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.