The Permanently Temporary

by Cathy Smith and Natarsha Tezcan


Solà-Morales’s notion of terrain vague contains an inherent urban paradox: our attraction to the latent urban and architectural potential of these underused, abandoned or otherwise wasted sites threatens to subsume the very characteristics that attract us to them. Solà-Morales thus challenges us to consider how “architecture [can] act in the terrain vague without becoming an aggressive instrument of power”.1 This dilemma continues to plague contemporary global cities where on the one hand, buildings and sites often sit idle awaiting their redevelopment, and on the other hand, communities struggle to find affordable accommodation. Responding to these twin problems, the meanwhile or temporary use of vacant urban properties has become a popular technique of mainstream urban redevelopment in global cities, from London to Sydney: a permanent template for temporality, so to speak.
Lauded and criticised in equal measure, some suggest meanwhile uses prompts developer-driven gentrification and subsequent social displacement. Others celebrate the transfer of property assets to ordinary communities, however temporary. 
The tensions associated with urban wasteland sites, their divergent stakeholders, and their transformations can appear both irreconcilable and inevitable, endemic to the systems of global capital that drive contemporary urban forms. Our image trilogy captures this messy complexity. Image 1 ‘opportunity’ invokes the productive tension between the temporary and the permanent within the terrain vague, where traces of human life, and the promise of future communities spark our imagination. Image 2 ‘production’ conveys the apparent myth of progress and the tensions between commerce and community which arise when sanctioned meanwhile uses and their communities are replaced by (sometimes unsuccessful) speculative commercial development. Image 3 ‘infinite consumption’ invokes the cyclical realities of urban redevelopment stemming from the capitalist processes of investment and de-investment over time — processes that, ironically, produce the eventual return of terrain vague, positively, or otherwise.

1. The Permanently Temporary: opportunity | Cathy Smith and Natarsha Tezcan, 2022

2. The Permanently Temporary: production | Cathy Smith and Natarsha Tezcan, 2022

3. The Permanently Temporary: infinite consumption | Cathy Smith and Natarsha Tezcan, 2022

*These images were created as part of Smith’s UNSW School of Built Environment New Staff Research Grant (2021), and also relate to her larger ongoing project on Meanwhile Use supported by a UNSW Turnbull Foundation Women in the Built Environment Scholarship (2018-2021); an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship (2018-2021); a Richard Rogers Fellowship, Harvard GSD (Fall 2018).


1. Ignasi Solà-Morales Rubio, ‘Terrain Vague’, in Anyplace, Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press/ Anyone Corp., 1995, 123.