Field Note

Impermanence as an Urban Design Strategy

Rahul Mehrotra

Today, the scale and emergent patterns of contemporary urbanization challenge the notion of permanence and material configurations as the default condition for cities. Rubrics like informality have meanwhile become counterproductive as they also implicitly aspire to new processes, protocols, and formulations in imagining permanence. Does permanence as the sole instrument in urban imaginaries really matter? For a majority of people on this planet, permanence is not affordable and obviously does not really matter in their daily existence. What does this then mean for architecture and cities that are invariably about endurance? Architecture, as the basic unit of urbanism, seems to be obsessed with the idea of the city as the centralizing spectacle driving the inherent impatience of capital. Currently, this is the most predominantly practiced disciplinary focus. After all, the very notion of sustainability literally translates to the idea of perpetuating the current state of things. To “sustain” suggests the ability to maintain. Thus, for architects, permanence becomes our default condition or aspiration.

However, today on this planet, ephemeral landscapes of spontaneous pop-up settlements are constantly increasing in scale and confronting the notion of “the city” as a stable and permanent entity. In response to this condition is an emerging discussion about how the discourse around urbanism would benefit by dissolving the binary setup between the ephemeral and stable components in cities. For, when cities are analysed over large temporal spans, ephemerality emerges as an important condition in the life cycle of every built environment. Ephemeral urbanism as an idea acknowledges the need for re examining permanent solutions as the only mode for the formulation of urban imaginaries, instead imagining new protocols that are constantly reformulated, readapted, and reprojected in an iterative search for a temporary equilibrium that reacts to a permanent state of crises. The recognition of ephemeral landscapes and ways of articulating the built environment will inform this imagination of the simultaneous validity of both temporal and permanent urbanism in various dimensions but question permanence and stability as default conditions. But more importantly, seriously interrogating the notion of impermanence will help us recognize the potential of these discussions for being productive in constructing a new imaginary to produce sustainable urban environments that endure in the future.

Rahul Mehrotra is a professor of urban design and planning and the John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is the founder and principal of RMA Architects, which has studios in Mumbai and Boston. RMA Architects was founded in 1990 and has designed and executed projects for government and private institutions, corporate workplaces, and private homes, as well as unsolicited projects driven by the firm’s commitment to advocacy in the city of Mumbai.