Illusory Objects and Fairground Architecture

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The fairground has long been overlooked as a site of architectural interest. This has slowly begun to change in the last fifty years, when a few architects have been drawn to various aspects of the fair—its history, its visual or technical appeal, its accommodation of multiple programmes, or its nomadic, temporal, event-based nature—as a source of inspiration, and championing it as an example of ‘other’ architecture that can provide a refreshing alternative to traditional architectural production. Yet there are many aspects of the fairground that do not fit this story: in fact, the fairground shares much with static, permanent and hierarchical architecture. While the form and appearance of fairground rides are constantly reinvented to offer novelty, the fair itself is underwritten by strong traditions and provides visitors with a certain reassuring predictability.

These characteristics make it difficult to define precisely what the fairground is, and this difficulty haunts various attempts to pay it serious attention. This article provides a broad survey of work that has taken the travelling street fair as its object of study, directly or indirectly. Part I of the article is organised around a number of awkward—contested, missing, or unstable—objects that mean such work is rarely straightforward, compared to the writing of other architectural histories. Part II pursues the challenges of writing about the fair in more detail: borrowing the notion of ‘illusory objectification’ from anthropology, it traces what such a notion can reveal about the ways we see the fair, and how we might look at it differently in order to develop a clearer understanding or appreciation of the fair's architectural complexity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-352
Number of pages43
JournalThe Journal of Architecture
Issue number2
Early online date7 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2015


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