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The Temporary City by Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams

A new book takes a pessimistic look at London’s temporary structures and sees their popularity as a sign of our downfall. Tim Abrahams is unconvinced

The Temporary City seems a strange way to mourn the passing of the London Development Agency. Written by the man who was until recently its deputy chief executive, a man who is still advising the mayor of the largest city in Europe on architectural matters, the book is a peculiar footnote in the life of the body established in 1999 to drive sustainable growth in London. Instead of focusing on the major structural changes that have occurred in the city during his tenure, or indeed the complexity of the large projects in the capital that he has helped deliver, such as Canary Wharf and White City, The Temporary City focuses instead on temporary structures. Its case studies include the Southwark Lido and all your London Architecture Festival favourites, as well as a hammock seat for chain link fences in New York. 

Anyone expecting a celebration of the impact of massive infrastructure projects on the city is going to be disappointed. The book is peppered with intimations of doom and a lack of faith in the system that Bishop has operated in. ‘The West… cherishes the belief that it is possible to find a centre of security in this circle of impermanence and imagines that although the world is uncertain, it can be controlled and given a material basis,’ writes Bishop and his partner Lesley Williams. Having stood at one of the nexuses between capital, politics and real estate, during a huge period of growth and success in one of the world’s major cities, Bishop is now seeking to convince us of the worth of temporary architecture by emphasising what he and his co-writer perceive to be a lack of confidence in our collective futures, financial or ecological – he even quotes Buddha. Build nothing permanent because we are all doomed, is their logic.

It is a profoundly pessimistic starting point, which we could have done without. The book is much better when Bishop and Williams explore the details. Particularly of note is a critique on the power of conservation groups and an inquiry into the fundamental shift in the structure of leasing office space. Drawing on work by Florian Haydn and Robert Temel on temporary urban spaces in Germany, Williams and Bishop make a good case for the argument that because of the increasing pace of market demands, short-term office lets will be on the increase. Of course, legislative change is required and the writers make use of the experience of Eric Reynolds, a pioneer in regeneration, who has good ideas about preventing public authorities from sitting on land.

If only the book could be just what it claimed to be; a survey. The sections of case studies are a judicious collection of temporary structures, generally designed to operate in the cultural sphere either with the consent of landowners or without it. Even markets are not the markets where you could buy food upon which to subsist; they are foodie or farmers’ markets, sites where shopping is a recreational activity. Insisting their focus is on London, Williams and Bishop include a case study of the Royal Docks, which shows how ideas for temporary use are subject to the vagaries and whims of landowners, quickly adapted, changed and transferred around the world. They also, however, expand beyond the city with a thoughtful extended review of the Commodities Exchange Building in Bucharest.

It is hard to write a book that is just a survey, however. A narrative inevitably surfaces and the one that Williams and Bishop have adopted lacks any historical dimension. Given the writers’ take on the proliferation of temporary structures in the UK, one would imagine that they would at least take into account the work of Cedric Price, appreciated as a pioneer by the Berliners they otherwise frequently refer to. Price imagined a more robust and industrial manifestation of temporary structures. More fundamentally, if they had entertained some sense of architecture’s role in human progress, Williams and Bishop would have entertained the idea that developers who permit temporary use have no small faith in the market returning and will eject any temporary user that overstays their welcome. It is not the designers and builders of projects like the Cineroleum that make grand political claims for their project, but people like Bishop and Williams. They raise the idea of an architecture of protest but fail to see it through.

It may be a positive step in human development when that which should be permanent, such as housing, is temporary and that which can be playful and fleeting, such as cultural institutions or leisure facilities, endures. But the increasing privatisation of ostensibly public space means that temporary usage often has a very specific role to play as a means of bolstering land prices in a downturn.

Price and his cohorts of Joan Littlewood et al believed that temporary structures were needed as places to articulate fluid social relations. Like many of Price’s ideas, this has been bastardised to the point that only rarely do temporary structures stimulate us as he intended. The whole assumption of his Fun Palace was that it would be built on public land.

Far from being a sign that modernity is in crisis, the rise of temporary architecture in the cultural sphere could be posited as a sign that news of the death of capitalism has been exaggerated. While some of us run around with The End is Nigh signs around our necks, developers are sitting tight and waiting for the right time to sweep aside the apothecaries’ gardens and build office blocks. The real judgement on temporary use must be reserved for when projects like Caravanserai in Canning Town by Meanwhile London come to an end. What then? One cannot fault the book for not including the recent Occupy demonstrations, but if Bishop had considered the increasing privatisation of apparently public land in areas such as London’s Docklands, then far from turning to the words of Buddha, he might have had more confidence in the system he has risen to the top of.

Tim Abrahams is a writer and blogs at cosmopolitanscum.com. His extended essay on the architecture of the Olympic Park is published in April

The Temporary City, Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams, Routledge, January 2012, paperback £29.99

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