The moving experience

Portablel architecture implies transient, which means it can sidestep planning laws while often lasting as long as ‘permanent’ architecture, explains Hugh Pearman.

Portable architecture is not just confined to toilets and caravans – it is the link between architecture and design. And it can sidestep draconian planning laws.

Of all the questionable assumptions underlying architecture, one of the strangest is the belief that its products are permanent. Everybody acts as if a building is rooted to its spot for ever, as if every little health centre and big office block is going to clutter up the globe for as long as the Parthenon. Why?

This underlying presumption of permanence is partly why such draconian planning laws and building regulations surround the act of building. There’s a feeling that posterity will judge us harshly if we make a mistake. But posterity can be only 20 or 30 years down the road, and its judgement is likely to be knock it down and build something else.

Now we all know that some buildings last much longer than their planned payback period – spec-built Georgian houses, for instance. And we know that many others are still being paid for long after they are demolished – think of all those dynamited council estates. Somewhere between these two extremes lies something that merges the disciplines of architecture and design. It is called portable architecture.

This is a bit of a fad right now, particularly in London. Next month sees a sizeable exhibition at the RIBA on the subject called, inventively enough, Portable Architecture. A parallel show, called Spontaneous Construction, starts today at the Building Centre. This interesting little sideline has got almost everything going for it – technology transfer, radicalism, even sometimes insouciant good looks – but its greatest virtue is its very transience. We let portable buildings get away with an awful lot because, so we tell ourselves, they won’t be here long. They will, or can, move on. They can be a Portakabin or a

Terrapin hut, a travelling exhibition centre or a “mobile home” in a seaside lot. The proponents of portable architecture tend not to include cross-Channel ferries or Boeing 747s, but these are just big moving buildings, after all. They are always there, and usually in the same places, but they don’t need planning permission and the regulations governing them are different.

Odd, really: the appearance of a 747 is just about the only fixed thing amid the permanently changing architectural landscape of most big airports, and its chief designer, Joseph F Sutter, should have a status to rank alongside airport architects such as Renzo Piano and Sir Norman Foster. As Foster himself frequently points out, a 747 does everything we expect a building to do – its tail is the height of a six-storey building – but it flies.

In related vein, the architect Jan Kaplicky of Future Systems likes to ask how much architecture you can buy for, say, 15 000? Usually a bit of digging, a few courses of bricks, and the money’s gone. But think how much car you get for the same money. And then apply car-thinking to house-thinking. You can’t do it, unless you design and build in a different way altogether.

But still, if the building resulting from car-thinking is deemed “permanent”, you’ll still be stymied by the old attitudes – which insist architecture is spiritually different from product design – and probably not be allowed to build at all.

Which brings us to the refreshing case of the Millennium Wheel, soon to be built outside County Hall on the Thames in London. This colossal construction, highly visible from all over the capital, would not normally have stood a hope in hell of being allowed. It slipped through the net, deftly evading even the protestations of Lord St John of Fawsley, because its backers convinced the Government that it will be “temporary”. It is also portable, in that after five years it will be moved elsewhere. Or so they say.

Five years doesn’t sound long, does it? However, 25 years sounds a very long time. It certainly did when they built the first generation of nuclear power stations – for that was the estimated lifespan of their reactors. But the quarter-century passed in a flash, and whoops! The nuclear problem turned out to be the dissonance between a transient process and the permanent buildings needed to house it.

The 747 is nearing its quarter-century, and, some say, may make it to 50. The Eiffel Tower – another “temporary” building – is 108. David Marks and Julia Barfield’s Millennium Wheel (backed by British Airways, please note) will probably last as long as anyone wants it to. So answer this one: how big, how long-lived and how static does a product have to be before it is called a building?

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