The Kalu Yala Blog

Architecture of Impermanence

June 19, 2013

by Courtney Frazee
Posted In: Designing the Village, The Creation of a Culture

Each semester at Kalu Yala, there exists the impulse to guarantee that one’s work will achieve physical permanence. In part, I think this impulse exists because of the “blank slated-ness” of the project; for many, it is an opportunity to graft one’s passions and ideas onto the site into posterity. Also, as young professionals who have spent university years mired in theory, the chance to engage with the physical environment is alluring. Given a wide range of possibilities, the potential for putting our mark on this new world activates our yearning to do something that lasts. And, of course, we all want to feel that our labor was worth it – and, as the typically-Western connection between monument and importance dictates, permanence is the easiest barometer for success.

But the attachment of blood, sweat, and tears to something that lasts may be a missed opportunity.

For one, there are the limitations of our craft, resources, and unfamiliarity with our surroundings. Experience begets quality, and many of us are just at the stage of flirting with certain careers. What we are able to produce in the unforgiving terrain of the valley will encounter unforeseen problems, especially as we are driven to compromise with the restraints imposed by our modest scale of production; the labor is completed by fellow interns, the materials primarily procured from our jungle site, and our funding for intern projects is modest in comparison. But can’t these restraints spur innovation?

As urban planner Allison Arieff said in a 2011 NYTimes opinion piece, “…there is undeniable opportunity in the temporary: it is an apt response to a civilization in flux.” The temporary enables testing new technologies in the public realm, implementing needed innovations more quickly (giving rise to positive technological leapfrogging that harnesses scientific advances to transform communities on a steep learning curve), and responding to the fluidity of environmental and social circumstances, or as Arieff describes, “the mobility of demographics and information.”

Shigeru Ban Temporary Relief Housing

Shigeru Ban: Onagawa Temporary Container Housing [ArchDaily

It is hard to deny the innate dynamism of impermanent architecture and its corresponding potency to improve our interactions with the built environment. As Kalu Yala Land Development President & CEO Jimmy Stice has often reminded, the first iteration of our composting bathroom was the most important – but where is it now? It has been replaced by a better model. It was the most important bathroom because it initiated a progression of improvements, not because it still stands today.

We need to embrace impermanence. There is beauty in this aesthetic of perishability – it arises out of a marriage between design and climate. One of the best examples of this aesthetic is the Ise shrine in Japan, an evolving monument that honors its own temporality: the structure has been systematically rebuilt every twenty years since the 17th century as its structural integrity breaks down. The rebuilding enables a ritualized interaction with the shrine – an experiential register that eludes many Western monuments. As Noboru Kawazoe wrote of the Ise shrine, “It was the style, not the actual structures embodying it, that they sought to preserve for posterity. Everything that had that physical, concrete form, they believed, was doomed to decay; only style was indestructible…what the Japanese wanted to preserve was not even the style as such in all its details but something else, some intangible essence…” [Ford, Edward, "The Theory and Practice of Impermanence," Harvard Design Magazine, 1997]

Likewise, some have found elegance in the aesthetic of expedience – of acknowledging the relationship between development and need, and the tenderness of rebuilding in the wake of natural disaster. Author Gretel Ehrlich, whose book “Facing the Wave” reported on the redevelopment efforts of Japanese citizens affected by the 2011 tsunami, spoke to The Economist of how geophysical events force an improvisational approach to building: “These are eight islands in one of the most seismically active places in the world. I felt an earthquake every day that I was there. As a society they could respond by fortifying everything, or by going with the flow—making paper doors and emphasizing shadow and light. That’s what they did. They framed society with impermanence; they feel it from their feet up. The geophysics shapes the culture.” Cultural acceptance of an instable built environment will help prepare for and work in conjunction with a changing landscape.

Impermanent building also enables us to engage with our land as a living charrette and provide feedback and modifications in real time, as suggested by Dallas Group “Build a Better Block.” This group engages in temporary urban demonstrations that rapidly alter a neighborhood to induce walkability, mobility, and sustainability in local calibrations. The Better Block events focus on the performative aspect of building – of setting up pop-up food stands, outdoor pavilions of pallets, dumpster pools, and “chair-bombing.” They’re grass-roots retrofit projects come and go in few short days and show a community how a block can live and breathe according to temporary demand. Better Blocks’ installations have helped cities rapidly implement infrastructural and policy changes.

“]Brooklyn's Dekalb Market

The Dekalb Market in Brooklyn is made of retail + food housed in containers [New York Times

Similarly, Magma Architecture’s London 2012 Olympic shooting pavilion plan responded to the need for a highly-specialized recreation space that would be used for just three weeks. Magma utilized an inexpensive steel frame covered by white PVC tents that stretch between colorful “dimples,” or tension nodes that provide ventilation. The unusual, evocative structure allowed an event that is usually relegated to the countryside to be right in the thick of the Olympic spirit for the first time. The pavilion’s “pop-up” design gave athletes a chance to perform before spectators and bring more immediate attention to their sport. It also realistically approached the problem of designing structures for temporary sporting events. As the ongoing riots in Brazil have brought into somber relief, the frustrations wrought by disregard for communities that stand in the way of redevelopment for the 2014 World Cup & 2016 Olympics are a major problem for countries hosting international sporting events of this size. The need to develop temporary infrastructure on a massive scale with plans for easy dismantling and repurposing of materials and space is crucial for Brazil’s successful tenure as host.

While Kalu Yala will become a lasting presence in Los Tres Brazos, it is, and will always be, a civilization in flux. At its best, it will be a development consistently responding to its environment. At its worse, it will be a real-world laboratory that will occasionally make mistakes through experimentation – but will have the good sense to maintain an elastic, dynamic structure enabling the abandonment of practices proven wrong. And that’s a very good thing. Embracing impermanence in both our built-environment and in our policies will enable a built ecosystem that can grow and shrink according to necessity.

So, as we go forward, especially welcoming new intern classes each semester eager to make their contributions, let’s reconsider our role as designers and builders. Detaching ourselves from the sentimentality embedded within our physical structures will liberate a more innovative and responsible building ethos.

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