Update: The Kickstarter campaign launched by BIG to fund the development of their steam ring generator reached its goal of $15,000 in less than a week after it was launched. As of today (24th August) the campaign total stands just short of $25,000, with 19 days still to go.
BIG has 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 was announced on Friday and picked up a lot of steam (pun intended) in the design press - but at ArchDaily we were hesitant to publish news of the campaign because, in short, it led us into 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 an established architectural firm attempting to crowdfund the design of a project that is already half-built, causing some people - ArchDaily staff included - to ask: "Why wasn't this money included in the project's budget?"
On the face of it, this question is answered by Ingels in a recent FastCo Design article breaking the news about the Kickstarter and explaining why BIG founded a special department within the company, called BIG Ideas, to tackle design challenges 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," explains Ingels.
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 this 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 instead of making the steam ring concept more integrated into the overall design?
Other questions surrounding the Kickstarter campaign concern the responsibility of BIG to their "followers": 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 raised 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 FastCo 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, saying "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?
Above: Video of one of BIG's previous prototypes, a 1/10th scale model of the steam ring generator. The current Kickstarter is aimed at producing a larger, 1/3rd scale prototype to further prove the concept, to help raise funds for the generator itself.
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 cheating 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?
We want to know what you think. What's your take on all of these issues? Is there a limit to what can, or should, be crowdfunded? Perhaps there are better ways to crowdfund architecture than Kickstarter? Let us know in the comments below, and we'll feature the best responses in a future article on BIG, crowdfunding, and the role of money in architecture.