Can architecture be crowdsourced? One recently completed structure in the Netherlands, and another one proposed for Denmark, raise that question. If the strategy has success, it will add a dimension to the discipline and to our public space and infrastructure. On a more fundamental level, crowdsourcing raises questions about architecture’s traditional model.
The Luchtsingel Bridge, designed by Zones Urbaines Sensibles (ZUS) as a span over a traffic roundabout in Rotterdam, Netherlands, fulfills a nice (though not absolutely crucial) function: It connects three neighborhoods separated by railroad lines and busy arterial roads with a structure whose bright, yellow color and central circle make that act into a civic gesture with panache and verve. I am not sure that these neighborhoods were all that isolated, as they each had many connections to the rest of the city, just not to each other. But enough people chipped in—in return for having their names inscribed on the bridge—to have this project, out of a range of other proposal that came out of an architecture biennale in Rotterdam four years ago, realized. Not that crowdsourcing did it all: The Dutch government actually paid for most of the bridge; the many contributions acted more as evidence of public support that made authorities believe in the structure’s viability.
The Danish example is even more limited in its scope: It is not the power plant itself (the Amager Resource Center, designed by Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG) that the campaign seeks to fund, but the art project, created by the German group Realities:United, that is seeking $15,000 in crowdsourced funding. This will enable the plant to “blow smoke rings,” which, to me, seems like a slightly odd thing: Why would you want a plant that is to be a model of sustainability refer to something old men puffing on cigars used to produce? The point is that it will make what is a piece of infrastructure into something you will look at and see as something producing a fun and perhaps beautiful phenomenon, even if it is not one revealing of its actual workings. We shall see if the public agrees.
These public projects are very different from another kind of crowdsourcing, which seeks to replace the nitty-gritty work many architects do on a daily basis with design intelligence sourced on the web. Sites such Arcbazar might get you a good closet and maybe even a kitchen design, but the scale and nature of the jobs seem to make it not much of a threat to those designing for more complex and specific situations—although a recent Swedish example, managed by a construction firm, is encouraging in terms of the resulting design for a tiny house’s seeming elegance.
Crowdsourcing, in other words, is still working in the margins. It provides a supplement to the profession and an interesting addition to the range of possibilities within the realm of architecture. One danger is that it will replace exactly those funds that let architects survive at the low end of the scale, while encouraging the continual erosion of government responsibilities by making communities fight for amenities by vying for financial support with many other causes. Finally, crowdsourcing might link up with competitions to use the power of the web to let “the people” (at least those with computers, connections, and time and money to spare) decide the result of such contests. Will votes by credit card replace supposed expert knowledge? Though we could use a good reality check on the jury process, I would argue that this, if it happens, could take away yet another way in which architects can contribute to our designed environment by using their hard-won experience and knowledge.
Perhaps it is an old story: The new opportunities technology opens up also close down existing ones. That same history shows us that only those who can react with some speed and figure out how to change their working models will go through the open doors. What the discipline needs to do now, at every level from education to licensing, and from introspection to public dissemination, is to figure out how those particular skills and perceptions architects have can be of use in a world in which the power of single clients, whether private or public, is clearly eroding and being replaced by some form of collective intelligence and support that may also signal the demise of a certain kind of knowledge and singular, experience-based, wisdom. It would be nice if somebody could crowdsource a study on how we could do that.