Here today, gone tomorrow

Architects, designers and clients are revelling in the creative opportunities afforded by portable, temporary structures, says Henrietta Thompson


Now you see it, now you don’t. A host of exciting architectural commissions has been quietly transforming London this summer, but don’t blink or you’ll miss them – they’ll be gone come the autumn, if they haven’t already.

On cycle tours, walks, talks and exhibitions, visitors to London are being schooled in the possibilities that contemporary architecture has to offer.

Last month’s London Festival of Architecture was the biggest event of its kind in the world, with thousands of people flocking to the capital as it experienced a rush of building activity. It’s not quite the 2012 Olympics, granted, but EXYZT’s temporary lido on the South Bank, SE1 and Carmody Groarke’s Bloomsbury skywalk in WC1 offered glimpses of possibilities for otherwise unused space.

The response to Corus’ Fresh Flower, a Tonkin Liu-designed giant steel flower that doubles as a morphing, moving-stage pavilion – the festival’s ‘signature pavilion’ – has been so positive that the construction services group and LFA sponsor is fielding a flood of requests to hire the structure at forthcoming events globally.

Corus marketing manager Peter Baldwin reveals that showcases such as the World Festival of Architecture in Barcelona are on the cards.

Meanwhile, Hyde Park has become home to global architectural legend Frank Gehry’s first London-built structure until October, with the recent opening of the Serpentine’s annual summer pavilion; and Regent’s Park gearing up for Caruso St John’s take on a home, for the Frieze Art Fair in September.

Back in design, London duo Fredrikson Stallard is creating Portrait, an installation commissioned by Veuve Clicquot that will located outside Somerset House during the London Design Festival in September.

Any brand, event, institution or city knows that if it wants to make a seriously big splash, contemporary architecture is the way forward. Or should that now be temporary architecture? Because with many new commissions, the emphasis tends to stay very much on the last four syllables of that adjective.

Architecture – traditionally the mother of all design disciplines – is now a more transient proposition than ever before. We’ve been building phenomenal short-term structures for centuries, and we’re not just talking tents and yurts here: think of the World’s Fair, and let’s not forget the Millennium Dome (now The O2).

However, if the idea of temporary and portable structures is not new, why the plethora of pavilions now, all of a sudden?

It’s easier, for one reason. Easier to get planning consent, easier to build and there’s no need to worry about the neighbours and the surrounding context much, either. It also provides much needed space to experiment: new technologies, advances in materials and modern construction methods mean that today architecture no longer needs to be static, dependable, solid or even permanent. Third, it is representative of a merging of the creative industries that now sees industrial designers, artists and graphic and communications professionals all scaling up their acts.

Architecture is being re-categorised as a product offering and branding exercise, and with its new paladins comes an ever-growing crowd of willing sponsors with experiences to create, and briefs that value drama and ‘wow factor’ above practicality and permanence.

Robert Kronenburg, author of a new book on the subject out this month – Portable Architecture, published by Birkhauser – agrees on this point. ‘In a built environment that is now affected more and more by rapid and dramatic change, ecological considerations, and social and cultural impact, a form of architecture that is flexible, lightweight in construction, has minimal impact on sensitive sites and is responsive to new technological and aesthetic opportunities has great value,’ he says. Just don’t expect it to last.

Temporary Buildings to catch this summer

• Frank Gehry’s pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in London – constructed in glass, Douglas fir timber and steel, and inspired by a sketch of a catapult by Leonardo da Vinci among other things. Gehry only conceived the design six months ago. The pavilion will host concerts and talks, as well as housing a café. All Serpentine pavilions are sold after the summer to private collectors (with sizeable gardens, we assume)

• The Chanel mobile art pavilion, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, is intended to have a lifespan of three years as it travels from city to city. The pavilion has opened in its first destination, Hong Kong, and hosts an exhibition of artworks inspired by Chanel bags created by 20 artists

• The Dyson Airblade Tent, at various festivals. Getting mucky is largely the point of festivals, but that doesn’t mean the facilities housed in the inflatable Dyson Airblade Tent won’t be appreciated this year. The structure, by Dyson creative manager Tim Sexton, is a play on the wind power behind most Dyson products, while also being able to cope with a large number of muddy people

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