Flex Marks the Spot for City Designs


Pop-up buildings and other temporary architecture, warehouse transformations, and group office space will be among the key design trends appearing in the American cities of tomorrow, the American Institute of Architects is forecasting.

AIA's 74-page report, Cities as a Lab: Designing the Innovation Economy, explores various policy trends and design innovations underway in cities around the globe.

Cities can adapt, innovate, and lead the way toward the future by fusing innovative design with the increasing power of technology, the report says.

Building innovations covered in the report include temporary architecture, repurposed warehouses and more collaborative office spaces.

Urban Movement

The world is increasingly urbanizing, AIA reports. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and that figure will grow to 70 percent by 2050, AIA notes.

Cities and their wider metropolitan regions are therefore increasingly asserting themselves as fundamental units of the global economy, the organization said.

Design serves as the “critical linchpin” needed to help reshape and reconfigure urban spaces to fit new patterns and needs, AIA says.

Temporary Design, Style

Temporary architecture is one such innovation, AIA reports.

Solar Decathlon
Richard King / U.S. Department of Energy

Temporary architecture is often used to spark future innovation, AIA says. The trend includes Department of Energy Solar Decathlon’s modular solar-powered homes, which are designed, built and operated by college students nationwide.

Architects use pop-up buildings to experiment with new forms and ideas, from cutting-edge modular solar houses to an instant marketplace, AIA says.

Moreover, the use of temporary designs allows for sites that are otherwise stalled or undeveloped to remain active.

Proxy Project

One such project is Proxy, a design described as “flexible urbanism” in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.

There, architecture firm Envelope A + D used shipping containers and scaffolds to build a series of semi-rotating units for local food, drink and apparel vendors alongside art installations.

“A thoughtful insertion of compelling temporary uses can be an effective strategy to bring vibrancy to languishing parts of the city,” Envelope founder Douglas Burnham told AIA in its report.

“There’s nothing trendy or faddish about this,” he said.


"There's nothing trendy or faddish" about Proxy, a San Francisco project that uses shipping containers and scaffolds to build commercial units, developers say.

With a life expectancy of two to three years, Proxy is a placeholder for more permanent affordable housing to be developed on the site in several years, according to the firm’s website.

Solar Decathlon

Temporary architecture can also be used to stimulate conversation about the future, AIA notes.

It cites, for example, the Department of Energy’s biannual Solar Decathlon, where collegiate teams design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.

DOE previously held the contest on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The 2013 Solar Decathlon, however, is scheduled for Oct. 3-13 in Irvine, CA.

painting Solar Decathlon
Eric Grigorian / U.S. Department of Energy

Collegiate teams are constructing their entries in the 2013 DOE Solar Decathlon set for Oct. 3-13 in Irvine, CA. Students from Stanford University painted the interior of their entry Sunday (Sept. 29).

“In its five iterations to date, nearly 17,000 students have gained hands-on experience in designing and building leading-edge architecture,” the report said.

Other Key Innovations

Other innovative examples highlighted in the report include:

  • Boston Innovation District: Pioneering designers reshaped derelict wharves into a multidisciplinary hub for innovation and manufacturing, attracting 200 companies and 4,000 jobs to date.
  • Research Triangle Park, NC: Research parks experiment with layouts that create opportunities through proximity and knowledge exchange.
  • Downtown Project, Las Vegas: An urban experiment in increasing meaningful chance encounters and thus productivity.
  • 5M Project, San Francisco: A budding intentional community of over 1,000 art and technology firms inverts the development process to reinvent underused offices.
  • TechShop: In tech hubs from the Bay Area to Pittsburgh, tinkerers launch a resurgence in American product design and small-scale manufacturing.
  • The Plant, Chicago: A vertical farm feeds off city waste, growing produce and small food businesses in an abandoned meatpacking plant.
  • Flexible Offices: At corporations, start-up nonprofits, and the federal government alike, 60 percent to 80 percent of office employees applaud new collaborative plans that enable effective work in a connected, paperless era.
  • City Streets: A fresh focus on street design gives architects a new canvas for creative placemaking, reclaiming sidewalks and streets as social spaces.
  • EcoDistricts: Districts can adopt innovative policies quickly, but are large enough to have significant impact without delaying implementation.

Founded in 1857, the AIA has more than 80,000 members and nearly 300 state and local chapters. The professional membership organization serves as the voice of the architecture profession and a resource for its members.


Tagged categories: Aesthetics; American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Architecture; Building design; Color; Color + Design; Design; Energy efficiency; Trends

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