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Temporary City: the ephemeral in the permanent

The architecture and the contemporary city are living an “eternal present”, without innovations and substantial renewals, now enslaved by past beliefs that do not allow a real revolution.

One of these beliefs turns out to be the idea of Permanence.

Through two temporary cities – kumbh Mela and Burning Man Festival – a process of analysis opens up to question the concept of permanence as the only possible configuration of cities.

“Time is the first architecture that man gave himself in order to dwell.” 

Umberto Galimberti

The image of the city from the temporal point of view can be summarized by only one term: Permanence. Architecture, according to the common imaginary, should tend to be durable in time, almost eternal and immutable.
The “eternal” city as a whole of constructions and infrastructures however is composed of several ephemeral realities that are rise and fall in a short time, but that collaborate to create a totality, which on a macroscopic level turns out to be permanent.

To analyze the temporary city allows to read the urban space in a different way, especially in a contemporaneity in which the act of the planning forecast struggles to find meaning. The ephemeral invites the architect to a continuous research in his discipline and in the role of project, not opposing the permanent, but feeding it in the renewal.
Space can thus become an instrument capable of responding to and adapting to continuous change.
The ephemeral architecture is an integral part of every city, but it is superfluous when compared to permanent buildings.
The contemporary scene, however, has seen the birth of some transitory realities but characterized by a great intensity, such as participation and extension.

This is the case of temporary cities born out of needs of rebellion towards contemporary society such as the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, and for religious anniversaries such as the Kumbh Mela in India.

The ephemeral begins to acquire importance in the architectural panorama during the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2016, with the theme “Reporting from the front”. This was possible thanks to a research project by the architects rahul mehrotra and Felipe Vera, entitled “Ephemeral urbanism: cities in constant flux”.
The analysis of cities in a constant flow is focused on the largest religious gathering in the world, namely the Kumbh Mela. With over 120 million participants, it is the world’s largest temporary metropolis. Celebrated every three years at four different sites in rotation and every twelve years in Allahabad, this religious Hindu festival is celebrated in the place where according to tradition, some drops of the sacred nectar of immortality fell from a pitcher (kumbh) disputed between Gods and Demons.

This year the event took place in the city of Allahabad, which, from 15 January to 4 March, hosted, in cycles of 24 hours, from 10 to 30 million people queuing even for days for having the opportunity to bathe for a few moments in the Triveni Sangam, that is the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamunas and Saraswati, sacred and invisible river.
In just three months a temporary settlement is built that acts in all its aspects as a real city, roads, floating bridges, tents and social infrastructure such as hospitals and clinics are built.

As a temporary city, the kumbh Mela undergoes a continuous transformation succeeding in reconciling a preordained planning with a spontaneous approach of the community.
Unlike other temporary realities characterized by identity-free planning, in this temporary Indian city the shape of space takes place according to the internal norms of religious communities: each sector thus acquires the form that best expresses the identity of each individual community.

The grid used in the planning of the ephemeral metropolis thus promotes democratic self-expression. The individual need to redesign the space is very evident during the event, regardless of whether the settlement will be later dismantled.
Urban design, however, not only affects residential space, but also coordinates different levels of services such as electricity, water, transport and sewage.
Unlike the permanent cities, here there is a soft infrastructure, easy to transport and dismantle without the use of heavy machinery, which allows the recycling of most materials and their reintroduction into the economy of the area.
Within this megalopolis, nothing in the organization is left to chance, even the flows of pilgrims that at first glance seem as spontaneous paths are actually the result of regulated processes, also through the use of technology in recent years.
This successful example of urban planning, which covers 32 km2 of area, tells a lot about planning, traffic management and rapid plant use, but also about cultural identity, adjustment and elasticity for both temporary and permanent realities.

Not only does religion have the strength to create genuine temporary cities.

Since 1991 every year in the last week of August, in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, appears a real city that disappears eight days later without a trace.
The Black Rock City, the temporary city that hosts the Burning Man Festival, is perfectly organized both from an urban and an administrative point of view.

Unlike today’s population centers, this city is constantly expanding, to the point of occupying, in ten years, 5 square miles that allow to host around 70,000 people.
Like every other city, Black Rock City has, since 1997, a real urban plan that changing year by year has come to define the current layout of the camp.

Thirteen concentric roads (avenues) make up two thirds of a circle with a maximum diameter of 2.4 km. Along the middle line of the camp there is the main road, called Esplanade, which connects all the strategic points of the city: the Center Camp, which hosts most of the city’s institutions, and The Man, the symbol around which the entire festival develops. The latter is a statue with human features made of wood, which every year assumes different forms, most of the times making them vary in height. To date the highest achieved reaches 32 meters. As a central element of the event, it is burned on the last day as a sign of the end of the festival.
In addition to this, however, many of the other wooden buildings located in La Playa, including The Temple, are set on fire. This is definitely the “spiritual” point of reference of Burning Man, its structure varies every year depending on the theme chosen, which until last year was chosen by Larry Harvey, founder of the event, who died in April 2018.

The theme, in addition to guiding the choice of The Temple and The Man, influences every artistic installation present.
In 2018 the chosen theme was “I, Robot” that led to the realization of the temple “Galaxia”, a very complex wooden parametric structure, so much to lead the organizers to choose for this year a more simple and minimal temple called “The Temple of Direction” inspired by Japanese sanctuaries, guided by the theme “Metamorphoses”.

The most scenographic aspect of the festival is represented by the numerous art installations, which invite to participate and interact as in fact everything within the Black Rock City.
This city, however, is not only made up of immovable structures, but there is a strong presence of mutant vehicles with post-apocalyptic appearance, which together with bicycles, are the only means of transport within the camp.
What makes Burning Man Festival unique, however, are the people who live it, in fact the districts that make up the city are self-generated by participants with similar interests who gather in small villages that give life to the city in its entirety.

Just like a real city, it is guided by some guidelines that represent the philosophical and cultural reflection of the community, the 10 principles: Radical Inclusion, all are welcome without distinction; Gift, within the camp is allowed to use money but there is an economy based on gift and, even if discouraged, barter; Demercification, there are no commercial sponsorships or advertisements in the event and cash are allowed only for coffee and ice; Radical self-sufficiency, participants must bring all the necessary to allow them independence and survival for the duration of the festival; Radical self-expression, everyone can express himself as he or she believes also through art forms and clothing; Joint effort, participants are encouraged to help others; Civic responsibility, all events must be in accordance with local, state and federal laws; Without leaving a trace, respect the environment by committing to leave no physical trace at the end of the event and trying to leave the place better than it was; Participation, people are encouraged to participate, rather than observe, in every area of the city; Immediacy, that is the immediate experience trying to overcome the barriers imposed by today’s culture.

These characteristics make Burning Man Festival, a real temporary city, almost utopian, able to oppose the idea of a permanent city and the problems that this entails.

By analyzing the two examples of ephemeral cities, there are constant aspects that characterize them: not leave trace once concluded, trying to recycle as much as possible the materials used; the need for self-expression, creating spaces with strong cultural identities, and finally the continuous transformation, that is a constantly changing planning.
Through the study of these short-term realities, it is therefore spontaneous to ask oneself the reason for today’s design immobility, which has always been contrary to human nature.

Is architecture, today, still driven by the will to experiment or is it lost dazzled by money?

Translated into English by Berk Ozturk.

– Luca Reale, Federica Fava e Juan Lòpez Cano, Spazi d’Artificio: Dialoghi sulla città temporanea, Quodlibet, 2016.

Burning Man Festival,, date of consultation 19/04/2019.

– John Marx, Burning Man: A spiritual journey, Abitare, March 2018, date of consultation 19/04/2019.

– Rahul Mehrotra, Felipe Vera, Stefano Andreani, Megalopoli istantanea, Domus N.1033, March 2019, date of consultation 18/04/2019.

– Federica Portanova, Ephemeral Urbanism. Il ruolo dell’effimero nella città,; last modified 03/08/2016, date of consultation 18/04/2019.

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Simone Bianchi Administrator
Born in 1994. Graduated student in Architecture Sciences at the University of Genoa. He currently attends the Polytechnic of Milan where he continues his studies. Also passionate about travel and electronic music.
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