Pop-up architecture is the entertainment of today and the urban destination of tomorrow. It's light, lyrical and cheap to construct. Permanent, masonry-heavy architecture will continue to drill down into the ground, but architecture as light as Twitter can risk more – beginning with the need to invigorate neglected or marginalized public space right now. Pop-ups push urbanites to sample delightful and even disorienting architecture on a human scale. Maybe we're more likely to immerse ourselves in something daring if it comes with a limited shelf life.
To attract new audiences, cultural producers are meeting people in the streets – or within smaller, revamped spaces that break down the formality of their institutions. Consider the 200 crisp white tents installed last week, in military time, to instantly recast the sprawling historic grounds of Fort York in downtown Toronto. The art-curated tents, like pop-up architecture in cities around the world, inspire us to engage as actors on an urban set piece. For the next two weeks, Torontonians can project their shadows on the illuminated A-frames, heightening the ethereal, ghostly aura of what was once a War of 1812 battleground.
In London's Hyde Park, the Serpentine Gallery honours pop-up architecture every summer, calling on the world's greatest architects to create temporary pavilions, for the crowds to critique, as barometers of contemporary design or purely for the pleasure of romping through. This year, there's the luminous, water-reflecting disc by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, hovering like wisdom over an archaeological dig on the gallery's lawn.
And though it is a temporary pop-up, the fact that Chinese authorities prevented Weiwei from attending gets marked down on the public's permanent record. Building truly structures requires endless public consultations and plowing through the hurdles of city planning and zoning. Temporary interventions feel, by comparison, like gestures of freedom.
Pride in a neighbourhood can be quickly restored – even in Montreal's gay village, plagued for years by homophobic violence and the drug deals conducted in nearby parks. To help create a spirit of optimism and reintegrate the village with the local population, inventive landscape architect Claude Cormier designed a kilometre-long temporary rooftop of suspended plastic balls in various dimensions and tones of pink. Just unveiled, and floating high until mid-September, it's an ecstatic celestial canopy that lights up a street and the aspirations of a neighbourhood.
Aires Libres, as it is called, is a business-improvement initiative aimed at reinventing the marginalized ghetto of Sainte-Catherine between Saint-Hubert and Papineau streets. That section has become a car-free pedestrian zone. Locals helped install the necklaces, hauling 200,000 baubles into the air.
Besides attracting international tourists, it has helped pack Sainte-Catherine with a healthy mix of people eager to get under the pink-ball party. Not a bad return for $400,000.
"It's a new idea of creating space that is outside of the grid, outside of regulations and laws," says the distinguished Montreal architect Gilles Saucier. "Pop-up art is subversive in a positive sense because it proposes something that people are not accustomed to."
To draw visitors into an exhibition about fashion designer Denis Gagnon at the Musée des beaux-arts, museum director Nathalie Bondil commissioned Saucier to create a daring new space within an existing gallery. His response: an inverted pyramid made of matte latex fabric, hung from the museum's ceiling. Images of Gagnon's collections, reflecting his fascination with zippers, leather and fringe, were projected on all sides of the pyramid. The highly textured, couture dresses by Gagnon are magnetic objects but, set around and projected around the dramatic black volume, they were instantly elevated to iconic status.
Last winter in Winnipeg, pop-up shelters inspired people to brave the biting cold, and skate along the frozen river trail at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers converge. Among them were a herd designed by Vancouver's Patkau Architects, winners last week of the People's Choice Award in the category of temporary architecture at the 2012 Azure Awards. The warming, anthropomorphic huts were constructed of two layers of thick, flexible plywood attached to a timber armature. They look alive and delicate, each one filled with personality.
Sometimes, pop-ups correct unwieldy, anonymous public space.
Although it was to play host to one of Luminato's opening concerts last week, David Pecaut Square on the west side of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall lacked personal warmth.
To help frame a new identity, Diamond Schmitt Architects, in association with artist Mitchell F. Chan, designed an undulating blue screen, lifted up on stilts, that gave a whimsical new border to the square.
Within the bold blue ribbon, K'naan sang Waving Flag to rapturous crowds. And, as at other pop-ups in Canada and around the world, the people responded by singing along.
For more about pop-up architecture, follow Lisa Rochon's blog, chasinghome.org.