Only Temporary?

 

Rabid Hands art intervention at Hawthorne Hall; the structure is built from collapsing ceiling lath | Photo: Peter Woodall

Rabid Hands art intervention at Hawthorne Hall; the structure is built from collapsing ceiling lath | Photo: Peter Woodall

Across the city, as I write, artists and volunteers are busy cleaning and fixing otherwise locked-away spaces in preparation for the Hidden City Festival. Electrical lines are being installed as needed, generators hooked up, emergency lighting wired in, doors and windows fixed–oceans of coffee and Mountain Dew are keeping the whole operation going. At almost every site, the artists are erecting intricate sets-rooms-sculptures-buildings, in some cases utilizing materials and objects found on site.

They are building miniature–temporary–worlds.

And not just at our nine sites. On South Broad Street, a team of garden designers is finishing up transforming the ever evolving vacant lot across from the Kimmel Center into a beer garden and casual outdoor meeting space and restaurant that will open May 29. The work on the lot is strikingly elaborate, even though it will only remain until October. You really can’t half-ass a restaurant, or a garden, if you want it to capture people’s imagination.

We’ve become quite accustomed to spending a great deal of effort, and energy, on these kinds of temporary installations; their constant churn flavors our lives and like street fairs and festivals–this coming weekend is packed with them–they expand our sense of place.

But it is also quite apparent that in this era of shrunken expectations and shriveled budgets, and the enduring privatization of wealth, we can’t seem to build anything big or permanent or lasting. Great plans sweep across my inbox for transit expansion–the charm of walking from Pattison Station to the Navy Yard is wearing off–covering a section of Interstate 95 for the long anticipated reconnection of the river and the city, for finally building out the 30th Street rail yards, the lower Schuylkill, the airport, the port…and how much of this will really happen?

The prevailing notion is that under these circumstances you do what you can; small interventions can and do sometimes lead to eventual transformative change. This philosophy underlies the Hidden City Festival; our hope is that by animating latent sites it is possible to catalyze change. Big, permanent infrastructure projects anyway deliver mixed results: they get mired in corruption and laden with bureaucratic waste and they aren’t nimble–projects decades in the making can’t easily adjust to demographic change.

And all things, even the permanent things, are ephemeral; why kid ourselves?

Still though, we desire immortality. It’s why we still build in brick even as material scientists in our own city are inventing new building forms and fabrics: brick seems indestructible. It also represents a tactile connection to our history. A city in a certain sense is the collision of the permanent and temporary, big ideas and small lives, the girth of centuries and glimmer of the moment. We need both of course–in some kind of effective balance–in order to survive.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



2 Comments


  1. Interesting and sobering reflection. The sooner people realize that the US is not the great world power we think we are, and that we can barely even keep our infrastructure from falling down completely, let alone intelligently expand it, the sooner we can start looking for answers. Our delusion is our downfall. At this rate, we’re doing to have a large army and shitty-at-best services and infrastructure for citizens, leaving us basically like a third world dictatorship. Sadly, this goes for whether the Democrats control congress/the presidency or the Republicans.

  2. As you allude, they seem like different categories, the guerrilla-flavored installation, the full-blown city-changing project, the difference hinging on scale, expense, and bureaucratic intricacies. We hope that the first category might variously inform, augment, critique, or circumvent the bad habits of the second –and that certainly does happen– or, more dreamily, that an especially lively installation might make the Pinocchio jump (“remember Eiffel’s Tower!”)to a life of its own. The “nimble” character of the installation mode provides access to fresh vision, urban canvas for artistic expression, festive event, and, at times, velocity adequate to escape the incapacitating gravity of contemporary development practices and anti-urban forces. Hard to overvalue such openings. Still, it is the Geppetto’s dream that gives me pause. Architectural installations do sometimes make that transition, just as interstate highways do sometimes get reconfigured — it’s just that, distant from these extremes, it is likely that the fate of the urban life of our city depends on the creative attentions embodied (or not) in decisions daily made in the formulation of architectural projects that are both more quotidian and more enduring. This is a hard message. It implies that a shift from temporary to temporal concern requires the nimble spirit to burden itself with bureaucratic facility, feasibility, and the labors of disciplinary knowledge. But here also is a tentative exit from futility-flirting extremes: find ways to promote attention to the urban creativity and responsibilities latent in the even mundane architectural projects that flow daily through L&I, and the city’s layers of coherence, subversion, collective memory, becoming, and the domain of the local may very well be sustained. Building by building. Installations can help here (at their best), but more enduring engagements in the life and future of the city will require another kind of attention.

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