I have always loved tents and wonder why we do not see more of them in architecture. Partially that is because we think of them as either low-budget and temporary structures reserved either for emergencies or for expeditions into the wild, and partially because when we imagine high-design tents our minds turn to circuses and their modern equivalents, places of spectacles and performance. Airports seem to be the only places where exuberant tents have a more or less permanent place, and most of those are also quite bland.
I live half the year at Taliesin West, which Frank Lloyd Wright laid out in 1937 as an encampment: the spaces were structured by canvas stretched over redwood frames on top of concrete and stone bases. The tents were erected anew every fall when the community returned from its summer stay in the original Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisc. The experience of inhabiting what remains of these spaces has certainly made me more sensitive to the beauty of tents. So did a recent project constructed here by students visiting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Using material they bought at the Home Depot, the students erected a tent in a half-built student lounge in a few days, basing the design on light and shadow studies they had done of the campus. They managed to create a variety of effects and definitions of spaces with minimal means.
By contrast, a recent trip to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California made me realize that even large tents can be put up in a short amount of time and have tremendous spatial ingenuity and beauty. All of the structures at the festival came alive through the integration of lighting technology; the tents exploded onto the retina and drew you into a new world. (Some chemical enhancement on the part of the festivalgoers probably didn't hurt either.)
None of the tents that that I have seen, either at Coachella or other music festivals in the U.S. and Europe, are more creative and exuberant than those designed and built by Do LaB, a Los Angeles-based collective run by the brothers Jesse, Josh, and Dede Flemming. A mainstay of Coachella, they also run their own festival in Kern County, Calif., Lightning in a Bottle, and show up at other events. (I am sure there are other inventive companies out there, and would love to hear about them).
Do LaB’s hallmark is to take the standard large-scale tent, such as the ones you find at weddings or sporting events, blow it up, pull it apart, and reassemble it into forms that resemble yurts, circus tents, geodesic domes, or pagodas. Based in part on the camping tents the brothers used as young men (the early designers at Moss Tents and North Face were, in fact, inspired by lectures Buckminster Fuller gave on geodesic design at the University of California at Berkeley), they are, quite simply, fun.
Starting with small-scale pop-up events in Los Angeles almost 20 years ago, the Flemming brothers (now with a professional team that includes several UCLA-trained architects) have developed a way to structure their tents that emphasize openness, using essentially cloth triangles that are stretched and deformed as far as possible by leaning poles, providing shade and spatial definition. The cracks between the planes allow air to flow and lighting to come down to enliven the festival area.
The Do LaB tent at this year’s Coachella was a good example. A rectangular space that contained 3,000 heads bopping to the mostly EDM-based and related music, which the brothers also curate, it arched around a stage and pulled out onto leaning poles anchored in the site’s hard soil. The vertical supports were meant to contribute to the lightshow by pulsating with colored lights, but that part was, unfortunately, not working when I visited.
A more conventional tent at Coachella, the Gobi
Which was a shame, because what the Do LaB tent offered was the same sort of triangulation of space and focus on the stage, along with a span encompassing the audience, that most of the other tents achieved with lighting. All the other tents at Coachella were variations on hangars, with arched ribs and standard rectangles, that enclosed a given area with solid, neutrally colored coverings. They were as bland and simple in their shape as the Do LaB tents were complex, and they relied on lasers and spotlights to focus attention on the stage and create the space, continually in motion, that spread out over the audience. Do LaB, on the other hand, is moving towards integrating light, sound, and physical structure, offering clues as to how we could design everyday places to live, work, and play. They might not be as technicolor and expressive as Do LaB's tents, but using form, light, and structure they could frame a place where we could gather, if only briefly.
Might tents be the future of architecture? As we become more and more nomadic, whether as victims or survivors of the global economy and the financial and environmental destruction that’s sure to come, why not turn to the first structures that shielded us from our environment and structured our social relations? If the reuse and renovation of existing buildings should be one focal point of where architecture is headed, the other focus should be creating temporary and movable structures—structures that don’t just serve but also celebrate communities, wherever and however they form.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.