Temporary buildings: Should they stay, or should they go?

Some of the world's most famous buildings were – like much of the Olympic Park – not built to last. So why have they stayed put? Chris Beanland investigates.

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The Independent Culture

Stick or twist: life's ultimate question. With architecture, the dilemma is more pressing still. Temporary buildings are redefining cityscapes – but at the end of their intended lives should they stay or should they go? The conundrum seems particularly pertinent when analysed from the windy viewing gallery atop Anish Kapoor's very odd Orbit. Only six venues were built to be permanent for the 2012 Olympics; at Athens 2004, there were 22.

In September, many venues will be unceremoniously unscrewed. The Basketball Arena sits like a marshmallow ready to be toasted. "We wanted to demonstrate an innovative approach to temporary building," explains its architect Jim Eyre, from Wilkinson Eyre, also responsible for the BBC's new Salford home. The 12,000 seat behemoth is one of the biggest temporary structures ever built for an Olympics – it's ramshackle inside all right, but maybe it should stay. "Since basketball isn't a mainstream sport here there was no need for a permanent venue. We're seeing intensive use of temporary structures and in future Olympics I expect this to increase."

The Olympic Park's ephemerality is evident from the concertina fast-food stands to the sticky tape studios for the BBC and Al Jazeera looking down from the rooftops of condemned Stratford towerblocks Lund Point and Dennison Point. The £295m official broadcast and media centres look flimsy, but were intended to stay. Now City Hall is mulling knocking them down.

In the 1960s, the Archigram group popularised that quintessential space-station aesthetic, encompassing short-term pavilions. Its legacy here is apparent: Archigram's Peter Cook advised on the Olympic Stadium. It's sort of semi-permanent. With excess seating ripped out, the core will live on – perhaps as a shared ground for West Ham and Leyton Orient, or even a Formula 1 circuit.

Many buildings intended to have a short life have stayed – such as the London Eye, protected by popularity (and profitability). The Millennium Dome survived against the odds. Lutyens' Cenotaph was a plaster stop-gap – later becoming a permanent stone memorial. The Young Vic Theatre was built for five years, but still stands.

Making a temporary building permanent requires significant botching – soundproofing, insulation. "Why bother?" jokes Philip Jodidio, author of the insistently named Temporary Architecture Now! "The Eiffel Tower wasn't altered, just renovated recently." Gustav Eiffel's temporary tower survived way beyond its intended tenure presiding over the 1889 Exposition Universelle. The same can't be said of Rosbif rival Skylon – a 1951 Festival of Britain icon which lives on only in the name of a restaurant. Churchill scrapped it, feeling it was too Soviet.

There are downsides to instant architecture: "Shabby construction or design," says Jodidio. Yet temporary buildings can be graceful. Take Japanese architect Shigeru Ban's post-quake cardboard cathedral for Christchurch, New Zealand.

Some prefabricated housing has remained since the end of the Second World War. In Bristol, hundreds of prefabs survive. "A lot of that's due to inertia," reckons Anthony Thistelton of Thistelton Waugh – designers of Shoreditch's Boxpark. The pop-up mall was knocked together on the hoof from shipping containers costing £2,500 a pop. The brainstorming, Thistelton joshes, involved: "Buying all the Hornby '00' toy containers in Britain and stacking them into different patterns." Planning rules play a part in whether temporary buildings live on. "'Temporary' is technically less than a year. Boxpark could be there in five years, it could be there in seven years." This container idea has caught on – Las Vegas has adopted it for the regeneration of its downtown.

Today's temporary buildings evolved from 20th-century industrial building techniques. They also refract the ecological misdemeanours of a throwaway society. "The Olympics created a problem by taking a large piece of contaminated land," says Julian Cheyne, blogger and former resident of Clays Lane Estate, bulldozed to make way for the Park. "The soil was dug up, creating a serious hazard."

Heavy industry, rubbish dumping and even scientific experiments with radioactivity have all taken their toll here. Cheyne wonders aloud to me why few journalists bother reporting this. If we keep the "temporary" Olympic venues, then that toxic waste won't be disturbed again. "As the site has been inadequately remediated, demolishing temporary facilities runs the risk of spreading more contaminated dust over East London," he argues.

Increasingly, the temporary has its place, but perhaps it encourages us to see buildings as disposable. We seem more eager than ever to demolish – especially if a style slips out of fashion. Buildings intended to be around for centuries don't even reach middle age. Owen Luder's Trinity Square in Gateshead and Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth have faced the wrecking ball. Birmingham's genius loci is constant comprehensive redevelopment – the city has feverishly erased 1960s and 1970s work by John Madin, its most notable architect, who died this year. His Pebble Mill Studios and Birmingham Post & Mail Building have recently perished.

Madin's misunderstood Central Library is next on the hit list. Opened in 1974, its omens weren't propitious. With nary a flinch, Birmingham's council bulldozed John Chamberlain's previous library during a wanton orgy of slate-cleaning which destroyed dozens of Victorian edifices. "Now, Madin's Library reminds people of the unfashionable 'socialist' Sixties," reckons architect Alan Clawley, author of a book about Madin. Prince Charles criticised the Library. "This was painful as John had a long acquaintance with the Royal Family." The Prince also merrily cut the ribbon on the Central Library's brutalist twin, the Yorkshire Post HQ in Leeds. Something against Brum?

So – a long-term relationship with our buildings or a fling? The choice gets more muddled. "The line that separates 'permanent' from 'temporary' is blurred by economics," argues Philip Jodidio. "Even those structures which are meant to last are built on tight budgets now, ensuring they'll be gone in a few years."

Society speeds up, technology fuels change, fashions swerve, we are fickle consumers. "But," says Jim Eyre. "I find the idea of 'nomadic architecture' appealing. Temporary buildings can become more adaptable, transportable or reconfigurable."