will get you a t-shirt designed by Ingels; $500 will get you a signed copy of BIG’s monograph Hot to Cold; and if you want to attend the opening of the power plant, it will set you back $10,000 (travel expenses not included). Clearly, whoever contributes money to this fund is doing so in order to see the steam ring generator realized, not for the material rewards. Which raises the question: Has visionary architecture really been reduced to a near charity-case?

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