Blog Post

Disappearing Acts

Architecture, historically, has dedicated itself to permanence: in the 19th century to monuments and memorials, in the 20th century to symbols of corporate ascendance. Yet cities are in a constant state of formation & transformation—both physical and cultural. Despite fastidious attempts at control, cities evolve far faster than policy or the profession is quite ready to allow. City planning and permitting is notoriously slow, and typically everything, from skyscraper to food truck to protest, needs a permit.

Yet the “temporary” is alive and kicking. Grass roots efforts in cities across the country are producing a spate of fleeting architecture, what Margaret Crawford would call temporary urbanisms. These acts of city-making offer up the provisional as an alternative to a hyper-regulated, focus-tested built environment, and engage the amateur to author a piece of our landscape.

One day, 125 square feet:

Last Friday, for the fourth year in a row, Park(ing) Day reemerged to claim parking spots across the country. Conceived in 2005 by Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, Park(ing) Day is simple: on one day throughout the world, people are encouraged to create parks, art installations, or you-name-it public space in public parking spaces. The threshold for participation is the cost of a parking meter. According to Rebar, “up to 70% of San Francisco's downtown outdoor space is dedicated to the vehicle, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to the public realm.” This event prompts citizens to view the city as space for claiming—without consulting planning departments, securing permits, or notifying neighbors. This gentle uprising provides an array of surprises in our midst –individual interventions with just some Astroturf, a few planters, playground equipment and lawn chairs. The friendliness of these insta-parks belies that they are in fact a demonstration, a coordinated declaration of personal defiance of the official order of the urban realm.

One week, 5 square miles

Black Rock City 2009

Whether you love to love it or love to hate it, Burning Man is an inescapable topic in the Bay Area come August. The yearly event draws nearly 50,000 people to Black Rock City – a transient, but planned, city in the desert. The Burning Man project describes the city as “an experimental community, which challenges its members to express themselves and rely on themselves to a degree that is not normally encountered in one's day-to-day life.” Burning Man’s Black Rock City is the 21st-century expression of manifest destiny: to build a city out of nothing in the desert, and to move on without a trace. (A bit less romantic is the cleaning crew and restoration team that spend the next few months erasing the city from the desert). While the camp is meticulously plotted with zoned uses and named streets, the territory gains its street-cred as extra-urban, outside of the bounds of everyday infrastructure and governance.

Like Park(ing) Day, the ‘developers’ of Black Rock City are claiming space in seemingly inhospitable conditions. In history, to amass territory was to gain power, with nations, and individuals, racing to claim land with the first flag in the ground. Today, perhaps greater symbolism resides not in the land itself, but rather in action, events, and happenings—the potential of a place to have meaning, and, in the wake of an event, the reverberation of its absence. To claim these spaces, and bring these fleeting moments into being, is to physically reinsert oneself into the public realm, if only briefly.

As disappearing acts, these occurrences are instances of the alignment of urbanism and culture that are intentional, only temporarily physical, but enduring in the subconscious of our landscape. (Park)ing Day and Burning Man are only a couple of examples of a phenomenon that may signal the reordering of authorship—giving an opportunity for the presence of more voices in our built environment. Equally significant, these acts of appropriation model the possibilities of using space to voice (more on this topic in a future post). Where once property ownership determined our right to vote, perhaps in the digital age, we can supplant land grabs and monumental symbols with the power of a fleeting urbanism, with structures built not to last.

Henri Lefebvre, in The Production of Space, writes of the underlying power structures that our uses of space make manifest: 

“…we can see how a counter-space can insert itself into spatial reality: against the Eye and the Gaze, against quantity and homogeneity, against power and the arrogance of power, against the endless expansion of the ‘private’ and of industrial profitability; and against specialized spaces and a narrow localization of function. … Naturally, too, it happens that a counter-space and a counter-project simulate existing space, parodying it and demonstrating its limitation, without for all that escaping its clutches.” 

Lefebvre, Herni. The Production of Space. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans. (Blackwell Publishing, Malden 1991: 382). 

Laura Crescimano's picture
Laura Crescimano is a designer at Gensler and a lecturer at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. At the intersection of research and architectural design, Laura's practice focuses on the political and social power of space. Laura’s projects include: the master plan & sustainability action plan for a “One Planet” community in Stockton CA; “Public Space & Protest: Mapping Form & Action,” a study of the contemporary city funded by the Julia Amory Appleton Fellowship; and “Stroke Pathways” a multi-disciplinary analysis of the geography, structure and dynamics of care. One of the Design Futures Council's 2009 "Emerging Leaders," Laura received her BA from Yale University and Master in Architecture from Harvard, where she received the Alpha Ro Chi Medal for Leadership.