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The Pop-up Problem: Does the Obnoxious Phenomenon have Hidden Depths?

As vacuous as the modern pop-up may be, the latent possibilities of their reckoning with permanence should not be forgotten

There’s no recent urban phenomenon more eye-rollingly obnoxious than the pop-up. Along with sparkly cupcakes and the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, they are one of the UK’s defining cultural artefacts of the post-crash era, seemingly inescapable in our suffering cities. But as opposed to infantilised consumption or austerity nostalgia, the pop-up offers us a corporate regurgitation of anti-corporate commerce, of urban danger and below-the-radar cool.

It’s not difficult to follow the recuperative trajectory of the pop-up craze. In crisis-hit cities suddenly starved of money, a surplus in available commercial space occurred which was quickly taken advantage of by young enterprises. Temporary restaurants, shops and exhibitions could use spaces that would normally be out of their reach financially, and authorities wary of the blighting effect of empty retail were more than happy to offer peppercorn rents and temporary licences. Before too long, a hipster-ish buzz built up around the various supper clubs, temporary boutiques and so on, the more disjointed the juxtaposition of space and use the better.

Cineroleum

Assemble’s Cineroleum - a temporary cinema occupying an abandoned petrol station swathed in a tyvek curtain.

Architects were in on the act as well, with a whole swathe of young British designers now leaving their twenties who first received attention designing low-budget temporary structures, often self-commissioned and self-funded. In the late ’00s, with the market for junior architecture jobs decimated, groups such as Assemble and Practice could pull on contacts and resourcefulness to make their own projects – mini-cinemas, bars, etc, which have launched their careers to the point that we now await the completion of their first ‘proper’ buildings.

But very soon, perhaps inevitably, any freshness evaporated and established companies found they could make use of these strategies too. It’s now utterly commonplace for a fashion or design brand to make their entry into a city with a series of oh-so-hip pop-ups before the ‘proper’ retail space opens up. On the one hand, this is fairly standard cool-chasing, but it also comes from the ongoing process of minimising risk: a temporary shop doesn’t involve paying out for a full lease, and if it also has a frisson of ‘edgy’ cool, then what’s not to like?

Boxpark

Shoreditch’s Boxpark pop-up mall built from shipping containers

From there it’s only a short hop to new-build projects such as Boxpark, a ‘pop-up mall’ in once-fashionable Shoreditch, occupying a site earmarked for the eventual construction of a mixed-use tower. A clump of shipping containers given the simplest of architectural treatments by Waugh Thistleton, it’s retail space without any decoration or pretensions towards urbanism, a rather transparent cynicism disguised as cutting-edge style. But even Boxpark appears positively generous compared with the disgrace that is ‘Artworks Elephant’, a set of jolly shipping containers temporarily filled with retail ‘offer’, sitting in the shadow of London’s Heygate Estate even as this social housing is torn apart to make way for the super-rich. By this point the pop-up ceases to take advantage of urban flexibility and begins to contribute directly to social cleansing.

The problem, however, as is so often the case, is that there is an echo of utopia even in these most craven of developments. This profusion of shipping containers and enthusiasm for temporary structures harks back to the turn of the ’70s, when the tension between monumentality and flexibility offered a powerful dialectic with which to push the limits of architectural design. For what are these container complexes other than actually-existing examples of Archigram’s plug-in city?

Capsuletower

Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower: Its washing machine-like rooms were envisioned as upgradeable, plug in components, but their temporal freedom soon became confining obsolescence

Totally prefabricated, temporary, capable of swift response to changing consumer desire, pop-up architecture contains more than a glimmer of the visions of baby-boomer radicals. Drunk on the space race and cybernetics, the ’60s desire for instantaneity in architecture casts a long shadow. But in those schemes there was at least an implicit egalitarianism, a desire to chip away at the functional (and social) hierarchies of the monumental city, but in our world the ideas return simply to extract a temporary rent out of underused space.

If you were to seek out an origin, then the original utopian pop-up was the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first and still the most impressive example of temporary anti-architecture. Inside the Crystal Palace, that blankest and most vast of containers, all the workings of capitalism were on display, from raw materials to industrial plant to finished products. This was the moment when the public were first offered a stake in capitalism, where – in Walter Benjamin’s phrase – ‘the masses learn empathy with exchange value’. But this spectacular event also set in motion an idea, which percolated throughout the 20th century, that architectural modernity would need to do away with monumentality, and reckon with permanence, if the city of the future was to be a more equitable and livable place. It is this idea of a more fluid and transient architecture that flickers in the background of the pop-up in architecture. Vacuous as they are, their latent possibilities ought not to be forgotten.

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