It’s Time to Rethink ‘Temporary’
We tend to view architecture as permanent, as aspiring to the status of monuments. And that kind of architecture has its place. But so does architecture of a different sort.
For most of the first decade of the 2000s, architecture was about the statement building. Whether it was a controversial memorial or an impossibly luxurious condo tower, architecture’s raison d’être was to make a lasting impression. Architecture has always been synonymous with permanence, but should it be?
In the last few years, the opposite may be true. Architectural billings are at an all-time low. Major commissions are few and far between. The architecture that’s been making news is fast and fleeting: pop-up shops, food carts, marketplaces, performance spaces. And while many manifestations of the genre have jumped the shark (i.e., a Toys R Us pop-up shop), there is undeniable opportunity in the temporary: it is an apt response to a civilization in flux. And like many prevailing trends — collaborative consumption (a.k.a., “sharing”), community gardens, barter and trade — “temporary” is so retro that it’s become radical.
In November, I had the pleasure of moderating Motopia, a panel at University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, with Robert Kronenburg, an architect, professor at University of Liverpool and portable/temporary/mobile guru. Author of a shelf full of books on the topic, including “Flexible: Architecture that Responds to Change,” “Portable Architecture: Design and Technology” and “Houses in Motion: The Genesis,” Kronenburg is a man obsessed.
Mobility has an innate potency, Kronenburg believes. Movable environments are more dynamic than static ones, so why should architecture be so static? The idea that perhaps all buildings shouldn’t aspire to permanence represents a huge shift for architecture. Without that burden, architects, designers, builders and developers can take advantage of and implement current technologies faster. Architecture could be reusable, recyclable and sustainable. Recast in this way, it could better solve seemingly unsolvable problems. And still succeed in creating a sense of place.
In his presentation, Kronenburg offered examples of how portable, temporary architecture has been used in every aspect of human activity, including health care (from Florence Nightingale’s redesigned hospitals to the Airstream trailers used as mobile medical clinics during the Kennedy Administration), housing (from yurts to tents to architect Shigeru Ban’s post-earthquake paper houses), culture and commerce (stage sets and Great Exhibition buildings, centuries-old Bouqinistes along the Seine, mobile food, art and music venues offering everything from the recording of stories to tasty crème brulees.)
Kronenburg made a compelling argument that the experimentation inherent in such structures challenges preconceived notions about what buildings can and should be. The strategy of temporality, he explained, “adapts to unpredictable demands, provides more for less, and encourages innovation.” And he stressed that it’s time for end-users, designers, architects, manufacturers and construction firms to rethink their attitude toward temporary, portable and mobile architecture.
This is as true for development and city planning as it is for architecture. City-making may have happened all at once at the desks of master planners like Daniel Burnham or Robert Moses, but that’s really not the way things happen today. No single master plan can anticipate the evolving and varied needs of an increasingly diverse population or achieve the resiliency, responsiveness and flexibility that shorter-term, experimental endeavors can. Which is not to say long-term planning doesn’t have its place. The two work well hand in hand. Mike Lydon, founding principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, argues for injecting spontaneity into urban development, and sees these temporary interventions (what he calls “tactical urbanism”) as short-term actions to effect long-term change.
Though there’s been tremendous media attention given to quick and cheap projects like San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks and New York’s “gutter cafes,” Lydon sees something bigger than fodder for the style section. “A lot of these things were not just fun and cool,” he says. “It was not just a bottom-up effort. It’s not D.I.Y. urbanism. It’s a continuum of ideas, techniques and tactics being employed at all different scales.”
“We’re seeing a lot of these things emerge for three reasons,” Lydon continues. “One, the economy. People have to be more creative about getting things done. Two, the Internet. Even four or five years ago we couldn’t share tactics and techniques via YouTube or Facebook. Something can happen randomly inDallasand now we can hear about it right away. This is feeding into this idea of growth, of bi-coastal competition betweenNew YorkandSan Francisco, say, about who does the cooler, better things. And three, demographic shifts. Urban neighborhoods are gentrifying, changing. They’re bringing in people looking to improve neighborhoods themselves. People are smart and engaged and working a 40-hour week. But they have enough spare time to get involved and this seems like a natural step.”
Lydon isn’t advocating an end to planning but encourages more short-term doing, experimenting, testing (which can be a far more satisfying alternative to waiting for projects to pass). While this may not directly change existing codes or zoning regulations, that’s O.K. because, as Lydon explains, the practices employed “shine a direct light on old ways of thinking, old policies that are in place.”
The Dallas group Build a Better Block — which quickly leapt from a tiny grass-roots collective to an active partner in city endeavors — has demonstrated that when you expose weaknesses, change happens. If their temporary interventions violate existing codes, Build a Better Block just paints a sign informing passers-by of that fact. They have altered regulations in this fashion. Sometimes — not always — bureaucracy gets out of the way and allows for real change to happen.
Testing things out can also help developers chart the right course for their projects. Says Lydon, “A developer can really learn what’s working in the neighborhood from a marketplace perspective — it could really inform or change their plans. Hopefully they can ingratiate themselves with the neighborhood and build community. There is real potential if the developers are really looking to do that.”
And they are. Brooklyn’s De Kalb Market, for example, was supposed to be in place for just three years, but became a neighborhood center where there hadn’t been much of one before. “People gravitated towards it,” says Lydon. “People like going there. You run the risk of people lamenting the loss of that. The developer would be smart to integrate things like the community garden — [giving residents an] opportunity to keep growing food on the site. The radio station could get a permanent space. The beer garden could be kept.”
San Francisco’s PROXY project is similar. Retail, restaurants and cultural spaces housed within an artful configuration of shipping containers, designed by Envelope Architecture and Design, were given a five-year temporary home on government-owned vacant lots in the city’sHayesValleyneighborhood while developers opted to sit tight during the recession. Affordable housing is promised for the site; the developers will now be able to create it in a neighborhood that has become increasingly vibrant and pedestrian-friendly.
On an even larger scale, the major developer Forest City has been testing these ideas of trial and error in the 5M Project in downtown San Francisco. While waiting out the downturn, the folks behind5Mhave been beta-testing tenants and uses at their 5th & Mission location, which was (and still is) home to the San Francisco Chronicle and now also to organizations like TechShop, the co-working space HubSoma, the art gallery Intersection for the Arts, the tech company Square and a smattering of food carts to feed those hungry, hardworking tenants. A few years earlier, Forest City would have been more likely to throw up an office tower with some luxury condos on top and call it a day: according to a company vice president, Alexa Arena, the recession allowed Forest City to spend time “re-imagining places for our emerging economy and what kind of environment helps facilitate that.”
In “The Interventionist’s Toolkit,” the critic Mimi Zeiger wrote that the real success for D.I.Y. urbanist interventions won’t be based on any one project but will “happen when we can evaluate the movement based on outreach, economic impact, community empowerment, entrepreneurship, sustainability and design. We’re not quite there yet.”
She’s right. And one doesn’t have to search for examples of temporary projects that not only failed but did so catastrophically (see: Hurricane Katrina trailers, for example). A huge reason for tactical urbanism’s appeal relates to politics. As one practitioner put it, “We’re doing these things to combat the slowness of government.”
But all of this is more than a response to bureaucracy; at its best it’s a bold expression of unfettered thinking and creativity … and there’s certainly not enough of that going around these days. An embrace of the temporary and tactical may not be perfect, but it could be one of the strongest tools in the arsenal of city-building we’ve got.