I bought myself a new tent. It’s tiny - nicknamed ‘the coffin’ on a recent trip - with just about enough space for a person and their bag. It’s absurd and I love it.
It uses minimal means it uses to create a livable space. It’s elegant. There are two U shaped poles - one slightly bigger than the other - which pull the canvas width-ways into a tunnel. There’s a guyline on either end of the tent which pulls it length-ways to give the tunnel form. And that’s about it. Collapsed, it rolls up into about the size of a wine bottle. Each part is colour-coded, like the pipes on the Pompidou centre.
Ultra-light tents are interesting because they’ve evolved with a fairly singular driving force - ‘making’ the most space with the least means in the shortest time. On the train back into London, I imagined all the buildings as tents.
And architects have explored these intrinsic qualities of tensile structures on a building-sized scale. Most prominently Frei Otto, who said ‘My hope is that light, flexible architecture might bring about a new and open society’. His German pavilion at Expo ‘67 brought together ideas for a light-weight, efficient and humane architecture. These were then realised on a larger scale for the ‘72 Munich Olympic stadium. At one point from one angle it must’ve seemed that this was the future.
Searching on google today for tensile structures, you mostly encounter bus stops or festival stages or shelters or entrance canopies to traditional masonry buildings. Small things. It’s rare to find new tensile buildings matching the ambition of Otto’s.
The largest tensile building of recent times - the Millennium Dome - was a happy accident. Given a massive land mass to cover, and very little money and time, a tent was the only option. Ridiculed at the time, it’s been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years. I still remember the feeling of seeing it for the first time when I was 7.
The North Face released this tent a few years ago. It’s an updated version of a collaboration between Buckminster Fuller and the company, dating back to the 80s. Of course, it’s only available in Japan. It uses the most spatially efficient shape possible, meaning it can withstand winds of up to 60mph. And - for a tent - it looks eminently livable. I wonder what these ideas would look like on a more domestic scale - somewhere between this and the millennium dome.
In a world dealing with a climate crisis, the efficiency of tensile structures feels relevant. The acceptance of impermanence a virtue. So this is a rallying cry for tents to be taken seriously. Don’t build a building - pitch a tent.