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Architecture And Ephemeral Structures Cultural Studies Essay

The dictionary definition of ephemeral is that which is lasting for a markedly brief time or only for a day, as certain plants or insects do [1] - though generally we think of ephemeral as a brief experience or encounter of an uncertain duration of time; and so it is no wonder that we involuntarily assume such momentary experiences insignificant. However short-lived the experience may be, it has the ability to imprint a more prominent and lasting impression: the ephemeral joys of childhood can become an influential memory, in the same way that one may say that love is transitory but it is eternal, and that, in itself is so mighty that it can either make or break a person, it can build up or crumble an idea, a dream or even a life. The impact of an ephemeral experience is more vital in engaging its meaning and effect than the duration of the ephemeral experience. But what is the impact that this experience must engage? Power off course! This is the issue that has always been at hand though it has not been an obvious exploited or implemented tool. I will discuss this further in the easy.

Martin Heidegger, the influential German philosopher, believed any part of the earth is to be a human dwelling place and it became ours the moment we were capable of dwelling. Effectively we did not need buildings to happen as the earth itself is part of the ‘inside’ space. It is no mystery to presume the need for building and thus architecture, arises from a practical need for refuge but once this function has been satisfied what are the other services architecture can provide? One may say that architecture fulfils a need to identify a place, and create a tenure or possession. ‘The way in which you are and I am, the way in which humans are on earth, is dwelling....’ [2] Here Heidegger refers to dwellings or dwelling, and the connections to what architecture can provide, once it has accomplished shelter, are not physical but are linked to a superior and somewhat silent influences.

With reference to architecture, ephemeral structures, even of primitive origin, have the ability to create a sign that one would recognise as ‘place’, and this place is most often linked to other prevailing notions of residence, occupation and other territorial classifications. As temporary structures were conceivably the first forms of architecture to be assembled, such as yokut and igloos, or even caves, it is clear to see building as a primal act of architecture.

Robert Kronenburg in Ephemeral/Portable Architecture suggests temporary structures, erected spontaneously and in relation to a particular occasion, have the ability to connect to its spectators on an unseen level. The sheer process of making and remaking architecture before one’s eyes is a significant experience as it is retained in ones memory as an event – creating the event phenomena. When dissembled there is the potential for erection into a usable form; just as when in use, there is knowledge that one day soon they may be destroyed.’ [3] 

All architecture has the possibility of eventual deconstruction or destruction; this is simply part of its DNA, knowing that one day in time it will either fall, or fall into disuse. Buildings that are in use only continue to exist, or rather function, because they are being maintained in some way to encourage smooth day-to-day operation. If the maintenance of the building is neglected or ignored in some way the building will suffer and will eventually grow to a state beyond effective repair, restoration or renovation. Unlike nature, where the natural courses of events allow for self-generation, architecture requires direct human nurturing to ensure its continuity. This is the problem with static and permanent buildings. It is needy like a child and must be nurtured, but if it falls into neglect, it falls forever. Ephemeral architecture, on the other hand, has the ability to re-live, its life may be short-lived but it does not perish its memory as an event keeps it fresh and alive, and when it reappears it is just as though it is new.

Temporary buildings, which are rich in ephemeral qualities, can also have a more continuous use on more permanent sites, in the same way that stage sets have a fleeting life span in a theatre. In this way ‘event’ as a notion in architecture is used to create an association with the building by taking note of the time and event in the use of the building itself, and can imply therefore to the power and the fragility of the building, also having the power to control the ephemerality of the content itself.

Ephemeral architecture therefore has an important role in ‘permanent’ architecture. It has well-defined functions on site specific locations just as temporary buildings do, and a rich history in its context alike static architecture (which will be discussed further), but despite its limited yet distinct time span, it has one very potent advantage: its ability to be remembered and thus be powerful! The issue it would seem is therefore not about ephemeral architecture but about the ephemeral virtues that must be distinctively recognised as ephemeral (not temporary), and are of value in all forms of architecture. Its ephemerality essentially has the power, creates the power and can thus, also take it way.


In this essay I wish to discuss the virtues of ephemerality in architecture. I will address the rich history of ephemeral architecture from the renaissance in relation to the issues of distinguishing the ‘virtual’ art from the ‘real’ politics. From this I wish to suggest the influential impact ephemeral architecture has on creating an event which is powerful through the memories it creates.

Ephemerality in history

What do you think of when someone mentions the Egyptian pyramids, the palaces of Babylonia or the temples of Greece? Ancient architecture? Or perhaps even the origins of architecture? But what about the temporary structures erected for religious rites in the ancient world? Are these not equally as important in the history of architecture?

Looking at the ancient temporary structures we think of the elaborate wooden chariots or the tabernacle of the Jews- another portable wood enclosure with four posts and fabric, a portable temple and place of worship, and off course, we are then reminded of the events of it being carried though the wilderness during the Exodus. It is a prominent event whose influences were still potent there-after in the form of temples in the tenth century BCE and in all synagogues to follow.

But do we recognise these temporary structures as ephemeral architecture? It almost seems that the history of the built environment does not give much attention to ephemeral architecture as it does to the static or ‘permanent’ architecture throughout history, but in reality the ephemerality of architecture has many faces, alike the nomad to the farmer. There is the thing that we can see static before us-the artifact, and the thing that moves before us-the event. It is essentially two histories that run parallel with each other. If we could map the event alongside the more familiar artefacts such as the chronicle of monuments and ruins, we would be able to see the way one has influenced the other. For example, the way Greek temples are the stone versions of their wooden predecessors.

Religious constructions seem to be the easiest and most well known of accounts, as its traditions have so vividly influenced and been recreated in today’s world, and also as religion in ancient periods and well into the emergence of modern society, was the grand reasoning for all things. But religious constructions were not the only structure to have been carried into the modernity of today, there are also the architectural works commissioned by rulers to celebrate and proclaim their reign. Most of the key European architects in the era of emperors, popes, and princes, had experience in staging events at courts or in cities- Andrea Palladio, Inigo Jones, Gianlorenzo Bernini, and Niccolo Servandoni to name just a few. As modern society started to emerge, they were involved in staging expositions and government spectacles from the master planning efforts of Charles Garnier in Paris (1889), Daniel Burnham in Chicago (1893), or Albert Speer in Nuremberg (1933), to the more discrete contributions of Mies van der Rohe in Barcelona (1928), Le Corbusier in Brussels (1958), or Sverre Fehn in Venice (1962). For a large amount of it, architects, just as painters, sculptors and other art professionals, were poor and relied on commissions to create their masterpieces. Knowing that these events were assured large audiences, they were the perfect places to show off their talent. Events of the day comprised of effects or ingenious artistry in the design of a triumphal arch or elaborate stage settings and eventually led to later commissions from influential patrons. For the large part of it, event architecture was designed to persuade and convince, and for this reason it has been and continues to be, built in all the societies of Europe. [4] 

Archive records suggest that events were generously funded by the wealthy in order to magnify and glorify their reign. In all cases every possible form of the arts were exploited for any occasion; whether a coronation or an inauguration; or a baptism, marriage or funeral of a privileged person. Poets and painters, musicians and dancers, masters of culinary arts, fireworks specialists, sculptors, and of course architects- all of these artists were called on to contribute to these events that also involved priests, heads of state, royal retinues, merchants, worriers, citizens, commoners, peasants, servants and slaves. [5] 

A lot of importance was associated with such stately events and therefore they were well documented for posterity, even to the extent of being exaggerated. Important persons were noted as well as the number of participants in processions, the wealth of their retinue and the routes of their parades. A record was also taken of the theatrical performances, scenography, choreography, menus, livery, fireworks, and all other appurtenances of these events. As a large part of the documentations were exaggerated, the various accounts of a particular event would conflict, and for this reason historians have difficulty in dealing with the various recorded materials in not only trying to understand the events but also in that the architecture had long since disappeared. Practically, most historians of static or permanent works can return to the built work to gain fresh evidence which may previously have been overlooked, but historians of event architecture were restricted by the very thing that made these events so powerful – their ephemerality.

Most would say that architects are meant to design buildings that last, and so it is no wonder that there is difficulty in making a distinction between the solid and ephemeral in architectural history. When permanent is set against temporary, Jacques Derrida a nineteenth century French philosopher who is known as the founder of deconstruction- would argue, the disagreement is not an equal one. [6] It seems that permanent or static architecture is always given the upper-hand and has always been viewed as more ‘significant’ and ultimately more central to architecture and its history. It is true that ephemeral installations have their own special category, but their fickle and fleeting character dubbed them as being superficial, even fake, as ephemeral architecture used camouflage and trickery to enhance its construction and seem more durable or ‘real’. Ephemeral architecture was the imposter of ‘permanent’ architecture!

Festival Architecture (Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine Macy 2008) states in the mid nineteenth century, architectural histories by Karl Bötticher and Gottfried Semper presented ephemeral construction as the very origin of architecture. Finally someone had recognised temporary architecture as a true form of construction, not phony, but justified as being the ‘first built sketches’, the primitive forms of that which was to follow. Ephemeral architecture now becomes real, not a pretend architecture, but yet-this does not justify why patrons preferred to commission the ephemeral form when clearly they were wealthy enough to commission built architecture rather than paper architecture.

On the surface one may put the reasoning down to time and money because temporary buildings of ephemeral nature are cheap in quality and of poor construction- as one may say that it may be more cost effective and more beneficial to the client, user and environment to make a building that has a long life but is dedicated to use on a number of different sites rather than one, though this is a common misconception. [7] However practical this reason, it is but a feeble attempt to understand the issue of renaissance society when so much more is associated with these commissioners – power and opulence.

Caroline van Eck in her essay Statecraft or Stagecraft (Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine Macy p113-128) tackles the issue of the ephemerality of events by addressing ‘paper architecture’. She implies that the separation of the virtual world and reality, in reference to the ‘solid’ and ‘ephemeral’ was not as distinguished in the seventeenth century Italy as it was in the nineteenth century Britain (and off course today), and that the audience would have viewed the works of architecture through the eyes of politics. In other words, the architecture was employed as a representation of the rhetorical view of the time, not as a form of entertainment as we see it, and it is obviously used as today but as a persuasive tactic, (though today the tactic is still in power, this will be discussed further).

Eck says that before the restoration of seventeenth century Britain, much of the ephemeral architecture, which we would now call virtual architecture, was created. As in Inigo Jones’ masque designs, the architecture was a screen for all sorts of meaning, though some critiques termed his ‘masques’ as ‘conceit’. In some cases more money was spent on ephemeral architecture of a masque than on a solid stone building, only to then have the stage set immediately destroyed after its construction. But in actual understanding Eck explains that “even the most evident difference to our eyes-that between ‘real’, that is three-dimensional, architecture and the virtual spatiality of paper buildings or stage-sets-was not as crystal-clear and self-evident to seventeenth-century viewers.” [8] But if the ordinary seventeenth century viewers did not look at paper architecture with such knowledge, what concept did they use to process what they saw instead? Could it then be presumed that they saw paper architecture, and ephemeral architecture, the same as three-dimensional architecture? and if so how do they distinguish the ‘real’ from the virtual, that is architecture that was ephemeral by nature or only existed as temporary or paper constructions of buildings that in fact never actually existed themselves?



Ephemeral architecture, alike static architecture has features designed to last a life time such as the construction components. Despite its character to be assembled and disassembled, the continuity lie within the similarities of its sites.

Regardless of the building type, the site and land existed long before anything man-made was constructed there and the land will in the same way continue to exist after part of the man-made has deceased. The difference between temporary and permanent structures is thus just a matter of time. And in fact ‘place’ exists separately from site: in many cases buildings have remained but their significance has gone, leaving behind empty shells that no longer have the same importance or relevance that they once had. [9] 

“All architecture is tested in relation to human experience and all human experience is, in its simplest sense, ephemeral in that it is in a day-to-day, even a thought-to-thought basis. Even those who live with a piece of architecture forever, retain their picture of it in their memory until their experience is refreshed by the next thought.”

Robert. Kronenburg [10] 

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