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Ephemeral architecture responds to our flexible, mobile nature

In the spring of 2009, New York architects LOT-EK created a temporary shopping complex on Boston’s Fan Pier. Puma City, made from shipping containers, converted these humble industrial objects into architecture almost overnight. Just as quickly, it was gone, leaving only the memory of how, with a little thought, the pier could be transformed to a new purpose.

Ephemeral architecture has this capacity to create a significant memorable experience. Because it is erected over a short time, its assembly and commissioning becomes a sort of performance. Also, because its appearance is realized so quickly, it can add a more readily appreciated perspective on an existing landscape, altering people’s perception of what the site may contain or what that part of the city might become. Because such buildings are temporary, regulations and controls are often relaxed, and a more avant-garde or provocative structure might be installed, paving the way for more inventive permanent solutions in the future. And because of its time-limited existence, ephemeral architecture has less risk attached, so taking a chance is easier to justify. If the intervention works, it can become a useful precedent for implementing beneficial change. Although such projects may be small in scope and light in budget, they can have long-term effects in shaping the city.

Top: Little Tag Along (2011), a functional sculpture from Home in the Weeds, a project by artist Kevin Cyr of Portland, Maine, that examines notions of home, self-preservation, and safe havens. Bottom: Little Tag Along (Cross Section), Kevin Cyr, 2011. Images: Courtesy of the artist


Bostonians recently have had a few other opportunities to see the power and allure of temporary architecture. Most everyone in the area will have heard of Boston Calling, co-curated by musician Aaron Dessner. Since 2013, the festival has temporarily transformed Boston City Hall Plaza into an open-air concert space with the help of mobile stages, projections, and crowds of 20,000. Infinitely more modest is the homeowner-run group Greater Boston Tiny House Enthusiasts, part of a movement that is spreading across North America. Mobile, custom-made homes built on trailers or truck beds mean that people can own outright and move to new locations as their desires or work options change.

In fact, ephemeral building can be found in every country of the world. Its typology is so essential to the development of built form that the earliest buildings created were made in this manner. What is more, contemporary examples are usually technologically advanced, have strong sustainability credentials, and are visually innovative. Whether described as mobile, portable, or temporary, this building type is designed specifically to meet changing requirements and take advantage of temporary sites.

Usually, the creation of ephemeral architecture occurs around the need to solve pragmatic problems, though often with aesthetic ambitions as well. Mobile buildings are used to provide essential services for housing, health, education, commerce, and industry. They are essential tools for exploration, research, disaster relief, and the military. But they also are used for entertainment, performance, and the visual arts. This is a form of architecture that responds most closely to the nature of human beings as peripatetic creatures — able to support our endeavors as we freely move from place to place.

The appeal of mobile architecture may be hardwired. When human beings first began to build shelter 150,000 years ago, it was conceived as a tool to aid their hunter-gatherer existence. Such tools needed to be light and mobile and made from the materials on hand, generally bones or sticks for the structure and animal skins for the cladding: The first-ever buildings were tents. Their forms took many shapes — cones, tetrahedrons, truncated triangles, domes, barrel vaults — all of which became models for the permanent buildings to come.

These early human-made structures were economical and sustainable by necessity. Resources were scarce and locally sourced; often, recycled materials and components were an essential part of human survival; knowledge about technology was hard won by experiment and practical experience — therefore proven and well understood. These characteristics of vernacular mobile buildings are important, and they are evident in modern versions we are familiar with today: tents, tepees, and yurts. Rolling and floating homes are also mobile buildings, but from a different, though still an ancient, legacy. Shelters like these are transported whole rather than being broken down: Barges, houseboats, caravans, trailers (like Tiny Houses) may be less sustainable in both construction and transportation, but they have the advantages of being more durable and more quickly ready for use.

Shanty Chateau, Kevin Cyr, 2011. Digital C-Print, 30" × 40", from the Home in the Weeds series. Photo: Courtesy of the artist


These contemporary mobile structures, though familiar, are relatively small and unambitious: simple buildings that fulfill essentially domestic needs for shelter on the move. How can they be related to the audacious claims regarding universality of purpose? Because mobility is needed in many other situations as well, and where a need is identified, a solution must be found. Time and again, much more complex and profoundly more ambitious buildings have been erected to meet these needs, created by ingenious designers, engineers, architects, and construction specialists.

The largest mobile building in the world is Valhalla, a giant tented membrane structure designed by UK-based engineer Rudi Enos. It can be erected in a variety of patterns up to 252,478 square feet in area and shipped around the world in 10 standard containers. The New York–based practice FTL Design and Engineering Studio, specialists in such tented structures, design mobile buildings used for sporting, commercial, and performance events. Its pavilions for clients such as the 1996 Olympic Games, the New York Metropolitan Opera, Harley-Davidson, and Cirque du Soleil are lightweight, efficient, and evoke an image of elegance and technological innovation.

A key element in the success of these buildings is that they are lightweight and demountable: They can be put together and taken apart relatively easily, and they are compact when stored or waiting for a new deployment. Mobility is not just about designing an effective building in use; it is also about effective reuse. Making sure that the building can be reused, often multiple times, requires specialist knowledge and experience. For this reason, the construction of successful ephemeral buildings and structures today usually differs from conventional building. Design teams such as FTL and LOT-EK have a wealth of experience, but they frequently work in partnership with specialist contractors.

Camper Kart, Kevin Cyr, 2010. A pop-up constructed out of a shopping cart. The project investigates habitats, recycling, and mobility. Photos: Courtesy of the artist


The entertainment industry is one high-profile field where this cooperative design/manufacture partnership is used. Large and complex mobile shows created for touring events are great logistical exercises, both in terms of staging and transporting and erecting equipment. The sets utilize building-size structures based on temporary foundations with city-sized power sources. Perhaps the greatest to be made so far has been the 360º touring show for the band U2, designed by Mark Fisher of StuFish and engineers Atelier One, with New York designer Chuck Hoberman creating an expanding cone-shaped video screen that opened and closed during performances. At 210 feet wide by 164 feet high, the set — nicknamed “The Claw” — enabled the band to perform in the round to stadium-sized audiences. The production was manufactured in Belgium by Tait Technologies with Frederic Opsomer, and three structures were built so that one could be in performance, one be dismantled, and one be erected at any one time. This allowed the band to play consecutive performances during its tour. (Bostonians saw the show at Foxborough near the beginning of the second leg in September 2009, one of seven phases of a tour that lasted three years.)

It might be argued that shows like this are not architecture. However, they use architectural structures, engineering, and systems; they are architectural in scale and leave powerful impressions on those who see them (in the case of 360º, a combined audience of more than 7 million); and they provide an intense, important cultural experience. They are the 21st-century equivalent of that other great mobile traveling show, the circus, with its “Big Top.”

Ephemeral-building patterns enable a quick and focused response to urgent design needs. Prescient clients commission buildings that have the potential for future reuse and redeployment on a different site, negating the need for inefficient permanent buildings that will only have to be demolished, with all the attendant waste. Sophisticated buildings are usually prefabricated, with construction taking place in a controlled setting, with higher-quality manufacturing by specialist teams focusing on efficiency. However, the accessible character of smaller ephemeral buildings does not preclude a diy approach, using available resources and personal agendas to create something unique to the designer and/or user. Both methods have their advantages. Mobile architecture has a heritage that goes back to the primal instincts of human beings’ wish to build — to make something inherently useful and responsive. That this flexible form of construction has proven itself adaptable to modern design methods and industries should be no surprise: We are flexible creatures and infinitely adaptable, so why shouldn’t our buildings be as well? ■