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Fleeting architecture

As novelty and sustainability drive design, more structures are deliberately temporary.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2009

Architecture designed to solve human needs such as a student-created community shade pavilion unites innovation with practicality.

Cynthia Smith/Design for the other 90%

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Los Angeles

From a proposed temporary main stadium at the heart of Chicago's 2016 Olympics bid, to newly designed ecofriendly shelters with a shelf life of 18 months being sent to Afghanistan, to a gallery enclosure for the 2008 Venice Biennale made entirely of string, the walls that define modern living space – the architecture of today – are becoming increasingly ephemeral. Driven at one extreme by a cultural thirst for "the new" and at another by rising global needs of displaced populations, this dematerialization will only continue to expand, say architects and cultural analysts. And as money for big-ticket buildings runs scarce and pressures to reduce humanity's environmental impact mount, a symbiosis between experimental and utilitarian elements in the architectural landscape can only grow.

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"We are becoming a temporary society," says New York architect Marc Spector.

"There is an accelerating temporality to modern life," says Los Angeles designer Benjamin Ball, whose firm, Ball-Nogues specializes in provisional structures.

This is due in part to the fact that attitudes toward physical space in the developed world have altered dramatically, says Roberta Feldman, who teaches a course on the psychology of space at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We used to place a huge value on permanence and place, but that's gone," she says, adding "we want the novel, the next, and we're happy to throw away and move on in order to accommodate that." At the same time, growing populations of refugees, disaster victims, and homeless around the globe (the United Nations currently estimates the number of internally displaced persons at 25 million worldwide), are bringing home the increasingly urgent need for creative solutions for impermanent communities.

"We need both the experimental and the useful practitioners at a time like this," says Charlie Hailey, author of "Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space." The festival and art circuit have become rich birthing grounds for inventiveness, says Mr. Ball, who recently supervised provisional structures for the Coachella music and art festival, a three-day event in the California desert. The architect worked with a team of students at Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arc), a professional school in downtown L.A., to brainstorm artful but practical answers to the needs and wants of festivalgoers. "Elastic Plastic Sponge," an elaborate confection made of lavender- and khaki-toned PVC piping, was both an illuminated sculpture that lit up the night sky with a soft purple glow and also a misting station for parched patrons as they reveled in 100-plus degree F. heat.

Remnants of the enclosure appeared in the school's Sci-Arc's recent student show downtown. "After this, the materials will be recycled," says Colleen Elkins, Sci-Arc director of development, as she strolls past the jumbled pile of pipes.

Such a brief life cycle is a large attraction for architects, says Ball, many of whom used to wait years to realize a single creation in the real world. "Now there's been this blurring of the line between art and architects," he points out, one that allows designers to try out new ideas much more quickly. This ability to conceive even grand architecture in temporary terms becomes important when a community demands change, as they have in Chicago, where many residents have demanded a low-impact Olympics in the city's 2016 bid.