Decoding Design

Why temporary architecture could be an enduring trend

Why temporary architecture could be an enduring trend

Posting in Architecture

Sure, food trucks and pop-up stores are fun cultural fads. But they also symbolize a powerful, era-defining design trend: the value of impermanence in the 2010s.

Gourmet food trucks: not only a culinary phenomenon, but also an architecture and urban planning influence?

Not so long ago, skyscrapers and city plans seemed to be permanent elements of urban communities. But perhaps in today's shaky economic times, an era that's also defined by instant messaging and rapid prototyping, impermanent architecture and pop-up neighborhood services could very well be the most promising and perhaps even defining trends of the decade.

So argues New York Times opinion writer Allison Arieff, the former editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine and a prominent writer and consultant on design. In her essay, "It's Time to Re-think 'Temporary,'" Arieff writes that "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." She refers to the use of Airstream trailers as mobile health units in the early 1960s and the centuries-old tradition of temporary bookshops that line the Seine River in Paris as references.

Why does the idea of fleeting structures and do-it-yourself city planning symbolize the future, then? Citing thinkers such as Robert Kronenburg, an architect and professor at University of Liverpool, and Mike Lydon, founding principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning, design, and advocacy firm, Arieff points out that

  • Dropping, or at least loosening, the historical belief that architects, engineers, and developers should focus on permanent edifices will allow them to research and experiment with current building technologies faster
  • Short-term, experimental projects can help find quicker, more responsive, and highly flexible solutions to the needs of diverse city populations
  • Embracing impermanence can allow more designers and planners to test out new types of structures or services without having to endure long governmental approval processes normally in place for permanent buildings

Examples of these practices in action are evident in the work of the Dallas organization Build a Better Block, once a small grass-roots initiative that now partners on official city projects, or San Francisco’s PROXY project, which had set up shops and eateries in shipping containers and eventually helped revitalize a somewhat run-down neighborhood within the City by the Bay.

Given that since the beginning of the Great Recession the construction business has slowed dramatically and that some of the most popular cultural--and inventive retail--projects have been pop-up shops and food trucks, letting go of past conceptions of architecture's permanence might be the most enduring design phenomenon of the 2010s.

Image: Andrew Huff/Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure