This article is a short plea from a designer whose work focuses on temporary installations; a call to re-evaluate the role impermanent structures play in the civic life of our cities. The current default expectation of temporary architecture to act as a cheap prototype for long-lasting civic involvement undermines its true role in the making of public spaces.
A temporary installation for Belfast City Council where the new addition draws attention to the historic street context through reflective surfaces. Project by OGU Architects and MMAS Architects
Unfortunately, this approach to urbanism presents a stark contrast to our relationship with temporary architecture and urbanism in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Here, impermanent architecture is all too often seen as an intermediary step prior to investment in something of higher quality in future.
“Temporal depth” acknowledges the different levels of temporariness in a space. Our most-loved public spaces tend to have significant temporal depth, layering the distant past, recent past, and present to frame experience.
Take St George’s Market as an example, a popular covered market hall in central Belfast. Contemporarily, it draws crowds with the offer of live music and street food, however, these events do not sit in isolation and are enriched by the backdrop of a long-running produce market, where traders are able to trace family involvement for generations. Moving beyond living memory, the site has been a place for trade and the location of markets since 1604. This place of exchange has moved beyond an amenity and, instead, is integral to understanding local identity, with the surrounding neighbourhoods referring to themselves as the Market area. This is enabled by its longevity, with St George’s Market being the site of several notable civic events throughout history. For example, in 1834, the Northern Trade Union organised a meeting here of over 1500 people to protest the sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs . More recently, the market has hosted significant gatherings including the World Irish Dancing Championships and numerous conferences.
In the discussion of temporal depth, it is important to consider the related matter of civic involvement. Primarily, involvement requires action and reflection, thus civic involvement consists of acting and reflecting upon the ethics of holding a place in common with others, a core tenet of negotiating what it means to be a fellow citizen of a place. Civic spaces facilitate this involvement and can arguably be considered in one of three categories, adapted from those defined by Peter Carl :
1) a civic space facilitates the encountering of other points of view;
2) a civic space supports constructive negotiation and;
3) a civic space makes possible the refinement of that negotiation.
Using the example of St George’s once more, illustrated is how the market creates the physical conditions required for people to come together within a civic space. Differing points of view are encountered via a variety of purposes: some people come to buy weekly groceries and others engage with temporary art exhibitions or browse souvenirs. Over time, rules of engagement have developed that allow for constructive negotiation between points of view, be that the etiquette of buying and selling produce, the preferred layout of the market stalls, and even the architectural restoration of the building. At St George’s, there is a Traders’ Association who work with Belfast City Council to define shared conduct at different levels, whether one is a visitor or host. As a result, there is a refinement of negotiation, ranging from temporary tweaks to more serious investment in the physical fabric – with a €3.5 million refurbishment in the 1990s being an example. In doing so, the environment has developed to facilitate and elevate a range of activities.
From the restored city motto “Pro tanto quid retribuamus” carved in stone, to the occasional upkeep of the carefully painted cast-iron columns, to the frequent upgrading of stalls and consistent cycle of their assembly and take-down, these routine adjustments give meaning and weight to the activities that take place within. Considering this, one can return to temporal depth and recognise that civic space requires certain features to remain indefinitely and others to be flexible and changeable. Importantly, it relies on both temporary and long-lasting architecture to contribute to the refinement of civic culture within the space .
Through using architecture with short, medium, and long lifespans together, we create cultural richness. Unfortunately, this approach to urbanism presents a stark contrast to our relationship with temporary architecture and urbanism in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Here, impermanent architecture is all too often seen as an intermediary step prior to investment in something of higher quality in future. The rise in popularity of “tactical urbanism” is part of the problem: urban interventions that according to Lydon and Garcia are initiated by citizens to highlight “shortcomings in policy or physical design” or by local authorities as a public engagement tool to test aspects of a plan early “so that it’s easier to build great places” . Significantly, the problem is exacerbated by the pressure to justify public spending on civic spaces against a numerical scale of achievement, which makes this type of urbanism very appealing to decision-makers. Tactical urbanism tends to have a particular goal, such as the introduction of a cycle lane or reduction in parking spaces, which is easy to measure and uncomplicated for a non-designer to understand.
To have tactical goals is commendable and sometimes much needed – as a designer, I am involved in several such projects. But the current default expectation of temporary architecture to act as a cheap prototype for long-lasting civic involvement undermines its true role in the making of civic spaces, thereby limiting the necessary investment in its quality and meaning. In my own practice, we try to address this by bringing the history of a place into conversation with the temporary installations that we place in it in order to contribute to a deeper civic involvement, beyond the life of the structure itself. In a city with a rich collective culture and a variety of spaces that support different kinds of civic activity, temporary architecture works with its surroundings, goes up, comes down, and moves around to make critical moments and cyclical events possible. It is not a stepping stone to a better, more permanent city, it is part of that better city.
... the current default expectation of temporary architecture to act as a cheap prototype for long-lasting civic involvement undermines its true role in the making of civic spaces, thereby limiting the necessary investment in its quality and meaning.
One Good Idea is a series of articles which focuses on the simple, concise discussion of a complex spatial issue. Each piece is presented as a starting point towards a topic that the author believes should be part of broader public discourse. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact email@example.com.
One Good Idea is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
1. M.Chase, Early trade unionism: fraternity, skill and the politics of labour, Abingdon, Routledge, 2017, pp. 133-172.
2. J. Clossick, 'The depth structure of a London high street: a study in urban order', Doctoral dissertation, London Metropolitan University, 2017, p. 200; R. O'Grady, 'Collaborative heritage conservation in Tajganj: investigating civic possibilities in the urban order through architectural making', Doctoral dissertation, London Metropolitan University, 2018, p. 212.
3. M. Halbwachs, On collective memory, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
4. M. Lydon and A. Garcia, 'A tactical urbanism how-to', in Tactical urbanism, Washington DC, Island Press, 2015, pp. 171-208.
Dr Rachel O’Grady is the co-director of OGU Architects and coordinator of BSc Stage 2 Architecture at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research through practice and related design studio at QUB investigate the architecture of temporary and demountable structures.
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