Festive string lights above picnic tables; bratwurst, pretzels, and kraut; hefty steins of rare beers; and an unmistakable feeling of gemütlichkeit: welcome to San Francisco’s Biergarten, among the many attractions at Proxy, a vibrant pop-up enclave in Hayes Valley. Composed of three vacant lots, Proxy is the brainchild of Douglas Burnham, principal of Envelope Architecture & Design, and its tagline—“Here for now”—captures the project’s ephemeral nature; it is meant to disband in the next few years as the lots are commercially developed. Handsome gray-blue shipping containers hold a coffee bar and an artisanal-ice-cream parlor (choose your flavor and liquid nitrogen freezes the custard, lickety-split) while a big red wagon offers grass-fed meats as well as fish on Fridays to a particularly San Franciscan mix of hipsters, families, and just about anybody. They come for a changing array of exhibitions, educational programs, and entertainment—from knot-tying workshops to outdoor cinema—all of which give the place a wonderfully dynamic yet unprecious atmosphere.
Proxy joins a rising tide of pop-up urbanism worldwide that has to do with places that occupy areas in ways that are unexpected and generally linked to the vicissitudes of real estate. The latest wave of pop-up retail—whose recent manifestations include Hermès’s shoe boutique on the Rue de Sèvres, in Paris, and HWKN’s cubes for Uniqlo—offers structures, spaces, and activities that last…for a while. By comparison with outlets that aim for permanence (and cost considerably more), the projects grant designers, as well as retailers and other clients, freedom to experiment. Step into a great one and you’re walking into an improvised space that’s dialed in to the local vibe.
One of the early proponents of pop-up architecture was Platoon Cultural Development. This agency formed in Berlin in 2000, after reunification, when areas of the city were open to reinvention. Taking over a warehouse, Platoon showcased under-the-radar talent through parties, performances, book launches, and the hybrid sport of chess-boxing. In 2009, Platoon produced a project in Seoul; composed of 28 shipping containers, the Platoon Kunsthalle Seoul supported, according to cofounder Christoph Frank, “the kinds of things we did in Berlin but in ways that are more professional and not as weather-dependent.”
Shipping containers—the ultimate expression of globalization and temporariness—have given form to other pop-up environments, including several designed by the New York studio Lot-ek, pioneers in the treatment of these crates as objects of spatial research. Their Puma City project was designed to move through standard shipping networks; the 24-container mobile retail structure has so far traveled to Tianjin, China; Alicante, Spain; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Boston.
A container-like structure made of more precious materials appeared on the roof of Paris’s Palais de Tokyo from 2009 to 2011. Conceived by artist Laurent Grasso, Nomiya was named for a type of micro-restaurant found in Japan. The gorgeous glass box contained an open kitchen screened by perforated metal panels and a single table for 12. Colored LED lights gave the floating pavilion a shimmering nocturnal presence, while interior lamps evoked the sparkle of the nearby Eiffel Tower. Another rooftop restaurant, the Cube by Electrolux, appeared in Brussels and Milan last year and was found atop London’s Royal Festival Hall this summer. Restaurants with end dates force diners to plan ahead; in fact, with the exception of London, you’re already too late.
Animated by a different set of priorities, the Greenhouse by Joost went to a waterfront site near Sydney’s Opera House for a six-week run. The structure arrived in seven shipping containers and took three weeks to assemble. Designer Joost Bakker aimed to emphasize sustainable practices, with produce grown on the roof and cooking oil reused as biodiesel. This was pop-up as eco-chic.
If Nomiya and the Greenhouse mark two poles—one sensuous, the other activist—a similar spectrum connects two ephemeral art spaces. The Mobile Art Chanel Contemporary Art Container, designed by Zaha Hadid as a showcase for artists inspired by the Chanel bag, was unveiled at the Venice Art Biennale; the lavish structure touched down in Hong Kong and New York, then Paris. A very different project, the BMW Guggenheim Lab, began its global tour in New York’s East Village last year. Conceived by curators David van der Leer and Maria Nicanor, this think tank and community center slid into a sliver of land between two tenements. The carbon-fiber structure sheltered an open-air “living room” for workshops and events, and even public toilets, creating a sense of community and utility. Designed by Tokyo’s Atelier Bow-Wow, the structure can be dismantled for transport; it has since moved to Berlin, and will continue on to Mumbai next year.
Mobile safari camps and temporary tented hotels have been around for generations, but the semipermanent hotel—for now at least—is perhaps the most extreme example of the pop-up phenomenon. Design Hotels’ buzzy Papaya Playa Project recently appeared on a beach near Tulum, Mexico, with 85 cabanas and casitas and a restaurant. Last summer, the company’s second pop-up, the 34-room San Giorgio Mykonos, opened on the Greek island’s Paradise Beach.
These structures, whatever forms they take, offer a sense of the improbable: things crop up where they don’t quite belong. They add a feeling of discovery to even the most familiar places. You’ll know you’ve found one when a pool, gallery, hotel, or beer garden appears right in front of you. Just don’t assume it will be there forever.
Henry Urbach is director of the Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut.