June 5, 2024

Five Tips for Designing a Successful Pop-Up Venue

As the sun comes out and festival season approaches, a number of temporary performance venues we’ve designed over the last few years are getting ready to hit the road. Roundabout will be making its annual voyage up to Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, and The Mix continues a residency at Theatr Clwyd throughout the summer.

Although each of our temporary venues were designed to serve wildly different audiences and artists, they have all been driven by the same fundamental question: how do we create welcoming and inclusive places to attract audiences and communities who might not be comfortable with attending more conventional “bricks and mortar” performing arts spaces?

This question gets right to the heart of why organisations choose to commission temporary spaces.  It could mean bringing a programme of new writing into the centre of a local community or making a hub for live performances at a festival, but at its heart it’s about an encounter between venue, artist and audience which is unique and thrilling in its sense of excitement and impermanence.

Temporary performance venues can be gloriously unique and brilliant in many ways, but they also come with their own set of design challenges. Some of these are obvious, but often the same challenges and issues crop up time and time again and considering them at the outset can have a huge effect on the success of the venue. 

Below we thought we’d share five tips, based on our experience, that might be useful if you’re thinking about designing a pop-up venue of your own.

1. Start with the Brief

Think About A Week In The Life

We often encourage clients to create a “week in the life” of the venue to really dig into how it will function day to day, week to week and even month to month.  

What kinds of events will the venue host? Who will the audiences be? Thinking about these things at an early stage is crucial as it means that if (or when!) costs start to escalate, you can be really clear about your priorities and make difficult decisions accordingly.

Considering the number of moves the venue will make over what period of time is also mission critical information.  The design for our venue Roundabout was driven by the need to pop up in multiple locations over the course of a week – it had to be agile and require a minimum amount of setup time and as a result had a large number of bespoke components to enable this to happen.  On the other hand, our festival venue The Mix was designed for longer sit-downs – usually between 4-6 weeks and could therefore afford to be bigger and take much longer to set up.   

A “week in the life” can feel like a complete jump into the unknown for our clients, as they are often not in a position to commit to this kind of granular programming at the beginning of the commissioning process, but it’s a really important tool which can become a living brief; evolving as other parameters slot into space and becoming a crucial frame of reference for the wider project team.

Think Flexibly about Flexibility

Another reason for encouraging clients to think about a week in the life of the venue is that it will help you understand how flexible the venue needs to be.  

There is a growing desire for venues to be flexible and adaptable, and to create spaces that are versatile enough to accommodate different types of performances, installations and audiences. Nowadays it’s not unusual to be tasked to design temporary spaces that can accommodate a community meal, a dance performance and a sound installation all on the same day without breaking a sweat.  

It is easy to see why, as these spaces allow for more creativity, experimentation and breaking down of barriers between artforms and audience expectations.  These are all brilliant things.

Bespoke design solutions can enable the space to become fluid in this way.  They will take more time to develop and potentially be more expensive than off the shelf solutions, but can have a benefit on time spent when the venue is operational, aiding faster turnarounds.  

That said, it can be tempting to over-spec and try to accommodate too many outcomes.  Dream away, but then be prepared down the line to make bold decisions about what the bare bones of your venue really need to be, and don’t be afraid to make artistic choices.

When we designed Roundabout, we consciously chose to set limits; we resisted the urge to create a “multi-purpose” space and instead chose a specific round form. The steep audience rake gives great sight-lines and the round format puts the writer at the heart of the space – there are no other distractions and scenery is intentionally kept to a minimum.

Above all, remember anything is possible! Temporary doesn’t mean that you need to compromise on production values, audience experience or sightlines.  It’s an invitation to be experimental and create something that has never been done before.

Roundabout was designed to have a specific round form, rather than as a multi-purpose space

2. Don’t forget back of house

Often the front of house facilities are at the top of the list for design consideration.  They speak to the core aims of why the venue exists in the first place – they embody the front facing work a venue must do to engage its local communities and encourage them to cross the threshold.  

Dressing rooms, crew and staff green room, back of house toilets, showers and storage are all easy to overlook – that is, until you’re standing onsite looking at walls of Harris fencing.  They are a crucial part of the costing and critical to the operational success of the venue. They can be harder to get right in design terms than front-facing facilities, but hugely worth the effort in the long run.

It’s also crucially important to think about inclusivity and accessibility when designing back of house areas (as an aside, see here for tips on how to create the perfect dressing room).

3. These are not “normal buildings”…

Temporary structures are often modular, made of materials and components that may not provide the same level of structural stability as permanent buildings. They require rigorous checks to ensure safety, especially in adverse weather conditions. Safety protocols must account for rapid assembly and disassembly, as well as potential environmental challenges.  We still have vivid memories of The Mix enduring gale-force winds on the beach in Aldeburgh! 

Achieving optimal acoustics can also be challenging in temporary structures due to their materials and construction methods. Sound quality may require additional equipment or modifications, and technical capabilities (lighting, sound systems, etc.) might be limited by the venue’s temporary nature and power supply constraints.

Considering these differences, the approach to planning, constructing, and operating a temporary venue must be flexible and adaptive, project-specific, and focussed on providing a safe and satisfactory experience for audiences under varied and often less predictable conditions.  

But of course all of these challenges are also what make temporary venues so interesting to design; unique challenges require unique solutions.  This can be a catalyst for an approach to problem-solving that reaches for creative, new solutions rather than the most straightforward answer.

4. Think about Wind and Rain Noise

Light, flexible materials that are often deployed in temporary venues can flap or rattle in the wind, no matter how well they are secured.  Wind noise can be particularly problematic in open or exposed locations where there is little to no natural barrier to reduce wind impact.

When rain hits the surface of temporary venues, especially if they are made of materials like canvas, metal, or plastic, it can create a significant amount of noise as the internal space acts as a drum and amplifies this sound. This can overpower dialogue and music, even if it is amplified, making it challenging for the audience to follow the performance.  Rain noise can also create a constant background sound that is distracting and detracts from the overall experience.  

There are many ways to mitigate this, but they can be expensive if retro-fitted.  It’s good to consider this issue from the outset as design solutions such as hung curtains or ceiling textiles can have a significant effect on the look and feel of the internal space, and from a positive perspective they can also be an important tool to make the venue feel special and different when you’re inside.

5. Accessibility is Essential

Temporary venues bring unique challenges in the context of accessibility and inclusivity.  There are structural limitations, such as unexpected changes in level, and they require portable features such as ramps and elevators, which can struggle to meet the standards found in permanent buildings.  Conditions can also be affected by weather and light, making surfaces slippery, unstable and light levels can vary considerably.  Temporary signage can be inconsistent or difficult to install at appropriate heights or places.

Sadly all of this means venues often revert to standardised equipment that can feel like an afterthought and often don’t quite fit or work properly.  Accessibility needs to be built in from the very beginning if the venue is to be truly inclusive, and it needs to be part of every design conversation from the beginning. Consult with user groups, talk to people who will be coming to the venue and listen to them and their needs very carefully.

Final thoughts

One of the magical things about live events is that a group of people can gather in a space together and leave completely changed – seeing the world in a different way.  We have seen again and again how temporary performance spaces can transform lives and inspire communities, reaching people in a direct way and having a profound impact on their lives.

If you’re thinking about designing a temporary performance venue of your own, we hope these tips have helped. If you’d like any further guidance or want to speak to us about a potential collaboration, please get in touch. 

Here at studio three sixty HQ, we’re currently working on two very exciting – and very different –  temporary performance venue projects. 

We’re excited to be collaborating with Bradford City of Culture 2025 and Carter Gregson Gray Architects to be designing Beacon: an iconic travelling performance space that will tour the Bradford Area and host a range of live arts and community events.

We also have a self-initiated project in development, with the most challenging brief we’ve ever undertaken. More news as soon as we’re able to share it!