A towering collection of giant bubbles dubbed “The Cloud” is an ambitious design proposed by a team of leading architects and engineers as a spectacular landmark to commemorate London's role as host of the 2012 Olympics. Sitting atop a number of 400ft lightweight transparent towers, a "cloud" of inflatable, light-emitting spheres is intended to create a three-dimensional “floating” display in the skies over London, fed by real time information from all over the world and viewable from most parts of the three-time Olympics city. The Cloud was shortlisted in a competition set up by London Mayor Boris Johnson who has committed to build a tourist attraction in the Olympic Park.

Equally as left-field as the design is the creators’ plan to raise the funds to build it by asking for donations from millions of people – lots of little ones to make one big contribution.

"It's really about people coming together to raise the Cloud," Carlo Ratti, one of the architects behind the design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "We can build our Cloud with £5m or £50m (US$8.2-82 million). The flexibility of the structural system will allow us to tune the size of the Cloud to the level of funding that is reached."

How big the structure becomes will depend on the number of contributions, he said.

The team, which also includes the writer Umberto Eco and engineers from Arup, has decided to push ahead and publish details of its design.

The structure draws on work by artist Tomas Saraceno, a German-based designer who has previously shown off huge inflatable sculptures.

It is envisaged that the spheres would be made of a plastic known as Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), the material used to build the Beijing Aquatic Centre.

The spheres will have different roles to play – some will be habitable spaces, others pure decoration, some comprising giant LCD screens on which Olympic news and events will be broadcast, while others will give the structure strength.

Google, one of the supporters of the project, has also offered to provide the information feeds.

Ramps, stairs and lifts would carry people to the top of the structure to look out over the city.

The design of the structure is to make the towers and the bubbles as transparent as possible, which means those who like to feel and see the ground beneath their feet might think twice about climbing, riding or using the elevator to reach the top.

Zero power

The Cloud will also be "a vast, collective energy-harvesting effort," says Alex Haw, a member of the team. "People can choose to ascend the Cloud on foot or bicycle; the energy that it would take to descend the Cloud is converted, on the way down, into electricity through elevators with regenerative braking, similar to those that are present in hybrid cars.

"The people's energy, coupled with solar energy collected through on-site and off-site photovoltaic cells and various energy saving strategies will allow us to reach carbon neutrality, whereby the Cloud produces all the energy it uses.”

"It will be a monument to crowd-sourcing," said Ratti. The structure is "a new form of collective expression and experience and an updated symbol of our dawning age: code rather than carbon," he said.

"Our main idea is to apply to architecture some of the distributed processes that are currently revolutionizing the digital world," said Ratti. "For instance, we would like the Cloud to become a symbol of global ownership built through a bottom up fundraising effort."

Other finalists include the former Turner prize winner Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, the designer of the Angel of the North.

The mayor is yet to choose a winning design.

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