adj. Lasting for a markedly brief time: “There remain some truths too ephemeral to be captured in the cold pages of a court transcript” (Irving R. Kaufman). n. a markedly short-lived thing.
The enormous growth in personal computing and communications contribute to a changing perception of space and its relationship to time. A part of that change includes the idea that the establishment of place via architecture becomes less important in a digital world. Furthermore, people become more detached from the world as the windows of cars, planes and trains filter our experience of architecture. The rise of modern nomadic culture as facilitated by technology popularizes and spreads these perceptions. In turn, people’s minds open up to alternative understandings of our built environment, including one that incorporates ephemeral architecture as a desirable architectural solution. Architects’ responses to these shifts thus far typically have used established forms and structures.
The influence of digital media and information technology on architecture is increasingly evident. Architectural design, practice, fabrication and construction are increasingly aided by and dependent on digital technology. The proliferation of computers and telecomputing in design education and practice has resulted in a major paradigm shift and a reorientation in theoretical and conceptual assumptions considered to be central to traditional design education and practice.
Contemporary architecture relies heavily on high-technology and high-precision methods. Architects are now able to think about space through time, as they are able to design dynamic and responsive spaces, as well as static spaces explored by someone over time.
How do digital media (mobile phones, GPS, iPods, portable computers, internet, virtual realities, etc.) affect the way we perceive, inhabit and design space? Why do architects traditionally design, draw and map the visual, as opposed to other types of sensations of space (the sound, the smell, the texture, etc.)? Architecture is not only about the solid, material elements of space; it is also about the invisible, immaterial, intangible elements of space.
Ephemeral Architecture is an ancient part of our architectural heritage, stretching back to the vernacular works of nomadic cultures. However, the idea of architecture as something permanent grew into prominence when humans shifted to an agricultural based society and it has remained the dominant mode of thought ever since. The current interest in the ephemeral in contemporary culture and architecture is related to the evolution of digital media; and that it is related to the new ways of thinking about space and everyday situations that new media enables. With sound and video recording devices now being embedded in everyday gadgets and mobile phones, capturing sounds or ephemeral situations and events has become an everyday habit. New animation techniques allow designers to think about space through time, as they are able to design dynamic and responsive spaces, as well as static spaces explored by someone over time. Contemporary video games are no longer based on a simple visual input and a keyboard; they now involve other senses, movement, and the response of the whole body in space. The traditional binary opposition between the sensuous and the digital is currently being reversed.
Subsequently, new media can also function as a new tool-to-think-with about space. Designers are now able to think through time, and design spaces accordingly. Time, temporality, ephemerality, become central issues in the designing process. The notion first claimed by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, that the emergence of new digital media caused a ‘shift in the sensorium’, is more relevant than ever, and can be expanded in order to accommodate the new emerging technologies.
Current developments in digital fabrication now promise to trigger major changes in the way design is produced and experienced. Digital fabrication has emerged as a design technology and manufacturing process in which objects are temporary, delimited in time by the function they attend to. As new design technologies emerge, they act as apparatuses that create new subjects by responding to their very needs.
At this stage in the development of digital personal fabrication devices, there are already machines that can repeatedly re-use and recycle the raw material used in the fabrication process when the object is no longer needed. The plastic filament used for this purpose can be described as a sort of nonmaterial devoid of own will, from which the user can conjure up ephemeral shapes for temporary functions, a preternatural substance bound to take and lose shape again and again, like the very stuff of life. The actions of disposal and recycling coincide in time and place, and the emphasis is not on durability and quality, but on the fact that users can create items by themselves and that objects can then easily be disposed of, to be recreated if and when necessary.
Now, more than ever, objects become ephemeral and functions transient.
The discourse on sustainability that emerged in recent decades in mainstream design culture implicitly included a rethinking of the meaning of the lifespan of an object. Durability was one of the core qualities associate to good design, along with the idea that the form has to come after function, which implied high specialization in design and resulted in an extreme proliferation of industrial products. Towards the end of the Modernist paradigm mass production, specialization, proliferation, and durability were combined in a certain environmentalist vision to depict dystopian scenarios of natural landscapes covered by artificial objects that promised and threatened to outlive their very manufacturers and users.
The emergence of a homemade design and manufacturing technology in which objects are temporary, delimited in time by the function they attend to, seems to offer a way out of the impasse. Digital personal fabrication through 3D printing as a material technology has the potential to shape new subjects and new visions of the world.
Yet, in a possible world where we can 3D scan an item and reprint it, or even download it and modify it at will, this syntactic process of semantic reconfiguration will certainly trigger momentous questions. We will have to ask ourselves to what extent we can still talk about a life cycle of an artifact if an object can be quickly, easily and quietly resurrected at home; and also, whether products will cease to have a recognizable identity when their specifications become blurred, imprecise, and limitless as a result of continuous re-adaptation and hybridization.
Stability and permanence are essential to mobility, portability, transformability, the inflatable and the ephemeral. Yet, we are living simultaneously in an age of increasing change and uncertainty.
Nothing ever is, everything is becoming.