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AT ISSUE: Now you see it

What endures? In this issue, ArchitectureBoston considers the appeal of structures that sit lightly on the land. From the ice shacks of northern Maine to burning effigies in the Nevada desert, ephemeral can be beautiful. And powerful.

60 days
Ice-fishing shacks on Eagle Lake, Acadia National Park, Maine, 2014. Photo: © Debra Carr Brox

Season's fleetings

Early in January, sometimes on the very first day, a pop-up village appears in the middle of our small town in western Maine. One day there is nothing, the next, 20 or 30 houses. They seem to come out of nowhere, like toadstools after a rain, last about two months, then disappear one night, taking the village with them. The houses are small yet, like any house, have roofs and walls and windows and doors, and sometimes are carefully decorated inside. And these are the only buildings I know of that have a foundation not of wood or granite or cement, but of ice.

Ice shacks and the villages they create are an important part of life in a place like Maine, or in any of the other small towns in the northern tier of the United States. Unlike other communities, these villages have just one activity and purpose: to make ice fishing possible and more pleasant than it otherwise would be. On our pond, the ice-fishing season runs from January 1 to March 31, and on almost any day you can look across the pond and see fishermen puttering about in the village. Why, you wonder, would anyone subject themselves to those temperatures, the exposure, just to land a fish? The reason is that ice fishing is a refusal to give in to winter. When you live in a place with as much winter as this, a place where a pond can be frozen solid for one-third of the year, one has to find a way to cope. The ice houses make it possible not only to resist winter but to enjoy it.

On a Saturday last February, when it was 8 degrees outside and a brutal northwest wind swept across the pond, the village expanded, becoming a wicked-cold Woodstock, because an ice-fishing derby was under way. The village, complete with vehicles and roads, swelled to perhaps 300 people, about 150 of whom had signed up for the derby. At 300, it was larger than some of the hamlets in our county.

I took a stroll through the village that day. The shacks ranged from the barest —  four walls, a roof, a window, barely a floor — to impressively elaborate. As I walked by one of the latter, I admired its construction: 8-by-12-foot walls of ribbed-steel roofing panels over a 2-by-4 frame, with a roof slope of about 2 inches over 12 to shed the wind and snow. Waved inside by a friendly fisherman, I discovered a toasty space, thanks to the wood stove blazing in the center of the shack. There were three of us inside at first, and then eight, but homey all the same: food on the stove, plenty of supplies, pictures in frames, shelves, electrical wiring for a generator, even curtains on the windows. One could happily survive winter in a dwelling like this — not that anyone has, except in tales invented by old-timers.

The next day the village had lost half its population; by the first of March, it was a ghost town; in another month, there were no shacks and no trace that a village ever existed. Our pop-up villages are a reminder that winter, even in western Maine, is temporary. Someday, the pond will thaw. ■ 

Michael D. Burke, a professor of English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, is the author of the memoir The Same River Twice (University of Arizona Press, 2006).

10 days
PaperBridge, by Steve Messam, a full-sized pack- horse bridge made from 22,000 sheets of paper, in the Lake District, UK, 2015. Photo: © Steve Messam

A transitory nature

The very idea of transitory, demountable, ephemeral architecture may seem counterintuitive to our usual perception of buildings as enduring spaces in which to dwell. Yet examples of small-scale buildings abound, many of which include delicate, momentary, or briefly inhabited works that illustrate the delight of such places.

In contrast with architecture that is substantial and solid, the designs of these tiny spaces frequently respond to subtle, changing qualities. Often, they encourage us to engage with the environments in which they sit as much as the works themselves. Such built projects encompass the ephemeral in various ways: They frame diurnal patterns of light and shade and mark seasonal change, they move according to varying weather patterns and scenery, and they inspire playful flights of fancy — even if the imaginative works last only a short season. They can also be seen as small weather vanes: registering a broader and changing interest in how we can occupy our environment intelligently, doing more and using less.

Steve Messam’s PaperBridge in Cumbria, England, epitomized the way in which ephemeral works can pique curiosity and draw attention to context. This self-supporting crimson arch was formed of 22,000 sheets of red paper constructed according to ancient principles of drystone walls, without the need for glue, nails, or other adhesives. Assembled for a cultural festival in the Lakes District, the bridge allowed visitors to cross it — often with disbelief —  and was equally arresting for its color, which boldly contrasted with and framed the soft and stony mien of the setting. At the close of the festival, the arch was simply disassembled into the paper sheets from which it came, satisfying Messam’s intent for the work to be fully recycled.

Similarly, the inflatable CristalBubble, designed by Frenchman Pierre-Stéphane Dumas, offers a design approach that responds to fleeting external conditions. With an easily erected translucent dome, the bubble was conceived to engage with daily change. Sharing its pneumatic qualities and mobility is the unusual public meeting room known as Inflatable Space, by the London-based firm Penttinen Schöne. The architects’ intention was to create an accessible place that could be readily moved to give visitors a changing backdrop amid nature. Its arched entry points encourage visitors to enter the pavilion while light through yellow acrylic windows colors the interior.

Ephemeral qualities often refer to things that last but a day. Architecturally, this notion can be seen in spaces that encourage observation of passing moments in seasonal cycles of nature. The design of the Exbury Egg in England is intimately shaped by its environment. Employing yacht-building techniques to create a structure that floats on the tidal estuary of the River Beaulieu, the egg is a temporary workspace for artist Stephen Turner and is part of a public educational program that supports greater connection to river life and to natural patterns of change. Although robust, ample buildings form the bedrock of architecture as we know it, these examples represent an increasing body of diminutive counterparts that offer an engaging way in which to experience the passage of time. ■

Rebecca Roke is the author of Nanotecture: Tiny Built Things, which was published in March by Phaidon.

5 days
Signs marked off a demonstration area at the Tent City protests in the South End, 1968. Photo: Dan Sheehan/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Occupy Copley

Today we might call illegally blocking access to a heavily used commuter parking lot to make a point “tactical urbanism.” But the tactic is nothing new. Just such an event was organized by residents of Boston’s South End in 1968, weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to dramatize the city’s acute shortage of affordable housing.

For four years, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) had been displacing South End residents in the name of “urban renewal” and had yet to construct a single new house. On Columbus Avenue at Dartmouth Street, people were being displaced and houses razed to make way for a planned parking garage and residential tower. This action precipitated a weeklong encampment, with hundreds of protesters erecting a “tent city” of temporary housing. Typical of the time, the city responded with arrests.

Neighborhood residents were the initial demonstrators. As the Tent City Task Force, they battled recalcitrant bureaucracy. Eventually, as the Tent City Corporation, they succeeded in creating the permanent and joyful mixed-income housing development that now fills that site.

Early on, the task force drew up a list of “Fundamental Principles,” a vision that served as a continual touchstone against which all proposals were measured. It included a physical prescription that envisioned buildings having an affinity with 100-year-old row houses on one side and a robust presence to Back Bay Station and the anticipated Copley Place shopping mall on the other. Equally essential was the requirement that new housing reflect the racial and economic mix of the South End. That meant “no” to the BRA’s typical requirement of just 10 percent affordable units; “no” to a forced joint venture with the Fitzgerald parking lot family, who owned half of the property; and “no” to the proposal from Copley Place for an enormous above-ground parking garage wrapped with housing.

We got to “yes” by showing another way. In the late 1970s, the task force led the bra through the development of a moderate-income sweat-equity cooperative for the Frankie O’Day Block across Columbus Avenue. That success gave the task force the credibility it needed to become the Tent City Corporation. With a team of professionals and the new “mayor of the neighborhoods,” Ray Flynn, it became possible to say “yes” to the successful creation of mixed-income housing on the site. The permanent Tent City Apartments, named in honor of the demonstration and designed by Goody Clancy architects, opened its doors in 1988. Today, three-quarters of the residents have low or moderate incomes and just one-quarter of the 269 units rent at market rate.

In 1968, the Tent City demonstrators had a vision for housing and a neighborhood that would prosper by being racially and economically inclusive. Then as now, public policy was timid. Developers and financial institutions were unwilling to lead. But neighbors took action with conviction. Tent City and the subsequent South End Neighborhood Housing Initiative developments are models for successful mixed-income housing that are widely respected but not often replicated. Who in Boston will take the initiative today to resist the relentless pressures of economic and racial polarization and respond aggressively to the dwindling supply of low- and middle-income housing? As a piece of theater, tactical urbanism can startle. It also has great potential to capture imaginations. To turn a dream into reality, however, requires persistent audacity and tenacity. ■

Ken Kruckemeyer AIA moved to the South End in 1967. He has worked with his neighbors to sustain a supportive and inclusive neighborhood.

90 days
Goodbye, oil tank farm demolition projection, Chelsea, Massachusetts, 2012.
Photo: Landing Studio

In a flash

The artist Jenny Holzer once used light to project words into the ocean: as the waves broke, letters appeared momentarily on the white wash and then disappeared as the water settled on shore. Rem Koolhaas wrote about massive light masts at the shore of Coney Island in the 1880s that allowed Manhattanites to take part in sublime illuminated “electric bathing.” Architects Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray proposed lighting steel fire escapes in the St. Louis theater district to transform them into elaborate stencils that cast ornate shadows across blank building façades.

We never set out to work with light and don’t claim to be lighting designers, but many of our projects have started with light projection. Working this way is an escape from the slow and mediated relationship to the city that we normally experience as architects. With light, architecture can be constructed and reconstructed in realtime: surfaces immediately respond through reflection and shadow; geometry is radically transformed with slight adjustments; and colors of light and the city mix with each other to produce unexpected effects.

Our work grew from a desire to engage the industrial operations and artifacts of the city —  things such as stockpiles, tanks, and highways. Light proved to be a medium that can negotiate and even amplify the scale and kinetic qualities of these often dark, peripheral landscapes.

When we projected patterns of light on salt piles, they were most striking on Mexican salt that is directly evaporated from the ocean. The newly formed crystals are bright white and intensify the light by reflecting it. Salt mined from prehistoric oceans in Chile and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is tan or even brown, with sediments that absorb and diminish light. Like Holzer’s waves, our light would appear and disappear as the salt piles rose and fell with each new shipment and winter storm.

In a later project, we observed that while oil tank structures usually look nearly the same from any side because of their cylindrical shape, they became exuberantly animated when projected with light. When we projected a series of lights on a row of tanks along a city block, the images looked most “normal” when you viewed them directly from the light source and would become increasingly distorted as you moved between lights, until suddenly they became recognizable again when you passed by the next light. The anamorphic light turns static architecture into a responsive character.

Most recently, we’ve been illuminating an elevated highway. Its underside creates a rare urban ceiling upon which to cast light into the distance. Like headlights cast onto the road’s surface or low moonlight glancing the sea, the light across such extensive surfaces doesn’t stop; it fades and merges with the ambient environment. For example, when pavement is damp and reflective, the red, yellow, and green of traffic lights aren’t just points but a communicative atmosphere. Light allows a momentary reconsideration of form, movement, and scale. We are testing, one-to-one, new ways of seeing the ordinary elements and structures of the city. ■

Dan Adams and Marie Law Adams AIA are the cofounding partners of Landing Studio, an architecture, design, and research studio that works at the intersection of large-scale infrastructure and the city.

Somali refugees at the Dadaab camp in Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world, July 2011.
Photo: Tony Karumba/afp/Getty Images

Concrete promises

I’ve worked with and for disaster-affected com- munities the world over and perhaps have a special vantage point on the temporary and the ephemeral in architecture. In my work, everything is temporary along a long enough timeline. But some things are strangely permanent — like temporary architecture. Some designers fawn over that sort of thing and climb over one another to design the latest inflatable, flat-pack, insta-igloo that’s going to solve all of the world’s refugee problems.

I never really saw the sense in that, so I’ll say this: To hell with your temporary architecture. That’s not what architects do, and you should stop.

It’s a ruse. To address the temporary dimensions of homelessness or placelessness is a de facto concession that we don’t have the resources to address such problems on a permanent basis. That is false. There’s more than enough wealth in the world to house every single Syrian refugee and every climate change refugee, and, technologically speaking, we possess all that we need to avert most types of so-called natural disasters. What we lack is the will.

The Syrian refugee crisis has given rise to a new debate and newish ideas about what to do in the face of unplanned mass migration. Unplanned isn’t synonymous with unforeseeable. We know with certainty that our shared future will be a story of mass urbanization and displacement. We know that once-great cities will sink into the sea, and the competition for space will fuel conflict, which in turn will lead to more millions displaced. We can start planning for that future now. Or we can slap a Band-Aid on the latest crisis and see if we can get our designs published in the Journal of Bleedingly Obvious Architecture.

Temporary architectural solutions to humanitarian crises are a Hobson’s choice that is presented to the dispossessed by those with wealth: You can have a temporary shelter or no shelter, but don’t ask for anything permanent because we can’t afford that. It is the ghettoization of the humanitarian spirit itself — effectively forcing those who would do good to do less than what is morally necessary.

Refugee camps such as Dadaab in Kenya and Zaatari in Jordan monstrously prove that it’s possible to corral and contain 80,000 people. Indefinitely, in the case of Dadaab. Probably eventually, in the case of Zaatari as well. Throughout the 20th century, humanity continuously proved that when one community didn’t want another community to assimilate, it could “temporarily” house people in some barren stretch of land that no one else wanted and keep them docile with the promise of a better tomorrow. I’ve never seen a temporary solution that didn’t become permanent as a result of exhausted budgets and lapsing media attention. The real solution to the real problem is daunting, but that’s OK. How does the global community create permanent homes and communities for 4.6 million Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe without falling prey to the discredited, centrally planned, utopic visions of Modernism? How can we grant authorship, identity, and dignity to those who inhabit our work, when we don’t have a single client, but millions of clients? How do we plan for a future of upheaval, dispossession, and conflict while making sure our built environment can adapt and safely protect the disenfranchised? How do we avoid capitulating to an aid industry that would offer one-year solutions to 30-year problems? I don’t know, but there are 2.1 million architects in the world, and I think collectively, we could figure it out. If, you know, we wanted to. ■

Eric J. Cesal is a designer, writer, social advocate, and noted postdisaster expert, having led reconstruction programs after the Haiti earthquake, the Great East Japan tsunami, Superstorm Sandy, and other disasters. He is currently visiting faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, where he lectures on emerging trends in disaster and resilience.