Durability and permanence have always been the trusty companions of architecture. When new styles and new buildings come into existence, they tend to stay around for at least twenty years or so. Nevertheless, there is a growing trend of creating architecture that only lasts for a very short while; in addition, it doesn't even look like what we usually think of as buildings. They're more like spatial installations – amalgams of techniques culled from architecture, design and art – that have been created by their makers as a reaction to current urban issues, and with involvement from the public in terms of construction and use of the structure. Examples of such temporary, collective and joyful phenomena are called “performance architecture”.
The growth of this trend has a certain link to the recent economic downturn, which has undoubtedly affected architects; however, performance architecture was already around before then, albeit only as a marginal anomaly. Take, for instance, the architectural group Ant Farm – which traveled around the USA in the 1970's with inflatable structures and planted Cadillacs in the dessert; or Diller & Scofidio's early works and their “Blur Building” at the 2002 Expo in Switzerland. New inclinations in architecture are not solely dependent on economics, however – they also fall in step with changes in urban planning techniques. Centrally controlled planning has been replaced with the emergence of grass-roots organization and public involvement in the regulatory process; the scope of project areas has decreased to the neighborhood level, and the value of the public commons has increased. Architects have also left their offices, coming down to the level of the street and giving themselves over to the wave of partisan-events – which have been widely covered in the latest architectural books, magazines and blogs.
For more on performance architecture, watch video interview with Karsten Huneck of The Office for Subversive Architecture, filmed last summer in Cēsis during the Riga Technical University's International Summer School, Event City.
Performance architecture seeks to engage itself in spatial and social problems, which is why these installations often turn up in places where architectural critics and connoisseurs of aesthetic values wouldn't dare set foot willingly – such as under highway overpasses, in poor and unsafe parts of the city, and in abandoned industrial complexes. But for the local population, the appearance of such structures becomes an important event – by of transforming architecture into an egalitarian activity that allows them to participate, learn something new, and take pride in their surroundings. This does not, however, decrease the intellectual level or quality of the architecture in question – frequently, these structures make use of the latest multimedia technologies, recycled materials and eco-friendly sources of energy; in addition, they are smart and sustainable on a social level as well. Involving neighborhood residents in the design and construction processes (especially those people who are less privileged and vulnerable) paves the way for constructive use of local resources and the formation of new relationships and traditions.
Architects involved in the making of these kinds of installations rarely come from traditional offices. They deliberately call themselves collectives or teams, or sometimes even identify themselves as networks, that have spread across the whole world and that come together only to build a new structure. The Office for Subversive Architecture has developed an effective communication system that allows members of the group to work on joint projects while located in their respective cities of London, Berlin, Vienna and elsewhere. Such associations often grow out of student groups that share common interests and interdisciplinary friendships – working alongside the architects are designers, artists, curators, carpenters, DJs, chefs and other people who have been invited because of what they can bring to the table. British offices Muf architecture / art and Assemble are examples of this balance between architecture and art.
In performance architecture, the spatial framework is just as significant as its contents – which are events oriented towards building a collective experience that includes music, food, games and live shows.
Labi Champi structures in Karosta. Photo: Indra Ķempe, 2007
In this way, the collectives use those parts of the city (and their associated rules) in which a certain degree of freedom has remained, and which also lack commercial interests and pressures. Low-rent real estate, neglected public places and left-over materials create a fertile environment for self-initiated projects that showcase the architect's ability to see potential in a place where others see nothing of value. Although requests for public projects are on the rise, most cities are still unaware of the benefits that temporary installations can bring about. Meanwhile, various music, art and urban culture festivals have become the main consumers of performance architecture. Some of the most interesting of these are TodaysArt in Brussels, London's Architecture Festival, and the Pop Up Spaces initiative in Guimarães, Portugal.
Why build ephemeral structures?
Firstly, performance architecture is an event, and events create feelings and memories that should not be underestimated – they affect the way people perceive their urban environment. In addition, people can involve themselves in these events, sometimes even becoming co-authors and learning about the actual construction process – something which is usually hidden from the public eye. Berlin-based architect group Raumlabor often involves local school children and university students in its projects by teaching them practical skills and strengthening their sense of belonging to a particular neighborhood. In the creation and subsequent use of this architecture, new relationships form between people whose paths usually do not cross; frequently, these new relationships and friendships continue even after the relevant installation has been demolished and all associated activities have ceased. French team Exyzt, which has created large-scale installations in London, Madrid and Liepāja, Latvia, puts to use an extensive collective action program that brings a wide range of community groups together in one place.
Labi Champi structures in Karosta. Photo: Indra Ķempe, 2007
Secondly, installations and events encourage thoughts and conversations about what we would like to see in a public space, and what we would like to do in the said space. Ephemeral structures allow for the testing of a variety of possible uses until the perfect one is found, and without any large expenditures. When working at street-level, architects are forced to answer the questions of passersby, thereby learning how to explain their ideas precisely to regular people and, in turn, learning a lot of useful facts about the local area. Spanish architect groups, such as Recetas Urbana and Andre Jaques Architects, have been particularly active in discussions pertaining to the political importance of public spaces.
Performance architecture in Latvia
There are limited resources to fund public space projects in Latvia; therefore, the desire for long-term and traditional values is quite strong. Nevertheless, there have been some attempts in the genre of performance architecture.
The already-mentioned French collective, Exyzt, and its 2007 project in Latvia – Labi Champi, seemed to resonate much louder abroad than here, in Latvia. Without realizing it, we were on the receiving end of a perfect package of performance architecture: ephemeral structures on the roof of an unused building, video projections on its walls, and a whole series of events with music, dancing, and the growing of mushrooms. The residents of Karosta were, and continue to be, open to unusual events at any time, but the Latvian creative and media communities were, at the time, not yet ready to appreciate this type of approach to architecture.
The installations “Demogrāfijas cilpa” (Demography Loop), and “Trušu dzīres” (Rabbit Feast), Cēsis. Photo: Kaspars Kursišs, 2012
More recent examples are the structures created by the Riga Technical University's International Summer School, Event City, in the summer of 2012, in the Latvian city of Cēsis. After exploring the context of the local environment, community and events, students expressed their reactions with three different spatial installations that were then set up in the city's public spaces. The goals were to encourage new social contacts and traditions, and to strengthen collective values – all through various activities and rituals that were linked to the installations themselves. To fully activate the installation “Thunderbolt Workshop”, the cooperation of ninety people was required, while the bright colors and circular field of “Demographic Loops” created a new space for movement and play.
The installation “Pērkona darītava” (House of Thunder), Cēsis. Photo: Kaspars Kursišs, 2012
There is great potential for performance architecture in the many festivals that have entered Latvian cultural life in the past few years. Perhaps the most interesting of November's “Staro Riga” attractions was “Start Trek”, a light installation by Reinis Adovičs (Warp) and situated on a minitrack built by Jānis Kundziņš and Mārtiņš Sleja (Mind work ramps); the project allowed for a structure, designed specifically for sport, to morph into a rather magical experience. The interactive light projections that would follow people's movements created an unprecedented experiencing of a space, and invited viewers to participate and play along. The circular structure at the nightclub Piens, which really did not look like a piece of architecture in daylight, became a three-dimensional performance at nightfall – an ingeniously created temporary, collective and joyful event.
The light projection “Start Trek” in Riga. Photo: Kaspars Kursišs, 2012
Much like performance art grew out of an opposition to the rules of theater and the need to respond to the circumstances of time and place, performance architecture offers a lot more freedom and opportunity to experiment than permanent and "serious" architecture does. It is a counterpoint to the prevailing individualism and elitism in architecture, and a support for the rebirth of collective values. Interestingly, collectivism can be observed in both the organization of architect groups and in the form and usage of the buildings they design.
Performance architecture offers more opportunities for architects and citizens to be politically active, to respond at a significantly faster rate to current urban processes, and to take the initiative in utilizing a public place. Instead of waiting for help from city authorities, performance architecture encourages people to be the masters of their own public spaces.
For more on performance architecture, watch video interview with Jan Liesegang of Raumlabor, filmed last summer in Cēsis during the Riga Technical University's International Summer School, Event City.