A Sketchbook for the City to Come: The Pop-up as R&D

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Oct 2, 2015 · 16 min read

Ed. This piece first published at cityofsound.com on October 2nd 2015, and follows an earlier post on this set of essays, which also features ‘The Commodification of Everything’ for ‘SQM’ and ‘Urban Parasites, Data-Driven Urbanism, and the Case for Architecture’ for A+U. This one was first published as:


It was an honour either way. But it was a particular honour to be asked to contribute a piece to Architectural Design journal by guest editor Leon Van Schaik. Leon is professor in architecture at RMIT University in Melbourne (where I’m an adjunct professor) and a huge influence on architects and architecture in Australia, and well beyond. Leon has, for a couple of decades, shaped the evolution of the city of Melbourne itself, via his design, curation, and stewardship of the university’s buildings programme, which he’s strategically used as a lever to also enable a generation of brilliant Melbourne architects to emerge, each given the chance to work on significant institutional buildings through that innovative procurement strategy (there are a couple of books about that.)

So although I was asked to write about ‘pop-ups’, which I was not particularly inclined to do, the fact I was asked by Leon meant I had to. I was no fan of ‘pop-ups’ per se — for similar reasons as others — yet I felt I could reinterpret the brief a bit. But it also meant I probably had to write about Ravintolapäivä again, which again, I wasn’t particularly inclined to do, having written quite enough about that already (one, two, three.)

Writing the article did get me into interesting new territory though — the idea of ‘fast and slow urbanism’ (which I’d also developed for a talk at an event in Copenhagen about the future of Nordic urban planning.) I ended up writing about the value of buildings as ‘slow urbanism’, as the opposite of popups’ ‘fast urbanism’, with the value of the latter being a kind of sketchbook for the city, revealing latent desires. I saw the possibility of the strategic designer in drawing a link from one to the other. Unpacking this further, as I have done recently, it becomes a way of thinking about governance, and design and planning strategy, in the city, suggesting value in both fast and slow layers of change (fast being things like software and much tech, events, temporary structures and spaces and slow being things like buildings, hard infrastructure and some institutional layers.) Both have value; you just have to be aware of both, of how to handle both, and to know what mode you’re in when doing so.

I used the work that Bryan Boyer, Justin Cook and I led, with our colleagues in Helsinki — ‘learning from Ravintolapaiva’, and then our Open Kitchen project — as a case study. Huge credit to my colleague Bryan there, and others at in the Strategic Design Unit at SITRA (especially Marco Steinberg, and ably supported by Kalle Freese and Maija Oksanen), as well as our culinary collaborators Antto Melasniemi and Elina Forss, and our highly supportive partner at City of Helsinki, Ville Relander, who was their food culture project manager at the time. (And now doing other great things in Helsinki, as I discovered over breakfast at The Cock the other day.)

Here’s the original edit of the piece below, A variant on this edit was published in Architectural Design Special Issue: Pavilions, Pop-Ups and Parasols: The Impact of Real and Virtual Meeting on Physical Space’. Do pick up and read this issue of AD as there are some other fantastic articles in there, some of which help reclaim the language of ‘pop-up’ from some fairly terrible dead-ends. Read on.


A Sketchbook for the City to Come: The Pop-up as R&D

At first glance, architecture, continuing its slow descent from its 20th century heyday to today’s rather marginal pursuit, has rarely appeared so denuded and impotent as when engaged in pop-up architecture. For a trade once predicated on mighty civic investment, to see architecture scrabbling around with leftover materials in the leftover gaps between leftover buildings is a little disappointing. Many pop-ups resist the idea of architecture altogether, simply taking place in whatever spaces are available; those that engage in new building are generally small parasitical entities, clinging on to the hulk of the existing city, or left alone to grow in the cracks between buildings, like weeds.

Yet just as a weed can be thought of a perfectly reasonable plant caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps these interventions could be useful elsewhere, at another point, when reframed in an entirely different way? Judged as architecture, through the traditional lens architecture is judged by, there is no there, there. With a different conception of architecture in mind, though, as medium for the production of social effects, these pop-ups and pavilions could be a kind of sketchbook for the city, a form of R&D for civic space, and for architecture itself.

Pop-ups pop-down

At face value, pop-ups are not exactly a powerful agent for social or spatial change in the city. The reason pop-ups can pop up so easily is because they can also pop down so easily. In terms of architecture, they are the frictionless lines of least resistance — slipping in under the radar of regulation, they are easy come, easy go. They are, in a sense, too damn easy.

Pop-ups leave little trace on the city as they rarely attempt to achieve systemic change within local patterns of urbanism. To systematically change urban processes, cultures and activities, one must deal in the ‘dark matter’ of regulation and governance: of planning law, permits, licenses, decision-making processes — the very things that pop-ups intentionally avoid.

Still, this lack of potency is both its blessing and its curse. It enables a form of experimentation on existing urban fabric, generally in terms of activity, sometimes in formal terms too. However, it is also easily co-opted, and now something of a cliché. It has, for instance, become the most tangible symbol of urban regeneration in progress, often deployed as a pause on the journey from one use of space to another — increasingly known as ‘meanwhile use’.

In many Western cities, this process can often mean a clearing out of previous attempts at social progress through architecture — social housing projects or populous industrial facilities — in favour of privatised housing; pop-ups are used to mark the halfway point, after tenants, prior to sales. Hence Oliver Wainwright’s description of the pop-up arts activities in Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (1963) in East London as “the usual medley of arts-led temporary use … a live gentrification jamboree”, complicit in a recasting of the tower as the “zombie corpse of the welfare state, (now) eviscerated of its original social purpose”.

When pop-ups aren’t inhabiting existing buildings, they might emerge from structures that are barely buildings at all, such as the shipping container ‘cities’ of Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market or London’s Boxpark Shoreditch. These piled installations of containers speak volumes about volumes. They are dropped in, without context, and with a universal form shaped and weathered by globalised trade patterns, designed for the transient floating architecture of container ships, rather than a place. They are also easy come, easy go, generally without even the formal experimentation of Joost’s Greenhouse installations across Australia, or Freitag’s elegant container tower in Zürich.

There is some sense that this might be a form of progressive architectural activity, redolent of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Yet these clumps of oxidising iron have nothing of the bravado, chutzpah and pizazz of Archigram’s Plug-In City (1964) or Instant City (1969). Those sketches and models were vast pieces of infrastructure, social and material, crunching colourfully through a greyscale 1960s England that, as Ballard reminds us, looked almost like it had lost the Second World War after all. Ironically, those ideas also emanate, in some way, from the war-time innovation machine whose architecture was necessarily mobile, ad-hoc and lashed-together.

If Instant City was an outcome of the post-war period, these container cities, like the pop-ups inhabiting Belfron Tower and the like, are an outcome of a period in which public space is increasingly privatised, in which the idea of the city as a public good can apparently only exist in a form that can be easily towed away (and it is surely no accident that these pop-ups envelop largely retail-oriented programs. While public art is also a keystone, it is generally rendered physical clickbait by the service structures around it.)

Many pop-ups deny new thinking about architecture altogether. That is partly the point. If one needed to ‘do’ architecture for a pop-up, most wouldn’t happen. It is a parasitical form of organisation, best-suited to inhabiting existing structures rather than creating new ones. It moves quickly, where architecture is ponderous (recall Koolhaas’s lament of “inhabiting a painful profession … architecture is too slow”.) Whilst a form of ‘spatial intelligence’ may be at play within those inhabitation strategies, there is very little building.

Apps like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Citymapper radically change the perception and performance of space, also without building a single edifice, infrastructural or otherwise. And that’s before augmented reality really takes root. The city is beginning to be changed by software far more radically than by building. Even public transport is shifting into pop-up mode, via startups like Bridj, which runs what Techcrunch described as “a series of pop-up minibus routes … determined based on customer demand, daily changes in traffic, and several other factors (such as social media activity).” Not even a bus-stop stops these days.

None of this is exactly news. After all, as Sam Jacob has pointed out, perhaps the most radical statement of those progenitors of pop-up Archigram was that we should “declare a moratorium on building”. Architectural discourse, whether in the Daily Mail or AD, still revolves around new building nonetheless. But what happens to architecture when we are largely left with pop-ups filling the cracks in-between existing buildings?

The promise of pop-ups and pavilions

Here, actually, lies some promise. Where previous generations of pop-ups and pavilions provided impetus for formal experimentation, bold spatial exploration and material innovation, perhaps the next generation of pop-ups and pavilions can explore social and cultural potential?

Perhaps the most celebrated pavilion in modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Barcelona pavilion’ (1929), has hardly been surpassed by subsequent variations on this theme, such as those of the Serpentine pavilion programme, procured from a different representative of architecture’s Champions League each year. For all their occasionally pleasing spatial experiences, few have moved on from Mies conceptually. An exception may have been Rem Koolhaas’s pavilion with Cecil Balmond/Arup (2006), through its focus on programming over building, on designing a space simply as a platform for a curated set of events, with the emphasis on the latter.

Yet even that saw Balmond/Arup engineer a series of dome-like canopies to host the activity. For an example of a pop-up centred on events and activity alone, the Ravintolapäivä ‘Pop-up Restaurant Day’ is now a well-documented festival of street food, running every quarter in numerous countries. It started in Helsinki in 2011 as a reaction to the city’s allegedly stentorian food hygienic and food business licensing regulations, with little more than an agreement amongst a bunch of motivated citizens to pick a day and simultaneously make and sell street food from the streets — from their apartment windows, lowered down with baskets on home-made winches, or in the parks or street corners.

It was a roaring success from day one. And yet it was also illegal, or semi-legal at best; none of the participants had a permit to make and sell food on their premises, in their homes, in the street. Yet the scale of the activity meant that the city government couldn’t touch it, for fear of a gigantic public relations disaster. People, generally, loved it, and it spread like a benevolent virus. The city’s streets come alive on Ravintolapäivä.

Ravintolapäivä exists purely through a simple set of instructions — effectively an ‘un-building code’ — overlaid onto the existing urban fabric. No-one needs to design and build a restaurant to have a pop-up restaurant on Restaurant Day; a ground-floor window onto the street will do, as will a table propped up in the park.

The tools with which Ravintolapäivä happens are — of course — social media-based web services, accessed primarily on location-aware smartphones. No architecture required. This, as I’ve argued before, is where the so-called smart city is already manifest. Less in the grandiloquent, inappropriate plans of ICT multinationals; more in the hands of punters.

So, no, no architecture required here. Except of course the existing streets of Helsinki, that is, which, replete with six-storey courtyard blocks from the first half of the 20th century, do lend themselves to forms of communal activity in public. What’s interesting about Ravintolapäivä, over and above the social media-led organisation, is that it essentially articulates and embodies an un-voiced argument about what a Helsinki street is for. About what the city could be. About what those courtyards, balconies and facades could be.

The city’s regulations appear to mitigate against diverse street food offerings (in terms of culinary offer or spatial variety); the increasingly diverse and well-travelled Helsinki population appears to think the streets could be doing a lot more than they are, not least when it comes to empanadas, falafels and crépes. Who decides?

Seeing Ravintolapäivä as a city-wide pop-up, or a loose open network of pop-ups in toto, could give us another way of framing the pop-up, over and above the lines of least resistance. Perhaps if we see pop-ups as providing a sketchbook of possible cities, we can begin to unlock their potential. The science writer Steven Johnson has described the idea of the ‘adjacent possible’, the various alternatives that exist at any one point in time. Pop-ups provide a means for physically prototyping that adjacent possible environment, what a space could handle, what a street could be.

It’s easy to deride a pop-up street food festival as the same kind of activity that Wainwright described at Goldfinger’s Belfron Tower — a kind of ‘bread and circuses’ distraction, with an emphasis on the bread. Enjoyed primarily by Helsinki’s bourgeoisie, it would do little to change the food offer right across the city, or shift the quality of free school dinners upwards, say. Yet the challenge that Ravintolapäivä posed for the City of Helsinki was not what to do about this awkwardly popular semi-legal activity, but how to learn from it, how to absorb its dynamics into the core business of the city, such that the city adapted over time, yet in equitable, accessible fashion.

Seen in this way — as a sketch of what a street could be used for — it might provide a form of training wheels for a city administration beginning to deal with a far more heterogenous version of Helsinki than it had previously. This, then, could be a genuinely innovative pop-up, with spatial implications — yet only if the city government was able to see it as an ‘R&D’ activity that might suggest a more systemic change.

To paraphrase Daniel Kahnemann, this would require a kind of ‘fast and slow governance’ at the city level, rethinking planning and architecture in the civic plane.

‘Slow’ has a value — as in ‘slow food’, for instance, describing an ability not to be swayed by the vagaries of trends but instead cultivate an awareness of craft accreting over time, of social forms embedded in making. Yet in an culture which is increasingly alloyed to rapid technological change, ‘fast’ is also an important gearing to possess.

This would cast an architecture that practiced building as concerned with the ‘slow release’ functions of the long-term, of baking a set of social values into physical matter, making a virtue of the deliberate pace that provoked Koolhaas’s moan. Whereas architecture as practiced programmatic articulations of space, on existing built fabric, is concerned primarily with the faster cycles of cultural change.

Fast and slow. For instance, having quickly assessed Ravintolapäivä as a case study, SITRA’s Strategic Design Unit created a ‘not-a-cooking school’ called Open Kitchen, in response, working with both the City of Helsinki and local chefs. At Open Kitchen, selected Ravintolapäivä participants learned how to run a restaurant, how to locate organic food sources, how to fill in the City’s forms, how to obtain funding, and so on. These activities would set up a slow-release over the city, filling in the cross-hatched social spaces sketched out by Ravintolapäivä.

We had originally been planning (via my colleagues Bryan Boyer and Justin Cook) to design and deploy a food cart in Helsinki, as the ‘bow-wave’ of a more diverse local food culture embodied in the Low2No development. The organic development of Ravintolapäivä — and the unconnected yet simultaneous Camionette crêpes truck, documented here — meant we no longer had to do that. The ‘fast’ mode was taking care of itself; our job was to institute a more deliberate response, something that could take root in the city’s infrastructure, organisational and built.

In this way, SITRA built a form of cultural superstructure around Ravintolapäivä, attempting to absorb the conditions suggested by ‘Pop-up Restaurant Day’ into a set of more productive, systemic changes concerning food and the city, and indeed what the city’s streets could be used for. Open Kitchen was deliberately located in the city’s former abattoir, repurposed as a food culture hub, such that these fast social effects might also take hold in the slower format of a building, physically embodying these new cultures. Open Kitchen was an attempt to fold the value of fast one-offs into the slower habits of everyday city life.

As I wrote at the time:

“Low2No and Brickstarter are examples of how a strategic design approach might be useful in shaping governance cultures and behaviours, in creating newly productive interfaces between citizens and municipalities, in finding ways forward where there is no clear road map, no prior knowledge, too much analysis and not enough synthesis … we’re creating matter — in this case Open Kitchen — in order to flush out and shape dark matter. As I wrote in Dark Matter & Trojan Horses — where you can also perceive the seeds of Open Kitchen — this is about taking interventions, absorbing their strategic value, and making them deliver systemic change.”

So, in observing the emerging fast layers in the city, like street food pop-ups or civic crowdfunding platforms — and one’s eyes have to be open to even see them, importantly — the key question is how are particular and appropriate dynamics of those layers absorbed into slower layers of city administration or urban fabric, in order to create more effective, more equitable change within the city.

Could we reimagine the ‘clock speed’ of urban planning in this way, by actively interrogating when we are in slow mode or in fast mode? Planning Fast and Slow? If our ongoing urban research indicates productive non-building-related change, this could be working on a fast layer; and the response could be to work in an equally fast mode — via service layers, events, media and social infrastructure — or in a slow mode, via building and hard infrastructure, or fundamental organisational change. Both are required responses; knowing which mode you’re in might be key. So the implication is for a more multidisciplinary, holistic entity than the current divisions one sees in city government. (Duffy/Brand pace layers are useful here, as ever.)

Fast and slow social effects

Rory Hyde, in his essay in Esther Charlesworth’s book on humanitarian architecture, describes a higher-order function of architecture, well beyond the simple fact of building:

“What is architecture if not a medium for conveying social effects? Form and design are merely the means of embedding these social effects into the built environment, in order that they may continue to manifest over time. While mainstream architecture is distracted by its own images, humanitarian architecture offers an alternate example of an architecture that repositions form and design as secondary to the production of these social effects.”

If this is where architecture is, or perhaps should be, then can we see pop-ups and pavilions as providing a form of R&D for architecture itself, as well as for the city? To borrow from Hyde, what social effects are being produced during Ravintolapäivä, and how?

Assessing Ravintolapäivä through this lens, we see that there is much for architecture to do. There is a clear relationship between the street, between co-opted spaces, with temporary structures, with communication technologies, with transient formations of communities of interest and propinquity, and with a wide variety of cultural activity enabled by all of the above. In other words, with experimentation in social effects, in space, in place.

Here is a pop-up activity which offers a meaningful role for architecture — in learning from its dynamics and carefully folding them into the city’s ‘dark matter’ in order to enable a more equitable and powerful systemic change. Stewart Brand and others have noted the fast and slow layers within buildings, and architecture’s traditional role in orchestrating them, fundamentally important in previous decades. Here is a chance for architecture to discover a valuable role for orchestrating fast and slow layers of social effects in an age often beyond the simple fact of building.

Perhaps ‘slower buildings’ remain a platform for the slower layers of social production, and ‘faster buildings’ (pop-ups and pavilions) are a platform for exploring faster social effects? The challenge for architects is to move seamlessly from one to the other, from fast to slow.

With this richer recasting of architecture in mind, the pavilion and the pop-up may continue to provide the opportunity for R&D for the practice of architecture, as well as being an open sketchbook for the city itself.


Ed. An edited version of this essay was published in:

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish Government’s innovation agency.. Visiting prof at UCL Bartlett IIPP & RMIT &c.

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses

Articles, cases and considerations regarding strategic design practice and thinking.

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