Portable architecture was the first kind of architecture man made and inhabited. Over millions of years, it changed, evolved and was rejected in favor of "permanent" buildings. Today architecture and permanence are treated as synonyms. We value solid buildings. We list the pyramids as one of the Seven Wonders and medieval cathedrals are celebrated in our art history books. These things are admired because they are grand and because they remain.
Today it appears there might be a return to portable architecture. A wide range of forms and sizes are being turned into buildings that move. There are buildings that can seat 10,000 people and be erected and dismantled in days. There are tiny structures that celebrate design at the same time that they celebrate simplicity and mobility. Although relatively few industry-produced portable buildings have been designed for a dedicated user with that user's needs in mind and very few make use of designs that have gone before (like the Quonset hut), there are many recent advances that are making portable architecture possible and popular. Recent advances in materials technology and construction techniques have allowed for this response and many contemporary architects are jumping on the bandwagon. Add to that the American trend that is putting affordable housing further and further out of reach, architects are now working to solve the problem the Quonset hut once tried to fix.
Erection of Quonset Redesign
Courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, Archives, Tom Christensen Collection
The Quonset hut is the portable building that has dominated this century. It may even be said that the Quonset hut is making a comeback, albeit with a facelift. As leading designers today are focusing on new, low-tech, prefabricated and portable structures, it seems not so preposterous to suggest that, if invented today, the Quonset hut would be a featured subject of many an architectural lecture series. But its true, humble story follows.