Published  29/05/2008

New Tent Architecture – book review

New Tent Architecture

Philip Drew
London: Thames & Hudson, 2008

Tented architecture has been around since prehistory. But only recently has it been recognised as technically appropriate for accommodating numerous collective functions. It would appear to the layman that tents are still so simple in concept and easy to erect (even if your name is Monsieur Hulot) that the principle is flawless. And also that all tents work - which is not so at all. Today the context for tented, tensile structures is suddenly very much of the twenty-first century. The author, architect Philip Drew, is well known as the author of a definitive work on the German architect Frei Otto, who in the later twentieth century pioneered new approaches to tented structures, their materials and indeed their form.

Drew makes the important point in his introduction of some length that tensile structures of this kind embrace and help to define a new urban nomadism which has largely come about as the output and reflection of a perceived need for a new generation of urban young who embrace mobility and the new microelectric technologies of the age. Freed from the constraints of the workstation these 21st century itinerants and troubadours, both individual and collective, circulate through the metropolis meeting at all hours, doing business, celebrating the new culture, while staying directly in contact with family, friends and colleagues. Obviously the advent of the mobile phone, ipods, digital cameras and scanners creates instant visual information transfer and exchange in support of this nomadic life style, in a way never anticipated even a quarter century ago. It is the tented structure today that can increasingly provide flexible support for this transformation in lifestyle and naturally provides protected space for such movement and interaction. The cultural imperatives of nomadism per se provide a basis for the new architecture, feeding the hagiolatry of superstar architects. It is a transformed world.

Most notable to date have been the Serpentine Gallery temporary exhibition for summer exhibitions in London's Hyde Park (Oscar Niemeyer in 2003) and those for Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park in successive years.

A new globalism has infiltrated the lexicon of form, much of it inspired by Arab or Islamic tradition, as Drew points out: such words as cupola, divan, frieze, ogive and sofa retrace their origins under new, contemporary usage. Nor should it be forgotten that the nomad in history delighted in the manifestations of nature. The tent form, of course, is more about tension than about weight. New technologies offer remarkable lightweight structures and materials for the enclosure and cladding of space. But it is instructive to look far back in history to observe how readily the tent or groups of tents were given to strong architectural expression and so impact. The tents of the mediæval 'Feat of Arms' tournament at St Inglevert (1389), as described by the historian Richard Barber in his epic work The Knight and Chivalry, provided a backdrop to the blazon of heraldic tinctures, shields, armour and mantling at this event. The tents on that occasion remained white or buff. But the massive, extenuated tent of Henry VIII some 150 years years later was modulated, linear and a bright crimson in colour and decked out in gold, 250 ft long and flanked by additional circular side pavilions, five per side.

More alarmingly, the Turkish tents which surrounded the walls of Vienna in the famous siege (1528) struck deep alarm into the minds of the citizenry, a trauma which remained in the Viennese psyche, arguably as long as into the twentieth century. More recently, the new visual language of Russian Futurist architects such as Ilya Golosov (Circus Membrane, 1922) and Minofev and Boris Lopatin (1931-33) experimented with massive structures. Drawing to some extent on Russian Constructivist precedent, the British group Archigram pursued similar experimentation in their entry for the Monaco Entertainments Centre Competition (Monte Carlo, 1969).

Much of the later twentieth century pioneering development of such tensile structures was advanced by the German architect Frei Otto, who was the son and grandson of sculptors. Otto was, as Drew points out, in logical succession to Buckminster Fuller. Otto had been a wartime fighter pilot, and his mind frame was conditioned by the art of survival in such lightweight structures. This led to his own configurarion of an entirely new visual language based upon points of support and restraint in the optimisation of structural form, combined with the idea of minimal surface. In the post-l970s spectrum it was still Otto who brought this sublime aesthetic to bear upon structures which, however tensile, were also visually tied to earth.

In Britain, there has been an expansion of the use of tented structures in the particular arena of sports architecture. Such innovations have been made more readily acceptable to corporate bodies as to spectators involved in the sports industry and culture because of the long tradition of lightweight structures, initially partly military, but subsequently to shelter visitors. The architect Michael Hopkins has been instrumental in advancing this form of solution. Examples of this work range from the Buckingham Palace Ticket Office (1995) to the Summer Pavilions for Goodwood Racecourse (2001) where social 'cachet' was paramount. Hopkins also designed for the entertainment and culture industry both the Wildsceen at Bristol project (2000) and the Dynamic Earth Centre in Edinburgh (1999) on much the same principle. In Finland, the Hamina Central Bastion (Roy Mänttäri, 1998), a tent with eight 'peaks' is exemplary, as compared to the irrevocably ungainly Millennium Dome at Greenwich, London, for which profitable uses are still being searched out.

The tourist industry in Australia is well-served by the Uluru self-contained hotel in the outback, where tourists can book into individual membrane-roofed units yet have access to a dramatic larger communal space, a membrane-skinned pavilion supported on two poles.(Cox Richardson Architects). In the US, the Denver International Airport (1995) serves 72 million passengers per year in a two-layer, Teflon-coated fibreglass membrane roof. As Drew's text states so succinctly, 'The cowboys have long since departed, but their spirit lives on in the flying white peaks'. So also could the nomads of the modern 'recombinant' city range freely on. At last there is a whole architectural idiom suited to the new cultures that are forming worldwide.

The author and publishers have produced a timely volume in a much sought after but ill-covered field of contemporary design. The book fittingly closes on a purely abstract composition by British sculptor Anish Kapoor, the superb deep red sculptural insertion he made at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall (2002). The skies are open for the fulfilment of a revolutionary new form of architecture, where architects and engineers collaborate seamlessly, and act as artists would.

Michael Spens

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