Excerpt from The Kinetic City & Other Essays: The Permanent and Ephemeral by Rahul Mehrotra

Book cover of Mehrotra’s “The Kinetic City & Other Essays”

The Kinetic City & Other Essays is the latest book from Rahul Mehrotra, Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design and John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Published by ArchiTangle, the book presents a selection of Mehrotra’s writings from the last three decades and illustrates his long-term engagement with urbanism in India. Through the essays, Mehrotra describes how the emerging urban condition in India represents the “Kinetic City”—opposing the “Static City” of conventional city maps—by being “perceived, read, and mapped in terms of patterns of occupation and associative values attributed to space.” 

On November 29, 2021 at 12:30pm ET, join Mehrotra on Zoom for a discussion of The Kinetic City & Other Essays as part of the Frances Loeb Library’s faculty colloquium series. Dean Sarah M. Whiting will moderate the event. Register for the online talk.

The Permanent and Ephemeral:
What Does This Mean for Urbanism?

by Rahul Mehrotra, originally published in The Kinetic City & Other Essays

Cities have largely been imagined by architects and planners as permanent entities – artefacts where architecture and planning are the central instruments for their manifestation. Today, this basic assumption stands challenged on three counts. Firstly, because of the massive scale of the “informalization” of cities where urban space is constructed and configured outside the formal purview of the State – a phenomenon that has engulfed the globe in the last four decades. Secondly, on account of the massive shifts in demography occurring around the world. The phenomenon of the movement of large groups of people across national boundaries as a result of political instability will only be accelerated by climate change, the depletixon and imbalance of natural resources or the rise of natural disasters. Lastly, the assumption that permanence is a default condition or the single instrument to imagine our cities is further complicated, albeit in positive ways, by the fact that in recent years, there has been an extraordinary intensification of pilgrimage practices as well as celebration and political congregations of all kinds globally, which have consequently translated into the need for larger and more frequently constructed temporal structures and settlements for hosting massive gatherings.

The combination of these factors should prompt us to rethink the assumption or notion of permanence in our response to the ever-shifting conditions of urbanism around the world. Like the “informalization” of the city, which results in temporary auto-constructed environments, natural disasters and changes in climatic conditions are also turning temporary shelters, extended with increasing frequency into camps or settlements, into holding strategies or short-term solutions.

Book spread featuring the essay "The Permanent and Ephemeral." The background is an urban scene from above with a pink filter.
Spread from The Kinetic City and Other Essays. Courtesy of ArchiTangle

There are numerous examples of such temporary occupation in response to natural catastrophes and environmental threats, such as those recently seen in the Philippines, Haiti and Chile, along with several other cases of temporary cities built in the context of disaster. Furthermore, political tensions in many places around the globe contribute to the displacement of people from their places of origin and fuel tremendous ecologies of refugee camps. The flux will continue to accelerate given the general inequity and imbalance of resources that have disrupted and brutally dislocated communities and nations across the globe. Extreme examples of humanitarian spaces hosting stateless persons and asylum seekers are the refugee camps located in Ivory Coast, which accommodate more than nine hundred thousand refugees, mostly from Liberia but also from other adjacent locations. However, the most striking cases are those of Dabaad in north-eastern Kenya, which accommodates almost five hundred thousand people, the Breidjing camps in Chad, home to two hundred thousand people, and several camps in Sri Lanka holding three hundred thousand people displaced during the decade-long civil war.

Startlingly, these camps only hold a small fraction of the forty-five million people who, according to the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, are currently displaced around the world and living in temporary structures. At the other end of the spectrum, cultural and religious celebrations are also on the rise. Increasing in scale as well as frequency, they too lead to the erection of temporary structures within and outside urban areas.

Extreme examples of temporary religious cities are the ephemeral constructions set up for the Hajj, as well as a series of temporary cities constructed in India to host celebrations like the Durga Puja, Ganesh Chaturthi or Kumbh Mela – a religious pilgrimage, which according to official figures, draws congregations of over one hundred million people.

Extensive music festivals like Exit in Serbia, Coachella in California or Sziget in Budapest also lead to the construction of extended ephemeral settlements to house large groups of people together for short periods. Festivals range from relatively small gatherings, like the Burning Man in Nevada or Fuji Rock in Japan, where around forty thousand people gather to enjoy music and celebratory events, to three hundred fifty thousand people flocking to musical events like Glastonbury in England, Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and Werchter in Belgium.

These examples could be expanded to include many others, such as the temporary cities built on mining, oil drilling or forestry sites where natural resources are exploited. The Yanacocha mine in Peru, for example, employs over ten thousand people who live in temporary housing. Other mining communities like the Maritsa Iztok mines in Bulgaria, the Motru Coal mine in Romania, or the Chuquicamata, Salvador and Pelambres sites in the north of Chile generate completely different sorts of temporary settlements on account of the different time spans involved, adding a further degree of complexity. Here, large-scale operations have modified the topography of a landscape, albeit temporarily, on a territorial scale with the attendant environmental consequences.

The lifecycle of these temporary cities lasts as long as the resources being mined, and so have a known or predictable date of expiry. The operative question is thus: Can temporary landscapes play a critical “transitionary” role in this process of flux that the planet will experience evermore frequently? This contemporary condition, coupled with the rampant expansion of the influence of global capital and the colonization of land on the peripheries of cities, is locking the globe into unsustainable forms of urbanism, where fossil fuel dependence in combination with isolationist trends of gated communities for the rich are creating a polarity that will become harder to reverse.

So, while cities grow in the formal imagination of governments and patrons, the proliferation of the informal city is amplified in magnitude as never before! Is there a role for urban design in addressing these questions? Can we as architects and planners challenge the assumption that Permanence matters?

The city in flux is a global phenomenon. In several cities around the world, the postindustrial scenario has given rise to a new system where living and working have become extremely fragmented. The locations of jobs and places of living are no longer interrelated in the predictable fashion when job locations were centralized. In today’s networked economies, these patterns are not only fragmented but in flux and constantly reconfiguring.

This results in the fragmentation of the structure of the city itself and its form, where the notion of clear zoning or predictable and implementable land-use all break down into a much more multifaceted imagination of how the city is used and operates. It is an urbanism created by those outside the élite domains of the formal modernity of the State. It is what the Indian scholar Ravi Sundaram refers to as a “pirate” modernity that slips under the laws of the city to simply survive, without any conscious attempt at constructing a counter-culture.

Yet, this phenomenon of flux is critical to cities and nations connected to the global economy; however, the spaces thus created have been largely excluded from the cultural discourse on globalization, which focuses on élite domains of production in the city. They are spaces that have been below the radar of most architects and planners, who focus on the traditionally defined public realm. Yet within these confines, the very meaning of space is in flux and ever changing. It cannot only be defined as the city of the poor, nor can it be contained within the regular models of the formal and informal, and other such binaries. Rather it is a kinetic space where these models collapse into singular entities and where meanings are ever shifting and blurred.

The questions this raises are as follows: Can we design for this space as urban designers and planners? Can we design with a divided mind? Can other forms of organizations be embedded in our concept of the city and, if so, how do we recognize and embed these in the formal discourse on urban design? This is not an argument for making our cities temporary but rather one of recognizing the temporary as an integral part of the city and seeing whether it can be encompassed within urban design – in terms of urban form, public spaces, and governance structures.

Framing this phenomenon of flux under the rubric of “ephemeral urbanism” is perhaps to create a more inspirational category than the binary of the formal and informal city, for it implies the transitional rather than the transformative or the absolute. Furthermore, as designers we tend to observe and organize the world around us in binaries such as the rich and poor, the state and private enterprise, or the formal and informal city.

While these are productive as categories to describe the world, they do not seem to serve design operations productively because they force urban designers to occupy and advocate one or the other world articulated in the binary. Urban design, on the other hand, is about design synthesis and dissolving and resolving contestations through spatial arrangements.

So, what then is the role of urban design in this condition? Most certainly, this flux is the new normal. In addition, the spurts of growth and flux triggered by natural and political uncertainty are going to challenge our reading of the urban condition and the role of urban design. J. B. Jackson in his book Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984) and writing about North America highlighted the importance of what he called the third landscape – the landscape of cyclic events. He stressed that the first landscape was one of mobility: of the early colonial vernacular cultures, which preferred mobility, adaptability, and transitory qualities; of the short-lived tents and log cabins – a landscape that characterized North America before Jefferson’s classical farm villages appeared, he added.

These settlements of the decomposable (equivalents of which exist in every culture) are what Jackson brought to our attention. This mobile ephemeral landscape was replaced by another landscape, which “impressed upon us the notion that there can only be […] a landscape identified with a very static, very conservative social order” found in most of contemporary North American and European – and now perhaps Chinese – cityscapes. The people in this landscape, he argued, feel isolated from one another even though they work and live closely together. Thus, he implicitly argued for the “third” landscape where the ephemeral and the temporary can be instilled in the landscape of static objects to create richer social interaction. It is a landscape in flux and temporary, serving specific needs on a sometimes predictable timescale. The circus, the farmers’ market, and the festival, for example, are suddenly moments where different parts of society are made aware of their own existence within the urban system.

The ephemeral obviously has much to teach us about planning and design. In fact, the ephemeral city represents an entire surrogate urban ecology that grows and disappears on an often extremely tight, temporal scale. In short, this notion of the ephemeral as a productive category within the larger discourse on urbanism deserves serious consideration. For in reality, when cities are analyzed over large temporal spans, ephemerality emerges as an important condition in the life cycle of every built environment.

Peter Bishop and Lesley Williams recently asked: Given overwhelming evidence that cities are a complex overlay of buildings and activities that are, in one way or another, temporary, why have urbanists been so focused on permanence? The aim of broadening the rubric is a way of starting to assemble evidence that could give us some material to move toward a more open urbanism – open in the way Richard Sennett describes it, which in a city means being incomplete, errant, antagonistic, and non-linear.

The issues that could be negotiated in this form of urban practice are therefore as diverse as memory, geography, infrastructure, sanitation, public health governance, ecology, and urban form, albeit in some measure temporary. These parameters could unfold their projective potential, offering alternatives of how to embed softer but perhaps more robust systems in more permanent cities.

Andrea Branzi advises us on how to think of cities of the future. He suggests that we need to learn to implement reversibility, avoiding rigid solutions and definitive decisions. He also suggests approaches that allow space to be adjusted and reprogrammed with new activities not foreseen and not necessary planned.

Thus, architecture and urban design as a practice must acknowledge the need for re-examining permanent solutions as the only mode for the formulation of urban imaginaries, and instead imagine new protocols that are constantly reformulated, readapted, and re-projected in an iterative search for a temporary equilibrium that reacts to a permanent state of crises.

Furthermore, the growing attention that environmental and ecological issues have garnered in urban discourses, articulated through the anxiety surrounding the recent emergence of landscape as a model for urbanism, has evidenced that we need to evolve more nuanced discussions for the city and its urban form in the broadest sense. The physical structure of cities around the globe is evolving, morphing, mutating, and becoming more malleable, more fluid, and more open to change than the technology and social institutions that generated them.

Today, urban environments face ever-increasing flows of human movement, accelerating the frequency of natural disasters and iterative economic crises, which in the process modify streams of capital and their allocation as physical components of cities. As a consequence, urban settings are required to be more flexible in order to be better able to respond to, organize, and resist external and internal pressures. At a time in which change and the unexpected are omnipresent, urban attributes like reversibility and openness seem critical elements for thinking about the articulation of a more sustainable form of urban development.

Therefore, in contemporary urbanism around the world, it is becoming clearer that for cities to be sustainable, as both Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett have pointed out, they also need to resemble and facilitate active fluxes in motion rather than be limited by static material configurations.

This expanded version of the practice of urbanism that embraces rubrics such as the “ephemeral” presents a compelling vision that enables us to better understand the blurred lines of contemporary urbanism – both spatial and temporary – and the agency of people in shaping spaces in urban society. Thus, to engage in this discussion, the exploration of temporary landscapes opens up a potent avenue for questioning permanence as a univocal solution for the urban conditions.

One could instead argue that the future of cities depends less (or completely, as in the case of the city beautiful movement) on the rearrangement of buildings and infrastructure and more on the ability of architects and urban designers to openly imagine more malleable, technological, material, social, and economic landscapes.

That is, to imagine a city form that recognizes and better handles the temporary and elastic nature of the contemporary and emergent built environment with more effective strategies for managing change as an essential element for the construction of the urban environment.

The challenge is then learning from these extreme conditions how to manage and negotiate different layers of the urban while accommodating emergent needs and the often largely neglected parts of urban society. The aspiration would then be to imagine a more flexible practice of architecture and planning more aligned with emergent realities that would enable us to deal with more complex scenarios than those of static, or stable environments constructed to create an illusion of permanence.

I would like to thank Felipe Vera and acknowledge the many essays we have written together on the subject of Ephemeral Urbanism. Naturally those have influenced this essay. And to Ricky Burdett for the development of some of these ideas.