Skip to Content

In the moment

A graduate school in Barcelona, Spain, creates a new master’s degree in Ephemeral Architecture, offering “comprehensive training of designers and planners in the field of temporary spaces.” Buzz­worthy biennales feature gossamer pavilions made of little more than paper and light. An architect fashions ad hoc shelters out of recycled cardboard tubes and wins the Pritzker Prize. Is Vitruvius spinning in his grave yet?

The ancient Roman builder believed that durability was one of three essential components of architecture. Yet many of today’s designers are discovering the richness in temporary, tactical, and ethereal architecture that barely glances the land. Whether it be tiny mobile domiciles that follow the seasons or public art that evaporates before a single zoning regulation is written, these fleeting interventions provide a lively counter-point to a methodical, sometimes ponderous, often cautious public planning process.

For ArchitectureBoston’s yearlong series, “The year of the plan,” we wanted to examine this trend toward a placemaking that is largely spontaneous and unplanned. Temporary projects offer “an escape,” as one of our opening essays puts it, “from the slow and mediated relationship to the city that we normally experience as architects.” The Snapchat generation is not only comfortable with moments that fade but also embraces mobile, shifting, transitory patterns as its personal aesthetic.

Maybe we are still shaking off the hangover from the Big Dig, the slow, expensive, and devilishly complex engineering feat that dominated Greater Boston for two decades. Like a bloated gourmand suddenly craving a simple plate of vegetables, we seem to want our public structures to be agile and mutable. It’s fitting that some of the best temporary art in Boston — from Janet Echelman’s transcendent net sculpture to this summer’s Chinese Zodiac heads by Ai Weiwei — has graced the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway parcels that capped the Big Dig.

Some see temporary installations as more egalitarian and democratic — and certainly less expensive — than permanent, monumental structures that can carry a whiff of elitism. Of course, A-list architects also can join in the fun, as with the Serpentine Gallery in London, where Koolhaas, Libeskind, Hadid, and Gehry, among others, have installed temporary pavilions. But on balance, the barriers to entry in materials, permits, labor, and land are low enough with temporary structures to attract younger, less traditional designers shut out of more established commissions.

Indeed, there’s an antiestablishment, even transgressive edge to this kind of drive-by architecture. Tactical urbanism is all about average citizens taking control of the planning process to demonstrate quickly and independently how a public space can be redefined. It’s a challenge to the stereotypical planning order of decide- present-defend. When a local resident grows impatient with the gelid pace of local government and paints his own cross-walk at a dangerous intersection, it’s not so much a civic crime as a call to arms.

Subconsciously, perhaps, the tilt toward the provisional may be a recognition that we live in rapidly changing times. Global warming and social upheaval remind us that all conditions are impermanent. Our prehistoric brains remember not to get too comfortable; we may need to flee at any time. High-tide lines that existed for centuries are being erased with each new moon. Few of the verities are really eternal.

Rather than letting it provoke anxiety, however, we could live in harmony with this truth. Rather than being locked in to old patterns that can’t adapt to a new environment, we could learn to be more flexible and responsive to change. The unexpected is coming. Plan on it. ■

Renée Loth