Pop-up Architecture: 10 Questions With Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio

Coachella is here. The spring and summer festival season is officially upon us. With festival season comes festival architecture - pop-ups and other temporary installations that are experiential, unexpected, and thought-provoking. Installations like Coachella 2015's Pulp Pavilion by Ball-Nogues Studio. Benjamin Ball is lead artist and principal in charge at Ball-Nogues and one of the masterminds behind Coachella's Pulp Pavilion. In a recent interview, Benjamin Ball discussed the Pulp Pavilion, the pop-up architecture trend, and its lasting impact long beyond its physical lifespan.

1. What are your views on pop-up architecture?

Pop-up is typically used to describe a commercial entity that is a temporary outpost; the pop-up Commes des Garcones store, the Nike store, etc. This doesn’t acknowledge, in a meaningful way, some of the bigger cultural topics raised by what I’d call temporary architecture. I think that pop-up is a term that’s been used by marketing departments to characterize fleeting and temporary places of commerce - and spectacle maybe. But the history of the temporary environment is much richer, and deeper, and more meaningful than just commerce.

There is common ground between the history of installation art and this trend - sculpture has found some common ground with architecture. Installations sometimes get the “pop-up”  label. But I would also ask is something like Occupy Wall Street is pop-up? Is a refugee camp pop-up? Are the tent cities outside of Mecca during the Hajj pop-up? In my view they are all temporary spaces and shelters that are important to consider.

2. Do you personally classify your work as “pop-up”?

No, we don’t use the term, at least not in the commercial sense that I outlined - but we have done some pop up marketing. We did an event for Tiffany to celebrate the launch of Frank Gehry’s jewelry line. It was an environment that was designed to exist for a three-hour party. In contrast, we’ve also done temporary projects that provided opportunities to explore a new design and production process, a particular quality of space, or make a social comment. 

3. Do you feel that pop-up culture represents the masses or does it have indie credibility?

I think it can do both. It comes down to the intentions of the person who are designing and commissioning the work. Marketing people use the visions of artists, designers, and architects because they’re trying to hitch a ride on an idea of authenticity . But that is quite different from someone who does an anarchic intervention in the middle of Berlin as a form of political protest or social commentary. The work might look the same, but they couldn’t be more different in terms of the intent of the authors.

4. Can you tell me about the Pulp pavilion commission for Coachella 2015? What were Goldenvoice’s goals? What were your goals?

Goldenvoice’s goal was to commission a shaded environment that also contributes to the phantasmagorical playground they were making between the performance stages. Our goal aligned with theirs but we also wanted to explore a process of building that hinged on recycled, paper as a material and the particular types of structure that we could make with it. We wanted to scale up our pulped paper process to the scale of architecture.  What would it mean to structure, logistics, aesthetics to use the process of spraying paper pulp?  We also wanted to see if we could take a post-consumer waste product, build with it, and then dispose of it in a way that was less impactful than some of the materials and processes that have been used to construct other pop-up environments.

Photo via Inhabitat

5. Is it difficult to see your creations come down after such a short period of time?

In the case of last year’s Coachella project, taking it down - and the unique way in which it could be disposed of - was an idea that we wanted to broadcast. The project had broader goals than just making an exuberant structure in the desert. The project is, of course, the shade pavilion as it existed during the festival, but also the process of its making and how the pavilion disappears after the festival is over. We’re designing the disappearance of a project as well as its physical characteristics

6. Does the value of architecture change if longevity or durability is no longer a measure of great architecture?

Not necessarily. I think it’s a good question that begs a somewhat complex answer. The monetary value of a temporary event structure, for say Coachella, is less than a building of comparable size - in most cases. It requires less energy and resources to build a temporary structure. In a strictly financial sense, it’s less valuable. However, architecture impacts culture in ways beyond just physical buildings. Architecture is drawings, models, publications, academic journals, discussions, and, of course buildings - it’s a cultural discourse. So if temporary architecture can expand that discourse then it’s got value. If temporary architecture can embody ideas that ripple through the discourse of architecture and beyond then it has significant value. 

7. What do you attribute the emergence of pop up architecture trend to?

Taking the commercial trend as an example, I think that it’s a low risk investment that can yield big results within the media scape. It can reach a lot of people because it arrives unexpectedly and often delivers and experience that buildings can’t. It is fleeting; it captures the imagination of the public like fashion. That’s difficult to achieve with a building. And in the end, the temporary structure might have as long a lifespan, in the media-scape as an image, as a building might

8. Do you think the great recession had an effect on it?

I do. In 2008 we started to see a lot more of this kind of stuff. These things tend to have their own trajectory but the pop-up phenomenon started happening a lot more at that time. One could argue that it was an outgrowth of resource-strapped marketing departments. 

9. Logistically and politically,  is it easier or harder to build pop-up architecture as opposed to permanent structures?

It’s hard to compare the two. I could make a proposal for a temporary project that ruffles feathers, right? So, no matter how inexpensive a project is, if it’s going to piss people off because it is in public view that could be a real challenge. I could be arrested or the project rejected - so in that sense it could be more difficult to do pop-up. But the same could be said of a permanent building; it could be challenging from a technical standpoint, it could be challenging from a regulatory standpoint, it could be challenging from a political standpoint.

10. Is pop up architecture the solution to reinvigorate blighted or under-developed areas?

It’s happening all the time. It happens in Detroit, it happens in LA, it happens in Berlin. It has become an accepted tool for catalyzing redevelopment. Sometimes I’ll see an art installation in a blighted area that’s intended to bring the community together; after a while somebody does another one and then it becomes a cool, desirable area and then you have developers commissioning the artists but the intentions of the developers and artists and architects are often quite different. It’s an interesting question, but I don’t know if there’s a simple answer. I think pop-up can be effective in calling attention to blighted areas, but the impact of that attention can be spun in different ways. It could strengthen a community but it could also help erase it.