(04) THE ALIBI OF TEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE
In the American summer of 2014, three barns appeared in the middle of the intersection at Kercheval Avenue and Wayburn Street, Detroit, a cross-road that forms a critical connection between Detroit’s East Side and three routes into neighbouring Grosse Pointe Park. These two communities conflate the two worlds of Detroit: one affluent and white, the other poor and black. The local council would go on to claim that the temporary project would revitalise the location, introducing a market place at the crossroads of these two communities while acting as a traffic barricade to the cross-city flow of vehicles.
Google Maps Street View of 1204 Wayburn Street, Gross Pointe Park, Michigan
In a short period of time the official narrative around the rural mis-en-scene began to unravel. News anchors and vox-poppers wondered whether the appearance of the temporary architecture was an instrument to keep the poorer, black residents of innercity Detroit from the predominately white and wealthy suburb rather than a temporary ‘activation’ to slow-down and connect the two communities through fresh produce.
The quick appearance of the temporary architecture came as a surprise to the neighbouring City of Detroit who govern the East Side; they fought to remove the barns as it created a traffic hazard. One driver took it into their own hands, in protest or by accident, slammed into a barn under the darkness of night. Grosse Pointe Park did not see what the fuss was about. The responsible council argued that the farmer market was only temporary - the temporary nature of the project becomes the perfect alibi.
The alibi of temporary architecture is that it conceals or plays down its purpose through the excuse of being time-limited. As time extends, however, temporary projects leave permanent effects. By Christmas 2015, one shed and the elevated concrete plaza still blocked passage – as did a Christmas tree. In 2016 the blockade was replaced with a one-way turning lane from Detroit into Grosse Pointe Park.
Temporary architecture – such as makeshift markets, performance venues and community centres – has been recognised in formal planning frameworks where small-scale projects are part of the strategic mix in urban development led by government and property developers. A temporary festival hub can pre-empt a permanent arts centre; a communal garden anticipates a new residential tower; an impermanent pool warms up a site for a future office building. In the immediate present, these projects pop-up to bring short-term social amenity; they provide a moment of fun and frivolity before large-scale and more lasting development takes over and regenerates the site, or city. The temporary use of space is a gap-filling measure. It is viewed for and of the moment: a screensaver or placeholder for future development.
The transient nature of temporary architecture seems counter to large-scale urban development – of sports arenas, apartment complexes, cultural precincts and business parks – that is made with billions of dollars wrapped up in concrete and steel. Temporary architecture has a low-budget urbanity being cheap, agile and quick while long-term urban development seems slow, durable, enduring and expensive. But the two different scales of architecture, of the small and large, of the cheap and expensive, of the temporary and permanent, of crates and concrete, are neither dichotomous or equal. The two scales can co-exist, be complimentary, that the quickness of temporary projects and the slowness of large-scale development are both qualities that have value when entwined over time.
By looking at temporary architecture as just that, temporary, it becomes an alibi for the speculative development to follow because its temporariness disguises the notion that short-term projects can have long-term relationships and lasting effects. I ask that you look once again at small-scale temporary projects, and look more closely at the relationships that are formed over time to large-scale urban development. Entangled within a scaffold of urban planning documents, schemes, frameworks and rendered visions, temporary architectural projects may become a behaviour management tool by which to prepare people and places for massive upheaval. They have an intentionality.
Temporary architecture can not be conflated into one universal typology or taxonomy – a cute farmers market for the inclusion of one may be materialised at the exclusion of another. Whatever the case, by recognising temporary architecture and its connection to long-term urban development over time, there’s an opportunity to stake out territory for architectural practice linking scales that are usually seen in opposition, or recognising methods seen as marginal within the architectural profession. And through this recognition, one can intervene with these relationships, coercing them. In this moment, the architect of the impermanent has agency. This urban intervention is important because the urban field never plays out as prescribed in the official documentation of master plans for urban development. The large-scale building may never come: all that remains is the temporary architecture.
Timothy Moore is a director of Sibling Architecture, lecturer of architecture at Monash University, and the co-curator of Melbourne Design Week presented by the National Gallery of Victoria.