A/D/O by MINI | Crowdsourcing the City

Journal

Architecture

Crowdsourcing the City

The Kickstarter bubble has burst for architecture and infrastructure, but a new model of crowdfunding offers a more attractive alternative.

Architect Jun Aizaki had an idea for a new pedestrian bridge to connect his home neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with Long Island City across the water. Part of a vision he called the Longpoint Corridor, the bridge would revitalize a neglected area and unite two communities.

Naturally he and his studio Crème turned to Kickstarter to raise the funds necessary to get the project off the ground, encouraged by the successes of others. So when the project failed to get anywhere close to its $50,000 target, despite impressive visuals and plenty of media coverage, Aizaki was left wondering what went wrong.

Jun Aizaki and Crème's Timber Bridge would connect Brooklyn and Queens if successfully funded.

In 2015, crowdfunding was all the rage in architecture. In Rotterdam, a group of architects had unveiled the world’s first crowdsourced pedestrian bridge, while projects like the Lowline in New York and the Thames Baths in London were celebrating hugely successful campaigns.

Many were hailing Kickstarter as the new funding model for public architecture and infrastructure, a game changer that would empower communities around the world to build projects of real common good without the need to unlock council funding or find a billionaire backer.

Aizaki is looking for alternative funding options after a Kickstarter campaign failed to raise enough dollars.

The reality hasn’t quite lived up to the dream, with none of the early success stories anywhere close to materializing. You could be forgiven for thinking these proposals were just vanity projects or marketing ploys for the architects behind them.

But the reality is that it takes a lot more than a lump of cash and a community of supporters to bring something of this scale to life, and people have started to realise it. The question is, will this realization spell the end for crowdfunded architecture, when it’s barely begun? Will architects like Aizaki ever be able attract significant funding in this way again?

The +Pool project raised a substantial amount on Kickstarter, but the project currently remains in the design phase.

One of the very first crowdfunded architecture projects to hit the headlines was the +Pool, a design for a cross-shaped swimming pool floating in New York’s East River. An initial Kickstarter campaign in 2011 raised $41,000, while a second two years later earned a whopping $271,000. According to Dong-Ping Wong, one of the architects behind the proposal, the cash injection was only half the benefit.

“As big as the money that we got was the fact that we started building a community around the project,” he told The Journal. “It gave us a set of interested people, fans and funders, to communicate with. A lot of those are still actively following the project.”

Architect Dong-Ping Wong came up against several political challenges while trying to realize the +Pool.

The +Pool team did all they could to build on that early success in a meaningful way. They set up a non-profit organization, hosting regular events and fundraisers to keep up the momentum. They also leveraged the media attention they received to initiate conversations with New York City officials and technical consultants.

But over eight years later, the project is still in the design phase. “Of all the different challenges, politics has probably been the biggest,” said Wong. “With a city like New York, it's very slow to do any major project like this.”

Studio Octopi's Thames Baths proposal was also successful on Kickstarter, but requires further funding for the planning process. Image copyright Studio Octopi and Picture Plane.

Chris Romer-Lee, co-founder of London-based Studio Octopi, had a similar experience with the Thames Baths, a swimming pool project for the River Thames. After raising £142,000 in a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, the realities of the planning process quickly became apparent.

“The descent from the high profile of the campaign is inevitable when you start dealing with the local authorities,” the architect explained. “We calculated that it would cost at least £400,000 just to get to planning, yet people started asking us six months later where the pool was.”

Studio Octopi also used crowdfunding for the planned regeneration of Peckham Lido. Image copyright Studio Octopi and Picture Plane.

The challenges of the planning process didn’t put Romer-Lee off working on further crowdfunding campaigns. A second swimming pool project (this time a restoration in Peckham) and a venue for an arts program in Margate, Kent, both reached sizable targets. The architect said he likely won’t do any more, at least not while these three are still in progress. “I would be nervous,” he said. “There is an illusion with crowdfunding that people raise a lot of money then piss it away.”

However he still believes crowdsourcing is a viable option for large-scale projects. His advice is to develop a clear strategy for how the design is going to be delivered from the outset and get consultants on board as early as possible. “A lot of campaigns fail because they don't have that rigour from the beginning, and it’s not the platform’s responsibility to bring that rigour,” he explained.

The Luchtsingel infrastructure project in Rotterdam is one of the few crowdfunded projects to make it off the drawing board. Photo by Ossip Van Duivenbode.

Strategy definitely played a big part in the realisation of the Luchtsingel, one of the few crowdfunded projects that has made it off the drawing board. Extending across roads and railways to connect two disparate areas of Rotterdam, this 390-meter elevated walkway was the brainchild of Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman, founders of locally based architecture and landscape studio ZUS. Their concept from the beginning was to ask locals to buy the wooden planks that would form the bridge. In return, the planks would be engraved with their names.

Van Boxel and Koreman had to set up their own funding portal after the project was turned down by Kickstarter, on the grounds that the rewards were not substantial enough. But the buy-a-plank approach ended up being key to the project’s success – people could see where their money was going, so it gave them a real incentive to take part.

Luchtsingel architects ZUS asked locals to buy the planks that form the elevated walkway, in return for engraving their names in the wood. Photo by Ossip Van Duivenbode.

“The possibility of every resident to contribute, regardless of the amount of money donated, creates co-ownership,” explained the pair. “This is what inspired us during the realisation of Luchtsingel.”

The simplicity of the ZUS campaign ensured that the majority of funds went straight into the project, whereas both Romer-Lee and Wong had to dedicate enormous amounts of resource into producing and distributing rewards to their Kickstarter benefactors. Even more importantly, it led to the bridge winning a competition for city funding, which paved the way for building work to begin.

Luchtsingel was rejected by Kickstarter because the rewards were deemed not substantial enough. Photo by Fred Ernst.

One crowdfunding platform has tried to replicate this winning formula as its model. Spacehive is a UK-based platform led by former journalist Chris Gourlay, which focuses on community-based initiatives. It offers to not only help projects find funding, but to pair the initiators with both local authorities and grant bodies. “We feel that there's still a lot of appetite out there amongst communities to both start projects and also contribute to them,” said Gourlay. “There's a lot of funding between all the different stakeholders and what we need to do is try and tie it all together.”

Spacehive has been behind a series of popular community projects, including a 90-meter water slide temporarily installed in Bristol and the reopening of Saltdean Lido in Brighton. Gourlay is confident that bigger projects will start to materialize soon too.

ZUS co-founders Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman set up their own crowdfunding portal to realize their project. Photo by Ossip Van Duivenbode.

“One huge challenge with us was, how do we get somebody like the Mayor of London to actually pledge alongside the crowd?” he said. “What kind of a programme do we need for a local authority to embrace this model as the normal way of distributing built environment projects? It takes time to get that right but I think the structural changes are happening. If you look around the UK now, about 45 different local authorities have crowdfunding programmes and they're starting to get real traction.”

Back in Brooklyn, Aizaki has come to the same conclusion. The global appeal of Kickstarter can certainly be powerful for the right project, but when it comes to architecture it’s just not enough. To get a project off the ground and see it through to the end requires an extensively collaborative approach. The architect said he is now exploring the possibility of setting up a funding platform of his own: “We're hoping that we can turn our experience working on this bridge project to try to find a better solution.”

A global community of creators empowered by MINI to boldly explore the future of design.