Bjarke Ingels, a brash visionary with boy band swagger, has managed to turn contemporary architecture on its head in just a few short years, changing the way we look at — and interact with — the built environment: skyscrapers, senior housing, museums, corporate campuses and even zoos. Not too shabby for a 40-year-old Dane reared on LEGO bricks and comic books.

As the world’s preeminent practitioner of “sustainable hedonism” — that is, “sustainability that improves the quality of life and human enjoyment” — it would only make sense that Ingels has also injected his trademark impishness into an activity not necessarily associated with, well, fun: waste incineration.

Copenhagen’s Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant, an Ingels-designed project that broke ground in 2013 with an anticipated completion date of 2017, sports a 333,700-square-foot artificial ski slope built into the roof of the mountainous structure. Yes, you read that correctly: a power plant with a public ski run.

Ingels, through his eponymous firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), has long sought out creative — translation: unorthodox, eccentric and a touch nutty — methods in which to embrace community in lieu of erecting isolating edifices that, while architecturally stunning, provide little to no public space. If a garbage-incinerating power plant — the 1 million-square-foot facility is capable of heating 140,000 Copenhagen-area homes — with an alpine chair lift doesn’t provide a clear-cut example of Ingels’ people-engaging approach to sustainable design, I’m not sure what will.

But like with other BIG projects, Ingels’ exuberant playfulness is accompanied by a certain gravitas — a thought-provoking message for the masses. Basically, Ingels’ work is the equivalent of a kid swinging on the monkey bars while reciting Nietzsche.

BIG's Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant, CopenhagenPhoto: BIG

At Amager Bakke — “a new breed of waste-to-energy plant, one that is economically, environmentally, and socially profitable” — that seriousness comes in the form of a proposed “steam ring generator” that will puff out a 100-foot-wide vapor donut from the structure’s slender smokestack for each single metric ton of CO2 burned within the massive facility.

By sweeping nothing under the carpet, but rather projecting our carbon footprint onto the Copenhagen sky, we provide every single citizen intuitive information to help them inform the decisions they make for their lives and for the city that they want to live in.

Elaborates BIG partner Jakob Lange to Co.Design: "Right now pollution is intangible. People don’t really know how to measure pollution, and if people do not know, then they cannot change or act. The idea of putting out a ring for every ton of CO2 is so that people in Copenhagen can look in the sky and count the rings. If citizens recycle more, there are fewer rings."

Crowning a pollution-producing power plant — a skiable power plant, to boot — with an environmental awareness-raising art installation that burps massive steam rings is eyebrow-raising in itself. But it’s how BIG has decided to go about funding the decidedly non-celebratory steam ring generator, based an original design by realities:united, a Berlin-based studio best known for its rubberneck-inducing media façades, that’s really garnering attention: Kickstarter.

Emerging architecture firms are increasingly turning to the crowdfunding platform to help usher special projects to completion. However, BIG, most recently announced as the designer of Two World Center, is the first major firm to do so. It’s no doubt a potentially game-changing move. If Ingels, a media-savvy maverick never known to shy away from convention-bending, goes the crowdfunding route will other starchitects follow?

While it’s too early to tell if Ingels’ peers will hop aboard the crowdfunding train, many have wondered why.

Why would an architect of such caliber (and considerable wealth) turn to Kickstarter to raise $15,000? (With 23 days left to go in the campaign, BIG has already surpassed its goal with $22,285 raised as of publication).

For many, the answer is cut-and-dry: publicity … and lots of it.

However, as detailed by Wired, there are other issues at play.

Given that the smoke ring generator is a work of public art and not an essential component of the publicly owned power plant itself, BIG has spent several years struggling to secure corporate backing. As an architecture firm, BIG has also found itself ineligible for grants normally awarded to artists. But after Ingels participated in a talk “On The Future of Urban Design” at Kickstarter’s Brooklyn HQ this past June, the solution became clear. With other funding methods not panning out, crowdfunding emerged as the obvious choice.

From Wired:

The Kickstarter campaign is as much about activism as it is about funding — an increasingly popular tactic in the architecture world. 'You could say the whole idea of the project is an exercise in radical transparency,' Ingels says. 'What the project does is make blatantly legible a carbon footprint that is invisible, and only exists in the form of numbers and specifics and news.' The point of the tower is to raise environmental awareness. By asking the public to contribute, the firm is putting it to the people to decide if they want a visual representation of pollution on the skyline. It also detaches the project from any corporate influence.

As mentioned, BIG’s initial Kickstarter $15,000 goal has been reached. As noted by Wired, Danish energy company ARC will match the total sum raised during the campaign which includes perks such as Ingels-designed T-shirts and a signed monograph of the gorgeously produced BIG monograph, “HOT TO COLD.”

BIG's Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant, CopenhagenRendering: BIG

And to be clear, the money raised won’t be used toward executing the final smoke ring generator but a third and final prototype being designed by R&D-focused BIG offshot, BIG Ideas, in collaboration with a team of Danish rocket scientists and combustion engineers. The previous prototypes have been self-financed. "BIG Ideas allows us to realize things, like the generator, that we wouldn’t be able to realize, and to inform our design process," Ingels tells Co.Design.

Following testing of the crowdfunded prototype, BIG and co. would need to secure permission from the city of Copenhagen before installing the full-sized, real deal chimney. It's unclear how the final product will be financed.

The Kickstarter move has generated plenty of conversation — any thoughts?

Via [Wired], [Co.Design]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Help crowdfund the world's first steam ring generator
Professional envelope-pusher Bjarke Ingels launches a Kickstarter campaign. Will other top architects follow suit?