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Madcap mobile architecture, a mirror reflecting bigger social issues

A new book shows small, portable projects can both be fun and tackle larger design challenges

Nico Jungel’s 8rad2 Solar is a two-person cargo-cycle that features a solar-powered motor to help provide pedal assist during difficult rides.
Kacey Wong

The Serpentine Pavilion, the summer exhibition in London featuring a small, temporary pavilion by a famous architect, has become a fixture on the annual arts calendar. For London-based writer Rebecca Roke, these types of smaller structure, which have proliferated in the last decade, succeed in large part because of their accessibility.

“People think ‘I could do that,’” she says. “It’s a way for design/architecture to be more approachable than, for instance, a multi-million pound house.”

The rise in small, flexible, and pop-up structures, what Roke has dubbed “mobitecture” in her new book for Phaidon, has been a boon for cities and public space, drawing people to parks and pavilions, helping to animate vacant or underutilized space, and providing a creative draw to encourage people to meet and mingle. Mobitecture can be “an attractor through interesting architecture proposals,” she says.

The Caterpillar by Dutch designer Lambert Kamps, made from PVC and steel cables, offers a portable, itinerant theater that holds up to 30.
Lambert Kamps

But while may of these creations are whimsical and fun, perhaps more importantly, mobile and quickly constructed pavilions, miniature dwellings, and public spaces give architects and designers a way to immediately respond to the social issues and the larger design challenges of the day. By compiling numerous examples of these small-scale experiments, Roke has shown that these projects, freed from the normally extensive timelines of standard buildings, often allow architects to quickly respond to the social issues challenging contemporary society

Roke’s already delved into the world of miniature architecture with her earlier book, 2015’s Nanotecture. But she found that for many reasons, miniature, mobile building was still relevant.

“There’s increasing political and environmental migration, and this is prompting designers to ask how their skills can be used to offer solutions,” she said. “At the same time, the increasing gap between rich and poor is prompting the question of how we can make more affordable, quality places for ‘normal’ people to live in.”

Camper Bike by American Kevin Cyr is a slim, experimental mobile dwelling for one.
Kevin Cyr
Designed by the London-based How About Studio, this 2016 pop-up shops sells sunblock and poolside accessories.
GG Archard

The roots of mobile, smaller structures can, in part, be traced back to the ‘60s counterculture, which helped birth new inflatable architecture and more eco-conscious attitudes towards smaller, more efficient housing. Roke’s book, which divides structures by their modes of movement (multi-wheeled, sleds, and even water), shows how today’ designs still combine that sense of playfulness and purpose.

“I think the common ground of working at small scale is that it is more egalitarian,” says Roke. “Cost, for one thing, is almost always more accessible, and that allows more people to experiment in this field. Also, I think the discrete canvas of the projects often provokes greater inventiveness. A tight focus in design parameters often allows for better and more interesting outcomes.”

Today, both the wealth gap (and accompanying affordability issues), as well as the refugee crisis, have been huge inspirations, the later influencing the creation of structures such as Angela Luna’s capsule range Crossing the Boundary, clothing that turns into temporary structures, the RCA Wearable Habitation, a Tyvek jacket-turned tent, or the Lebanese American School’s plastic crate shelters.

Many of the advances in this field of mobile design can be found at concert festivals and pop-up displays, which offer the chance to experiment with lightweight, collapsible, demountable, or modular designs, and give young designers a chance to break into architecture and make a name for themselves.

Roke sees some of the ingenuity and flexibility on display as offering potential solutions to problems that will consume the next generation of architects, designers, and urban planners, such as increasing density.

“We need the ingenuity and adaptation of these types of ideas to be a collective response,” says Roke. “Solving the problem, especially in urban areas, means that we need much more investment at a governmental and developer level to effect change.”

Waterwalk 1, by Dutch studio Spatial Effects, is made from heavy gauge PVC and can be rolled across any body of water.
Theo Botschuijver
Walden Raft, by Elise Morin and Florent Albinet, is a floating French cabin the references Thoreau’s famous escape.
© Raymonde Dapzol