An interview with Robert Kronenburg on future of mobile architecture by Anel Moldakhmetova

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An interview with Robert Kronenburg

An interview by Anel Moldakhmetova

Today, mobile digital technologies are becoming more and more advanced and easily accessible, and giving us much more freedom to move around while still getting things done. We don’t have to stick to one place any more and Internet connection and mobile gadgets are allowing us to choose a sort of neo-nomadic lifestyle.

More and more people can travel and at the same time work by using mobile technologies. While the dynamics of modern peoples’ lifestyle is increasing, the type of housing they live in is changing at a much slower speed.

Should the built environment correspond with current lifestyle and cultural trends and be more efficient in addressing global economical, ecological and social problems? Robert Kronenburg, an architect, professor at the University of Liverpool, and specialist on issues of mobile/portable/temporary architecture, author of ‘Architecture that responds to change’, ‘Adaptable architecture: Flexible dwelling’, ‘Modern Architecture for flexible living’, and ’Houses in Motion: The Genesis’, shared his vision of the evolution and future of adaptable architecture and the place it could take in future cities.
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How did your interest in mobile architecture start?

When I was a student, I entered a mobile building design competition and I was lucky enough to win it. It was actually a real project, and we built it with a big construction firm in Liverpool. I found out that the builders were more interested in the small mobile type of building than they were in big structures that they made in London. After I started my architectural practice, I was involved in designing mobile fabric structures for different purposes – commercial types of buildings, like show rooms and entertainment buildings, and I got interested in it. When I started to teach at the university, I wanted to find out more about this. What I found out was that nobody talked about portable buildings seriously, they always thought that it was a cheap form of architecture, in fact, they didn’t think about it as architecture at all. And I thought: this needs looking at, because it’s not just about a cheap type of building, it’s an interesting form of design.

You curated the major exhibition Portable Architecture (1998) held at the RIBA, London, and were a curatorial advisor on the Vitra Design Museum’s exhibition Living in Motion (200206). If you were to organise an exhibition about portable architecture today, what would the key issues be that you would address? How would it be different from the issues of past exhibitions?

The big change is that there is more portable architecture around now, it’s becoming more sophisticated and more accepted by developers and by the general public, it’s become a more acceptable form of design. I have just updated my first book, ‘Architecture in Motion’, that was written in the 90s and published in 1995. The updated version was issued this year, 18 years after the first book was published. If you look at the difference between these two books, the basic philosophy, the basic kind of structure of portable architecture is still there, but there is just a lot more of it. In general, bigger projects are being built.

So, technology is moving forward and improving. It is still not widespread, but it’s more commonly looked at as a possible solution. So for instance, if you take the London Olympics in 2012, a third of the major buildings had mobile or adaptable aspects to them .The reason for that was that the organisers were looking for ways to build big buildings for a limited time function, they wanted it to be more sustainable, and the requirement to do that is more important today than it was 20 years ago.

What are the most common stereotypes of mobile architecture today? Where do these stereotypes come from?

In mobile architecture you are often working a little bit at the edge of design capabilities

Mobile architecture is not a type of architecture that has many stereotypes. The reason for that is that you’re always trying to solve a very specific problem, and a specific problem usually leads to quite innovative unusual solutions. It’s far more likely for that to happen in the mobile type of architecture than in conventional static architecture, because there are many different ways of solving a static architecture problem. Sometimes it comes down to style, to image, to budgets, whereas in mobile architecture you are often working a little bit at the edge of design capabilities. You have to produce working buildings, and it’s actually quite difficult to make them fulfill their function well. However, there are set forms of mobile architecture which are repetitive and they do happen more and more often, the most common being tensile architecture; buildings which are made using tents and membranes. Another form of mobile architecture which is quite common, is inflatable architecture, (pneumatic architecture) where tents and a membrane form are used, which is quite typical.

I wouldn’t call these stereotypes, I would call them innovative archetypes. The main solutions are not stereotypical, unless you use the standard one, like one from a manufacturer which makes them for generic use. They are often quite different in shape and form.


Let’s talk about the comparison between static architecture and mobile architecture. What economical, cultural and social issues does mobile architecture address more successfully than the static one? Can you give any specific examples of this?

A portable structure is used in a situation where it’s providing a solution to a problem that can’t be solved in any other way. Typically, these problems arise because the time of the project realisation is limited, or when the built project has to be completed in a difficult location. For instance, if you are doing expeditionary work, or you’ve got some mining to do at a remote location, you can settle a remote mining village quickly and easily. So, each sort of solution comes basically from the problem that you are trying to solve. Sometimes that problem relates to a purely economic situation, so if you don’t want to build a permanent building, you can build a temporary one that you can use again. Portable structures can be used for an exhibition, or a performance building, where image is very important, it can also be used for humanitarian purposes . Sometimes a solved problem can be economic, sometimes it’s logistical, sometimes it has to deal with image or character.

What about economic issues? How can mobile architecture address them? Are there any examples of specific technologies that are currently implemented in different constructions in mobile architecture?

The lightest buildings that can be moved in the compact form are the most sustainable. That’s where portable architecture comes in.

Mobile architecture in some ways is relatively expensive. You have to put a lot of effort into designing it correctly, as well as into moving it from place to place. And moving anything around is not sustainable. But when you are actually saving the building permanently which will be otherwise wasted or demolished afterwards, thus counteracting the cost of movement, there’s always an equation between how much you save and how much it costs to relocate, and also how much resources it saves to make a new building. So the best way to do it more sustainably is to make your building as light as possible, very compact, which makes it a lot more economic to relocate. The lightest buildings that can be moved in compact form are the most sustainable. That’s where portable architecture comes in. Pneumatic architecture, the inflatable architecture (the archetypes), where you can use the membrane, a very lightweight, tensile architecture (where you can also use a membrane which is very lightweight) – these forms of architecture are generally the most sustainable. Providing that the materials used to make them are also sustainable (they are not always that way, but they can be), they can be reused again and again.

Сhicago / Robert Kronenburg /

Сhicago /​Robert Kronenburg /​robkro​nen​burg​.word​press​.com

Can you name one of the most successful recent examples of economically feasible and sustainable mobile projects?

There is the largest mobile building in the world, it’s called Valhalla, and was designed by Rudi Enos in Sheffield, the UK. Its design was commissioned by the city government of Sheffield for the celebration of the millennium eve. This building was expected to exist just for one big party. But the architect designed it in such a clever way that the building will have a much longer life. Although it’s a very big structure, it connects and uses lots of different forms and sizes, so you can use big buildings as well as much smaller ones. Thus, Valhalla has actually been used many times since 2000, when it was originally built, and it’s been transported to many different locations around the world, including South Africa. In the UK, it’s been used in many different ways, for many different purposes, for parties, for concerts, for conferences. So this building, which was actually designed for one single event to be held just one time at one place, has been actually used almost continuously for 13 years now. So that is really a very good example of a building that outlived its owners’ original intentions.

Do you think there should be a balance between temporary and permanent architecture? What should this balance look like? How can mobile architecture coexist with static architecture?

The biggest area where we need to improve the way the buildings are designed, I would say it’s adaptability.

When I first started doing this research, what was happening then was that there were quite a few buildings being built, for just a short amount of time, and then demolished. And that seemed to me a real waste. In the intervening 20 years or so, less buildings have been built that way. More buildings nowadays are built with the consideration that we can’t be as wasteful with the materials as we used to be. The reasons for that are economic. The other reason is sustainability. If we want the mobile and the static to coexist, they both have to fulfill their functions. The mobile building, as well as permanent building, is there specifically to respond to a certain situation.

Adaptability and flexibility is a real agenda for the future.”

If you ask me what is the biggest area where we need to improve the way the buildings are designed, I would say it’s adaptability. So the buildings which we build today have a greater capacity to be changed in the future, as our needs change in terms of building design, whereas the buildings that were built in the past will take a lot of time, effort and resources to change them. We should be able to change buildings more easily, more quickly. So I think adaptability and flexibility is a real agenda for the future.

What is your vision of the function of mobile architecture in the future? How should it be used?

It’s already being used in pretty much every form of architectural building, every form of function. There is a mobile hospital, a mobile school, a mobile office, a mobile gym, a mobile discothèque, restaurants. Every single form of architecture that exists in permanent form also exists in mobile form. And that’s because we have many different functions for a building; the thing that drives mobility in architecture is not necessarily the function, it’s other things to do with location and the amount of time that these functions can exist. Mobile architecture spreads right across the border, and will continue to be that way.

The need for mobile architecture could be changed because we’ve been using all the form of technology to negate the need for actual travel

The only thing that is really changing society, changing culture, and the economy, is the information age. So, for example, you and I can have an interview across many thousands of miles, we don’t need to move in the same ways physically as we would’ve done in the past. So that’s changing society. When we do need to move, when we do have a need of a physical presence in a certain location, if that physical presence is only temporary, then there will be a mobile requirement for a shelter to cover that activity. It’s somewhat ubiquitous and it’s engaged with every source of function that human beings do. The one thing that might change that and reduce its need is the fact that we do remote activities a lot easier through robots, through information and communications technology. The need for mobile architecture could be changed because we’ve been using all forms of technology to negate the need for actual travel.

Do you think that mobile architecture will become more and more popular? In 10 years? In 20 years? In 30 years?

I think the trend for it to become more widespread, to work better, to become a more common solution, will continue. I can’t see why it wouldn’t. The fact is that we are developing new materials which are lighter, more efficient, we are getting better in recycling materials, we seem to have a constant need as human beings to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible, and mobility and flexibility – these things are naturally progressing areas of technological development. They are not something that’s becoming less important. On the contrary, I think it will still continue to develop, become lighter, easier to use, cheaper, as technology tends to become smaller and less expensive. These are the needs that are developing and they were not there in the past. Today, for example, we tend to go to places which are more extreme, whereas in the past, for instance, we wouldn’t exploit oil drilling in the middle of the sea, and we do that now. So there are lots of mobile aspects straight away. In the past we didn’t need resources in the middle of the desert, whereas now we need those resources, so we want to go there to exploit them.

What about mobile housing? If mobile housing becomes more and more popular – how can it integrate into the existing urban system? What are the perspectives?

flexible housing, which can change form and shape, and adapt to people’s lifestyles, will not only become more popular, but also necessary

I am not sure we want to say that mobile housing will become more popular, because people like to live in the same place for a considerable amount of time, and also one of the important issues has to do with the question of who owns the land. And it’s hard for mobile housing to look for the same tenure as permanent housing. But I think flexible housing, which can change form and shape, and adapt to people’s lifestyles, will not only become more popular, but also necessary. We have an ageing population, so as people live longer lives, homes need to adapt to how their bodies change over time, and that idea of flexible housing becomes vital. Arons Gelauff, the Dutch architect, has done a lot of work in this area, and built housing especially for ageing people. As they get older, the housing changes around, so that they can still stay in the same place without having to move home. I’m sure that that will happen.

How fast do you think mobile architecture and flexible architecture should answer the needs of the people and how fast should it adapt to the cultural trends?

(What should be speed of reaction to change and what would the balance between the ever-​changing cultural trends and the urban system be?)

Mobile architecture, because it’s innovative and uses new technology, is being invested in in areas where culture has a big part to play, like music, theatre, entertainment, sport, and changes quite quickly alongside culture. One of the most exciting mobile buildings of the decade has been built by Mark Fisher and Wendy Williams – a U2 stage, a really fantastic universal structure technologically. It is also very powerful in terms of cultural impact, because billions of people saw that building in the flesh as it moved from place to place, so it has a prominent place in society. It’s this form of architecture which is always looked on, as it is innovative, cutting edge and exciting. The whole world watched the Olympics in 2012 because they wanted to see the nations coming together, it was a media event as well as cultural, and all the architecture was there, 30 percent of it or more was high quality, mobile or adaptable architecture. A lot of it was designed to be reused. So in the UK we will have the Commonwealth Games that will take place next year in 2014, and quite a few of these buildings will relocate and be used again at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Thus, these buildings have a sort of media presence in that sense. And when something has been successful, it’s very common that it’s used again. It’s a good example of technology helping society to cope with change in an efficient manner, a good thing to help society move forward. So I think that mobile architecture is integrated into society and is becoming more important with time.

Las Vegas 2010 / Robert Kronenburg /

Las Vegas 2010 /​Robert Kronenburg /​robkro​nen​burg​.word​press​.com

Looking into the future, let’s say, 2030 years from now, how do you think mobile architecture can influence the face of the cities? How can it change suburbia? And is it already changing the urban setting today? How will the face of the modern megapolis change?

That’s a difficult thing to predict. The big cities are all undergoing change. One of the things which is always predicted is high technology in terms of communication. Information technology will become more prevalent, the big cities will suffer, and cities will actually become less popular with people, who will just be able to work from home in their cottages, and wouldn’t need cities so much. However, that hasn’t happened so far. Cities are extremely popular, and it has something to do with the need of human beings for society to have to come together to work, to have pleasure, to interact together.

Now we more and more think about the building as having a very flexible use, and being able to change very rapidly in terms of the ways it operates”

Cities are still expanding dramatically in all senses, for example, in the economies of different countries. We are still building permanent buildings in the cities, it is an investment, a financial commitment, and that has a lot to do with the economy. The way in which buildings will change is that the investment will become cleverer. In the past you might just build the building thinking about its use as never changing, now we more and more think about the building as having a very flexible use, and being able to change very rapidly in terms of the ways it operates. So, for instance, it can become an office block and then within a very short amount of time become residential, or leisure type. It will be able to change quite quickly between different functions. And that will mean that the buildings will be designed to be adaptable and responsive, sometimes using automatic responses.

Have you seen the TIC media building? That’s a building which was built with many different innovative systems in order to be able to think about responsiveness and adaptability in terms of the environment, but also in terms of the way the building is used. One of the first buildings built in this way was by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers – the Pompidou Centre in Paris – the cultural centre – which was built with a lot of innovative technologies. That building was very flexible, and allowed lots of uses, and those changes have taken place all its life. So I think that integrated response – that’s what will happen. Maybe some areas will be designed more specifically to accept portable buildings, so portable buildings will have an easy sort of location in terms of city spaces. But the great thing about portable buildings is that they can fit into any size provided they’re designed for that size. I think you will see more portable buildings but I don’t think they will necessarily be specifically designed for specific city, environment, I think they will become even more flexible in the way that they could be used. And I think you will see more adaptable buildings, buildings that you use for different functions, buildings that change function quite quickly, and we will see less abandoned buildings in the city because we will be able to use them more efficiently.

What places have more potential to turn into flexible cities?

That’s the answer that goes not just for portable buildings, but for all buildings. It’s the ones that have the most vibrant economy, the richest cities. If you look at portable architecture as a technological phenomenon, it means that these are the places where people can afford to use that sort of technology. However, there is a form of flexibility and adaptability which uses very low technology, just made by people who can use their own resources very quickly, for example, favelas in South America. It is a very flexible environment, where people are adapting to the changes and making their own cities very quickly and easily using the materials and the resources they have at hand. It is a form of flexibility and adaptability, and in my view, it is a real form of architecture as well. So there are two extremes there: the idea of allowing people to do what they want and giving them the resources to be able to make a flexible environment using the simplest materials, and there is also a very high-​tech form of mobile architecture, which you find mostly in very rich cities. So I talk about that in my book, about two aspects of portable architecture; one is a hands-​on and almost non-​technological phenomenon, and then there is the other side, which uses the very latest materials, very latest technology, that allows for very sophisticated buildings. It is present in all sorts of architecture and all kinds of buildings, it’s just another form of architecture, but it happens to be mobile or adaptive.

What tools can be the most helpful in introducing and spreading mobile architecture and flexible architecture in different places? What would make the process easily implemented?

The best way is to have good examples that work, precedents, good people, confidence in using a certain form of architecture. So if you have a form of adaptive architecture which has proven to be working, and it is a good example that was built and can be used, people will then be more willing to try that form of architecture again in more situations. So it’s simple – build more, and people will use it. Look at Shigeru Ban – he is using light unconventional materials, for example paper, for unusual situations. When he first started, his buildings were very small, very simple, but as time passed, his form of architecture has become more sophisticated, and now he builds huge buildings, like the Pompidou Centre in Metz. He is using the same source of technology, improving it each time. Each time he builds a bigger building, a more complex building, that provides a better precedent, so people then have the confidence to build them as well.

What do you think about Russia? Can you think of the ways that mobile architecture could be implemented in Russia?

I haven’t been to Russia, so I don’t know. I think that’s it important that architects build in situations that they know and understand the environment very well. As I know from the media, Russia is a very vast country with many different climates. Maybe there are some architects in Russia that are keen to implement the ideas of portable architecture, I don’t know. If you invite me to Russia, I will have a chance to learn more about this issue.

What projects are you currently working on today?

The project that I’m working on right now is a book about popular music architecture – it’s about the architecture which is for hosting popular music events. And it’s about different forms of architecture – mobile, some of them adaptable. It’s quite interesting, because it’s only recently that this architecture involves professional architects in making the buildings for its use. It’s an architecture which is also created by informal designers, by people who are not specifically trained as designers, and yet it still makes the right sort of place for music events. It’s quite a complex form of design and has many different forms and shapes, large and small. In the last 10 to 15 years there has been huge development in that form of architecture, because big companies are involved in commissioning specific types of buildings, like Art Galleria in London. These buildings are specifically designed for popular music, and so it’s a huge change, a shift in the way of architectural design. I always like to look for new building types, that is what makes me interested in portable architecture generally. The arena which is specifically designed for music performance is a new building type; it has only emerged in the last 10 to 15 years.

Another project I’m working on now is a book which is coming out in 2015. It’s on the current state of tensile architecture. It’ s all about buildings that are using membranes. It’s kind of assessing where we are with that form of architecture, I’m trying to predict where the future is going to be.