News
12.07.2009
Send in the Clouds
MIT in bubbly bid for London Olympic tower
A proposal spearheaded by MIT's Senseable City Lab envisions an inhabitable sculpture for London's 2012 olympics.
Courtesy Raise the Cloud

In early November, British architects discovered with dismay that Mayor Boris Johnson of London was conducting a secret competition to select a designer for a $33 million beacon for the 2012 Olympics. Brushing aside the standard procurement process—which involves publishing a notice in The Official Journal of the European Communities—Johnson invited 30 firms to submit proposals for a prominent addition to the city’s skyline.

While the contenders—said to include Foreign Office Architecture—have yet to be named, one team is already spreading the word about their entry on Facebook. Carlo Ratti, architect and director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, joined forces with German engineer Joerg Schlaich, Arup, artist Tomas Saraceno, corporate sponsor Google UK, and others to create what Ratti described as “not a building for London but a symbol of global ownership.”

A Guggenheim-like spiral wrapped in cable netting will support the clouds, with much of the structure open to the public.

Called “the Cloud,” the structure starts with a slender spire that is ringed by a spiraling ramp, stabilized with a cable net, and sturdy enough for strollers and bicyclists to mount to a sky full of bubbly spheres. This upper aerie would host three types and sizes of spheres: The largest and most structural are Buckminster Fuller–type geodesic domes; next, cable-net bubbles would cluster around observation decks; and then, blurring the edge, bunches of hot-air-filled balloons create that head-in-the-clouds feeling.

The EFTE inflatables would be covered in a new type of distributed LED that is readable from any direction and could provide a constant stream of information, including game statistics, weather forecasts, traffic advisories, alien greetings, and presumably, advertisements.

Olympic visitors at play in "the Clouds."

Intended to stand 400 feet tall, the Cloud will barely have a footprint, sustainability-wise. Photovoltaic film, whose effect will be magnified by mirrors, is spread over the spheres. And while visitors can only ascend the one-kilometer ramp on foot or by bicycle, they can descend by means of a “regenerative lift” that uses the same braking system as a Prius to recoup electricity, as will water-wheels embedded in the column through rain collection.

The exact size of the Cloud remains to be determined. Taking a page from the grassroots innovations of the Obama campaign, the team has organized a structure that can expand or contract depending on donations. The density of the cloud cover—the number of spires and individual clouds, in fact—will depend on how many people sign on to contribute.

London Mayor Boris Johnson envisions a beacon for the Olympics, and mit's is only one of several proposals thought to be under consideration.

The Facebook page Raise the Cloud was launched on November 11 with 1,000 fans and counting, according to Ratti, who would like to see as many as three spires covered in clouds at the as-yet-unselected site. “We can build our Cloud with five million pounds or 50 million,” he said. “The flexibility of the structural system will allow us to tune the size of the Cloud to the level of funding that is reached.” Whether or not selected by Mayor Johnson to be the official 2012 Olympic Tower, the Cloud is certain to attract plenty of air time. Julie V. Iovine

Julie V. Iovine