Ask some people, and they'll tell you that pop-up architecture is a quintessentially 21st century form of architecture, but in fact the idea goes back over 2000 years. In this article originally published on Curbed as "The Rise and Rise of Pop-Up Architecture," Marni Epstein-Mervis traces the development of pop-up architecture right from its origins in ancient Rome, analyzing how the phenomenon has transformed into what we recognize today.
For five weeks in August and September 2015, street artist Banksy opened a dystopian theme park with Disney-esque castles and theme rides in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare in southwest England. Attractions included a police van mired in the muck and goo of a forgotten cityscape, and an overturned pumpkin coach and horses with Cinderella tossed half outside of it. These installations, one a commentary on our police state and the other a commentary on celebrity and the tragic death of Princess Diana, were just two of the many pieces at last summer’s temporary "bemusement" park, which Banksy called Dismaland. After its run, the timber and fixtures were sent to a refugee camp—home to over 3,000 people, mostly from Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan—near Calais in France.
Pop-ups like Dismaland are everywhere. The impermanent, unexpected, and even slightly irreverent have become community staples. We can visit pop-up amusement parks, shop at pop-up stores, eat at pop-up restaurants, and stay at pop-up hotels. "Architecture has transitioned into an experience. An experience where, purposefully, it is difficult to tell the difference between the design and the art installation," says Melanie Ryan, Design Principal at the Los Angeles-based experiential and mobile design house Open For Humans.
Pop-up architecture offers something rare: design that is undiluted. Traditional, permanent architecture often needs to serve multiple purposes—it’s an office building and transit hub, it’s a hotel and retail space—and changing surroundings. Architects must incorporate the demands of building owners, financial backers, and users. By contrast, pop-up architecture can advance a singular purpose and concentrate its impact. Pop-ups can also precipitate economic development and community engagement, sometimes in underserved or undeveloped areas. Temporary themselves, pop-up structures can be a catalyst for lasting change.
Examples of temporary architecture appear as early as 58 BCE in ancient Rome, where they functioned as a form of revolution. Ancient Romans circumvented government opposition to permanent amphitheaters and other structures by building temporary ones. The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that ancient Romans built spectacular wooden structures with intended life spans of just a few weeks in which to stage plays and celebrate their most important community festivals, or ludi. Despite their impermanent nature, these structures could be large and ornate, including one Roman theater that was comprised of three stories of columns and was embellished with 3,000 bronze statues. Temporary architecture in ancient Rome was a rich celebration and an expression of anti-establishment ideals.
The Renaissance saw a resurgence of temporary architecture together with other classical forms, says author and University of Toronto Professor of Art History Christy Anderson. Civic groups would welcome King Henry II of France to their cities with festivals showcasing the best and most elaborate in temporary design of the time. Archways made of painted canvas would denote important points along the festival’s parade route. Sculptor Jean Goujan and architect Pierre Lescot’s collaboration on France’s original Fountain de Innocents (1550) was commissioned specifically for the festival; the fountain, which featured panels of delicately carved embellishments of nymphs and tritons, was an addition to an existing building and was meant to serve as a viewing platform for notables during Henry II’s procession. For architects and designers of the Renaissance, temporary architecture allowed the creation of structures for special occasions and afforded the opportunity for experimentation. The ephemeral nature of the installations lent themselves to design innovations believed to be too unconventional or extravagant for lasting architecture. One other such example was British architect Inigo Jones’ Design for a Temporary Arch Ornamented with Putti and Allegorical Figures of Music and War, done around 1622. Once again, temporary architecture was the realm of ideas and designs thought too forward-thinking or progressive.
Perhaps the world’s best-known piece of temporary architecture was constructed as an archway to mark the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, the Exposition Universalle in Paris. The Eiffel Tower was meant to stand for 20 years and then be dismantled, with Parisians’approval: the structure was considered an avant-garde eyesore. But because the 984-foot tower could send and receive distant radio transmissions, it was appropriated as a radio antenna tower by France’s Department of Military Engineering and spared its planned demolition in 1909.
Pop-up architecture is considered avant garde, a disruption of traditional architecture, and lauded for its progressiveness. Allison Arieff, New York Times opinion writer and former editor-in-chief of architecture and design magazine Dwell, explains that today’s pop-up design is "a bold expression of unfettered thinking and creativity. "Indeed, pop-up, temporary, and mobile architecture have often sat well outside the boundaries of mainstream architecture, pushing the edge of progressive design. Architectural ideas that as a practical matter couldn’t be built as permanent structures are possible as temporary structures. "It gives us, the observers, the chance to see design ideas that might not be realizable yet at a larger scale," says Frances Anderton, host of Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s show DnA: Design and Architecture.
The ability to easily assemble, disassemble, and reconfigure structures became the calling card of a cohort of architects in the 1960s. These architects sought to express their radical, countercultural beliefs through mobile design and urbanism. Their designs were so experimental that many of them were never built, their designers referred to forever after as "paper architects."
Britain’s Archigram collective, led by architect Peter Cook, was inspired by 1960s countercultural ideals and the collective’s opposition to Britain’s superficial formalism. They designed mobile alternatives to traditional homes and cities. Archigram’s members developed everything from an "Instant City," a blimp that contained cultural and educational resources and could reach remote areas, to a wearable bubble house, called the "Suitaloon," to a "Plug-in City." The Plug-In City, masterminded by Cook himself, was a vertical, highly flexible metropolis that contained residential units and transit that were all movable by a giant crane. Additionally, each residence was constructed of a veritable kit of parts, pieces which simply "plugged-in" to one another to create a whole; a wall of appliances could easily be detached and removed in favor of a new one in the event an oven broke. Although ideas from Archigram’s Plug-In City—including the decision to showcase infrastructural elements—surfaced in the 1977 design for the Pompidou Center in Paris, the experimental city as it was intended never fully came to fruition.
In Italy in the 1960s, radical groups like Superstudio and Archizoom formed as a result of student protest movements calling for a sense of social responsibility within design. "If design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design; if architecture is merely the codifying of the bourgeois models of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture," wrote Superstudio’s founder Adolfo Natalini. Superstudio, alongside contemporaries like Archizoom, founded by Andrea Branzi, continued to push alternative concepts, even if only through theoretical work in architectural magazines and storyboards.
At the same time that these "paper architects"of the 1960s were expressing countercultural ideals through pop-up and mobile design, major consumer brands, like General Electric, were also using pop-up architecture to advertise their brands to the masses. The 1964 World’s Fair in New York’s Flushing Meadows was home to General Electric’s ‘Progressland’ pavilion, a googie-style dome structure that featured exhibits on the latest advancements in electricity. Also at the fair were Uniroyal Tire’s tire-shaped Ferris wheel and Johnson Wax’s eponymous pavilion, which consisted of 80-foot arching columns rising over a suspended 90-foot-wide golden disc, the Golden Rondelle Theater. These experimental, progressive structures were commissioned by some of the biggest consumer brands in the world. The introduction of a commercial element to what had previously been a subversive practice marked a shift in pop-up architecture. Today, the concept is, as art critic Rosalind Krauss once said of sculpture, nearly "infinitely malleable."