Peter Arkle

The concept car is critical to the advancement of the automotive field. Created to test new technological and aesthetic ideas, its purpose is to provide a proof-of-concept demonstration of a design hypothesis. Every creative field has its own concept car: Fashion has prototype garments, for example, while electrical engineers use breadboards.

The pavilion is architecture’s concept car. As small-scale, temporary structures, pavilions are model platforms for exploration, unencumbered by many of the restrictions placed on buildings. Pavilions often embody radical ideas for new structural technologies and material applications, and demonstrate the potential of these ideas for relatively little investment. Shigeru Ban’s 22-meter-tall Paper Tower, constructed entirely of paper tubes connected by metal joints, or Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral, an immersing seed bank clad in thousands of acrylic rods bearing seeds, are examples of innovative—and temporary—structures.

Despite the compelling role of the pavilion, a disconnect exists in the larger framework of architectural praxis. In the automotive arena, car companies develop production-intent concept vehicles with the goal to push experimental technologies into mass production. In architecture, though, the experiments exhibited in pavilions stagnate there, rather than find their way into the broader spectrum of construction.

One explanation for this disconnect relates to economics. Automakers are able to meet stringent safety regulations while updating their technology. But new materials and building systems are expensive to design, fabricate, and test for adherence to codes. Moreover, pavilions represent a significant investment: The Seed Cathedral reportedly cost $39 million.

Another justification concerns risk. The most impressive pavilion designs purposefully subvert convention, requiring nontraditional methods for their construction. Such methods not only require more time, but also more courage. The construction industry is, after all, a common target for legal claims; builders understandably wish to limit their risk exposure.

The real challenge to pavilions stems from the public’s perception of buildings as enduring structures. Although this year’s imaginative car model might upset some aesthetic tastes, its relatively short life span makes it less threatening than a similarly innovative building. When faced with the prospect of effecting a long-lasting change in the built environment, society typically shies away from bold, exploratory architecture.

Yet in so doing, it also misses many of the creative solutions to technical, environmental, and social problems that innovative architecture can deliver. The ideas embodied in pavilions should not be allowed to die once the structures are dismantled. Rather, we must promote their benefits and work to ensure their full development and realization within the comprehensive field of building. After all, when this kind of inspiration can exert a measurable influence on the broader sphere of construction, we will gain a tremendous opportunity to realize the full value of design.

Read more of Blaine’s reports on cutting-edge tech at ARCHITECT’s Mind & Matter blog.