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Bernard Spragg

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The Rise and Rise of Pop-Up Architecture

How temporary design became mainstream

For five weeks in August and September 2015, street artist Banksy opened a dystopian theme park with Disney-esque castles and theme rides in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare in southwest England. Attractions included a police van mired in the muck and goo of a forgotten cityscape, and an overturned pumpkin coach and horses with Cinderella tossed half outside of it. These installations, one a commentary on our police state and the other a commentary on celebrity and the tragic death of Princess Diana, were just two of the many pieces at last summer’s temporary "bemusement" park, which Banksy called Dismaland. After its run, the timber and fixtures were sent to a refugee camp—home to over 3,000 people, mostly from Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan—near Calais in France.


Pop-ups like Dismaland are everywhere. The impermanent, unexpected, and even slightly irreverent have become community staples. We can visit pop-up amusement parks, shop at pop-up stores, eat at pop-up restaurants, and stay at pop-up hotels. "Architecture has transitioned into an experience. An experience where, purposefully, it is difficult to tell the difference between the design and the art installation," says Melanie Ryan, Design Principal at the Los Angeles-based experiential and mobile design house Open For Humans.

Banksy's Dismaland
Banksy's Dismaland. Photo by Matthew Baker/Getty Images.

Pop-up architecture offers something rare: design that is undiluted. Traditional, permanent architecture often needs to serve multiple purposes—it’s an office building and transit hub, it’s a hotel and retail space—and changing surroundings. Architects must incorporate the demands of building owners, financial backers, and users. By contrast, pop-up architecture can advance a singular purpose and concentrate its impact. Pop-ups can also precipitate economic development and community engagement, sometimes in underserved or undeveloped areas. Temporary themselves, pop-up structures can be a catalyst for lasting change.


Examples of temporary architecture appear as early as 58 B.C.E in ancient Rome, where they functioned as a form of revolution. Ancient Romans circumvented government opposition to permanent amphitheaters and other structures by building temporary ones. The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that ancient Romans built spectacular wooden structures with intended life spans of just a few weeks in which to stage plays and celebrate their most important community festivals, or ludi. Despite their impermanent nature, these structures could be large and ornate, including one Roman theater that was comprised of three stories of columns and was embellished with 3,000 bronze statues. Temporary architecture in ancient Rome was a rich celebration and an expression of anti-establishment ideals.

Image via Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The Renaissance saw a resurgence of temporary architecture together with other classical forms, says author and University of Toronto Professor of Art History Christy Anderson. Civic groups would welcome King Henry II of France to their cities with festivals showcasing the best and most elaborate in temporary design of the time. Archways made of painted canvas would denote important points along the festival’s parade route. Sculptor Jean Goujan and architect Pierre Lescot’s collaboration on France’s original Fountain de Innocents (1550) was commissioned specifically for the festival; the fountain, which featured panels of delicately carved embellishments of nymphs and tritons, was an addition to an existing building and was meant to serve as a viewing platform for notables during Henry II’s procession. For architects and designers of the Renaissance, temporary architecture allowed the creation of structures for special occasions and afforded the opportunity for experimentation. The ephemeral nature of the installations lent themselves to design innovations believed to be too unconventional or extravagant for lasting architecture. One other such example was British architect Inigo Jones’ Design for a Temporary Arch Ornamented with Putti and Allegorical Figures of Music and War, done around 1622. Once again, temporary architecture was the realm of ideas and designs thought too forward-thinking or progressive.

Perhaps the world’s best-known piece of temporary architecture was constructed as an archway to mark the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, the Exposition Universalle in Paris. The Eiffel Tower was meant to stand for 20 years and then be dismantled, with Parisians’approval: the structure was considered an avant-garde eyesore. But because the 984-foot tower could send and receive distant radio transmissions, it was appropriated as a radio antenna tower by France’s Department of Military Engineering and spared its planned demolition in 1909.


Pop-up architecture is considered avant garde, a disruption of traditional architecture, and lauded for its progressiveness. Allison Arieff, New York Times opinion writer and former editor-in-chief of architecture and design magazine Dwell, explains that today’s pop-up design is "a bold expression of unfettered thinking and creativity. "Indeed, pop-up, temporary, and mobile architecture have often sat well outside the boundaries of mainstream architecture, pushing the edge of progressive design. Architectural ideas that as a practical matter couldn’t be built as permanent structures are possible as temporary structures. "It gives us, the observers, the chance to see design ideas that might not be realizable yet at a larger scale," says Frances Anderton, host of Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s show DnA: Design and Architecture.

General Electric's "Progressland" pavilion
The General Electric "Progressland" pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Photo courtesy of Bill Cotter.

The ability to easily assemble, disassemble, and reconfigure structures became the calling card of a cohort of architects in the 1960s. These architects sought to express their radical, countercultural beliefs through mobile design and urbanism. Their designs were so experimental that many of them were never built, their designers referred to forever after as "paper architects."

Britain’s Archigram collective, led by architect Peter Cook, was inspired by 1960s countercultural ideals and the collective’s opposition to Britain’s superficial formalism. They designed mobile alternatives to traditional homes and cities. Archigram’s members developed everything from an "Instant City," a blimp that contained cultural and educational resources and could reach remote areas, to a wearable bubble house, called the "Suitaloon," to a "Plug-in City." The Plug-In City, masterminded by Cook himself, was a vertical, highly flexible metropolis that contained residential units and transit that were all movable by a giant crane. Additionally, each residence was constructed of a veritable kit of parts, pieces which simply "plugged-in" to one another to create a whole; a wall of appliances could easily be detached and removed in favor of a new one in the event an oven broke. Although ideas from Archigram’s Plug-In City—including the decision to showcase infrastructural elements—surfaced in the 1977 design for the Pompidou Center in Paris, the experimental city as it was intended never fully came to fruition.

Johnson-Wax Pavilion at night
The Johnson Wax pavilion at night. Photo courtesy of Bill Cotter.

In Italy in the 1960s, radical groups like Superstudio and Archizoom formed as a result of student protest movements calling for a sense of social responsibility within design. "If design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design; if architecture is merely the codifying of the bourgeois models of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture," wrote Superstudio’s founder Adolfo Natalini. Superstudio, alongside contemporaries like Archizoom, founded by Andrea Branzi, continued to push alternative concepts, even if only through theoretical work in architectural magazines and storyboards.

At the same time that these "paper architects"of the 1960s were expressing countercultural ideals through pop-up and mobile design, major consumer brands, like General Electric, were also using pop-up architecture to advertise their brands to the masses. The 1964 World’s Fair in New York’s Flushing Meadows was home to General Electric’s ‘Progressland’pavilion, a googie-style dome structure that featured exhibits on the latest advancements in electricity. Also at the fair were Uniroyal Tire’s tire-shaped Ferris wheel and Johnson Wax’s eponymous pavilion, which consisted of 80-foot arching columns rising over a suspended 90-foot-wide golden disc, the Golden Rondelle Theater. These experimental, progressive structures were commissioned by some of the biggest consumer brands in the world. The introduction of a commercial element to what had previously been a subversive practice marked a shift in pop-up architecture. Today, the concept is, as art critic Rosalind Krauss once said of sculpture, nearly "infinitely malleable."


The aughts did not invent pop-up design, but they did give it global reach. When we think of modern pop-up architecture, we might think of Ball-Nogues Studio’s 2015 Pulp Pavilion at the two-weekend Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. For the structure, the Los Angeles-based integrated design and fabrication firm Ball-Nogues designed a new material from recycled paper pulp and wove it into 20-foot-tall tree-like structures to create a shaded environment. After the festival, the Pulp Pavilion structure was disposed of in a less wasteful way than comparable materials, like fiberglass or plastics, that are traditionally used for such structures. This consideration for a structure’s entire life cycle is common in the pop-up world. Benjamin Ball, lead artist and principal in charge at Ball-Nogues, describes the change in design thinking: "We’re designing the disappearance of a project as well as its physical characteristics." Like Banksy’s Dismaland, which donated its timber to refugee camps, Coachella’s Pulp Pavilion is what we have come to expect and appreciate in pop-up architecture—an expression of alternative ideals, materials, and uses.

Exo Shelter
Michael McDaniel's Exo Shelter. Photo by Jack Plunkett/Associated Press.

Pop-up architecture has also become more popular for practical reasons, particularly the need for affordable, easily assembled housing in the wake of natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in 2010; Japan’s 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, ensuing tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown—natural disasters throughout the 2000s have left hundreds of thousands of individuals displaced in their wake. From these disasters came the Austin-based company Reaction, Inc., whose mission it is to house disaster victims. Post-Katrina, Reaction founder and native Mississippian Michael McDaniel developed the Exo Shelter, a temporary housing unit with two sets of bunk beds that fold down from the walls. Its two-piece reusable and recyclable design takes inspiration from a styrofoam cup.

Similarly, Japan-based Shigeru Ban Architects constructed emergency shelters built of paper in Haiti after the country’s 7.0 magnitude quake, as well as a temporary housing encampment built from storage containers in Onagawa, Japan, following the tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima. In fact, in post-disaster areas, pop-up architecture aims to provide more than shelter. Also in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, sculptor Anish Kapoor and architect Arata Isozaki collaborated to create an inflatable 500-seat concert hall in Japan. The inflatable, mobile structure, which toured the country’s most affected regions, recalls the ideas of 1960s countercultural collective Archigram. The concert hall, called the Ark Nova, ultimately has "more to do with building community resilience or emotional resilience than actual physical resilience," says KCRW’s Frances Anderton.

Ark Nova
Photo by Bernard Spragg.

Beginning in 2008, the Great Recession hobbled economies, with no sector hit harder than real estate, construction, architecture, and engineering. Funding for new building projects dried up, and streets filled with empty storefronts and empty lots. For many architects and recent architecture grads, the Great Recession also meant that they found themselves without work. Similarly, the Great Depression of the 1930s also put America’s architects out of work, and it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal which put many of them back to work. Government-backed national building surveys and WPA construction projects gave jobs to the country’s struggling architects and engineers. The financial crisis of the 2000s had no comparable WPA program. In its place were other solutions.

Cities embraced lighter, quicker, cheaper. The approach stresses "fast, creative, profitable ways to capitalize on local ingenuity," including the use of pop-up design. At the same time, entrepreneurship and hashtags became the watchwords for out-of-work architects and designers. Temporary architectural installations became calling cards. Pop-up architecture projects could be ephemeral resumes, which were in turn captured and spread on social media channels. Going viral became an avenue by which unemployed architects could develop their portfolios and advertise their work. "That decline in opportunities led to the exploration of other ways for getting work," recalls architect Todd Sussman, Melanie Ryan’s partner at design house Open For Humans.

Dismaland
Banksy's Dismaland. Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images.

The empty storefronts and lots left in the wake of the late 2000s Great Recession aided the explosion of pop-up architecture. Anderton describes the change in the City of Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. "Retailers were pulling out and they had nothing to put in the space. The city looked to the example of pop-up art events, and they brought artists into these spaces. The idea was, better to have a temporary occupier of those spaces than just have it there sitting dormant." Flailing downtowns appropriated the once-countercultural idea of pop-ups, both accelerating and publicizing the trend. Anderton notes the juxtaposition: "The so-called mainstream, in this case a jurisdiction, was looking to pop-ups."

Dismaland too, fits into a pop-up architecture heritage that is a mix of the countercultural, the avant garde, and sometimes the mainstream. Banksy’s "bemusement" park was a carefully crafted, effective, and evocative temporary architecture experience, yes. At the same time, Dismaland was a huge media event. A commercial success by most accounts—and yet one also fraught with a number of controversies that had many questioning Dismaland’s authenticity and artistry.

Ball-Nogues' Coachella pavilion at night
Ball-Nogues Studio’s 2015 Pulp Pavilion at Coachella. Photo by Chris Ball.

Social media has proven to be a powerful force when it comes to publicizing pop-up design. Overnight, social media can turn one sculpture or one shipping container micro-community into an obsessively sought-after tourist attraction. Being the first to post, tweet, share, ‘gram, or upload captures of these unique pop-up forms makes us feel sharp and in the know, according to Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Social media has, over the last decade, particularly aided the explosion of "festival" pop-up architecture. Today, music festivals are the Roman ludi of our time, and festival pop-up structures are its anti-establishment amphitheaters. With 200,000 attendees at England’s Glastonbury festival, 675,000 people through Coachella’s multi-day turnstiles, and over 50,000 at Burning Man calling Black Rock City home for a week, festivals are temporary cities for which massive feats of pop-up infrastructure and urbanism are built. The tens and hundreds of thousands of attendees share images of festival architecture over social media to their friends and followers, only to be shared further, achieving exponential exposure. In 2015 there were 3.5. million tweets sent from Coachella and 1 million tweets from Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. A search of the hashtag #coachella2015 on Instagram reveals over 222,000 related posts. Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio recognizes the lasting impact of such media: "In the end, the temporary structure might have just as long a lifespan in the media-scape as an image, as a building might."

Editor: Sara Polsky

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