Tent Culture


One day in 1937, Anton Eilers discovered a chest washed up on the beach. Inside was a hefty army tent and, as the story goes, the kernel of a business. Friends asked to rent the marquee, inspiring Eilers to start what is today, 80 years later, one of the largest providers of event structures worldwide, with eight European offices and an illustrious tent-based clientele. For two weeks ahead of the openings of Frieze London and Frieze Masters—a pair of London art fairs presenting work by more than 1,000 artists and 160 galleries over five days every October—a team of 60 Neptunus technicians races to install 430,000 square foot of tenting in Regents’ Park. The city-center location and fragile landscape, as well as coordination with numerous other vendors, poses a severe logistical challenge. But, by the time the trades clear out and the VIPs arrive, it appears like the fair sailed in from out of nowhere.

Tents—big and small, ad hoc and high-end—are among the most vital contemporary spaces, and one of the least examined. While glittery high-rises symbolize economic inequality and border walls xenophobia, tents do not, categorically, draw instantaneous ire. No one group has a monopoly, neither the haves nor the have-nots, and one person’s emergency refuge is another’s “sculptural tent” (that is how the New York Times described Frieze New York this year). Tents are shelter for the vulnerable and displaced—migrants, refugees, homeless persons—and support for tons of cultural and religious activities: sporting events, music festivals, benefit galas, wedding ceremonies, awards shows, after parties, spiritual pilgrimages. For peripatetic elites who prefer experiences to objects, pop-ups to permanence, temporary marquees are the framework of a growing number of modern rituals, the shape of otherwise formless and ephemeral congregations.

For centuries, tents have been both a support for, and subject of, art. As nomadic ways of life died across Asia, these traditions were maintained by rulers who moved their court to favorable weather and pleasant locales, commissioning luscious yurts and fabric pavilions, and paintings depicting them. Early photographers, trekking to Egypt or trailing armies during the American Civil War, worked out of portable tent-laboratories, which were occasionally documented. For the Pavilion des Temps Nouveau at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, Le Corbusier created a canvas cube-shaped volume supported by metal pylons and tensioned steel cables. Crunched for time and more concerned with the interior (a multilevel display of didactic photomurals), the architect relied on his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, who had designed tents for the Communist Party’s Fête de l’Humanité. Nevertheless, Corbusier savored the ridicule of critics, among them Auguste Perret, who alleged the pavilion was “not architecture.” This sub-architectural status could also be said to have endeared tents, domes, inflatables, and similar flexible structures to the postwar counterculture, suspicious of permanence as much as power.

There is a similar spirit, if not ideology, in the 2015 design for a new Google campus in Silicon Valley. The collaborative design team lead by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick proposed a future-proof architecture of flexible modules and giant translucent canopies that takes cues from futures past—Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic-sheltered cities and, more specifically, the tensile structures of German engineer Frei Otto. “Instead of having these, like, boxes with walls and floors,” Ingels says in a promotional video, the idea was to “dissolve the building into a simple, super-transparent, ultra-light membrane.” This is achieved, Heatherwick explains, by creating “a piece of glass fabric and draping it across some tent poles.” The blurring of outside and inside isn’t new, but the collapsing of work and wellness is. In a rendering, a squad of Googlers do yoga within a vast, light-soaked interior planted with trees, crisscrossed by bike paths, and sprinkled, helter-skelter, with all species of seating, free for laptop-toting employees to reconfigure. “In nature,” Ingels proselytizes, “things aren’t over-prescribed.”

Speaking with the Independent in 2011, Frieze cofounder Matthew Slotover explained, “our idea was simply to put art in a park.” No doubt, but the settings of the art fairs, launched in London in 2003 and New York in 2012, have helped transform his scrappy art magazine into an “event and media company” attracting significant investment. (WME-IMG, the prominent Hollywood agency, acquired a stake in 2016, adding the fair to a portfolio of over 800 events it owns, operates, or represents around the world.) Art Basel has been held in a convention center since its start in 1970, and replicated the setting upon expansion to Miami in 2002 and Hong Kong in 2012. Yet the evolution of art fairs this century—during which time they have risen to become a key facet of the global art market—is in many ways the story of a renaissance in temporary structures. Certainly newcomers entering the overcrowded market must find alternative venues, but the blend of art, fashion, food, and design that is the elixir of premium culture today is better suited to the tent than the joyless utility of the trade hall. Marketing for the Miami franchises of SCOPE and Untitled, both housed in marquees, proudly touts their locations “on the sands” of South Beach. Although Slotover doesn’t mention the word “tent,” it is what enables the occupation of parks and, thus, settings at once geographically proximate and psychologically removed. Where the Googleplex collapses work and wellness, Frieze converts commerce into communion with art and nature.

Frieze has never been entirely comfortable with the idea of a tent. Since its inception, the London fair has engaged architectural talent—David Adjaye, Jamie Fobert, Caruso St John, Carmody Groarke, and, since 2014, Universal Design Studio—to add a touch of pedigree and pizzazz to otherwise off-the-shelf marquees. Just a touch, however: the interventions are mostly restricted to entrances and auxiliary structures. When expanding to New York, Frieze spent nearly a year working with an event production consultancy evaluating the cost, capacity, and overall feasibility before hiring, just months before the fair opened, Brooklyn architects SO-IL. Asked to garnish a punishingly straight tent, the designers balked. SO-IL proposed breaking up the 1,500-foot length into six equal parts and then linking them with pie-shaped wedges that would serve as “public squares,” hosting non-revenue-generating activities like Frieze Projects installations. The wedges have glass walls instead of vinyl, allowing views of the surrounding park and river; and the meandering form, slithering along the shoreline, helps fend off the inevitable fair fatigue. Jing Lui, the SO-IL partner who prepared at least 50 iterations of the design with Slotover and Amanda Sharp, recalls saying, “It cannot just be a leaky version of a convention center.”

Another significant feature of the SO-IL design is likely to go unnoticed. Because the topography of the site varies as much as eight inches and exhibitors require level floors, an elevated platform had to be built. SO-IL determined that the ventilation equipment could be placed below the floor and vented through perforations in the plywood staging, eliminating overhead ducts that are less efficient in cooling the space and interfere with lighting. Freed of shadow-casting ductwork, the architects could use a translucent vinyl on the roof, bathing the interior in a even, milky light and a special atmosphere. The top-lit/bottom-cooled principal, perfected by Renzo Piano at the Menil Collection and cooked into many new museums, contributes to the tent feeling more like how we imagine tents—light and airy, unburdened by equipment, raw.

Whatever their similarities, art fair tents invert the prevailing logic of contemporary museums, which values brand-name buildings over intrinsic qualities of site. (Consider how often art institutions, and their architects, are recruited to “regenerate” neighborhoods or entire cities.) To “simply to put art in a park,” to sustain the illusion of the marketplace as Arcadia, the tent must go unacknowledged. That is their duty: to offer shelter without architecture, structure without permanence, space without history (besides its own). Indeed, while such tents for are hire, their itinerary is proprietary information. When the steel frames and vinyl enclosures arrive on Miami Beach this December or Randall’s Island next May, it is possible they will have been in regions impacted by natural disasters (Houston? Puerto Rico?) or a NASCAR fan zone (Phoenix? Daytona?). The word “fair” comes from the Latin feria, meaning “holy day,” and the etymology has more relevance than you would think. Set in verdant urban pastures, surrounded by art, the tent allows access to Eden.

“The Future of Architecture Is In Tents,” Garage, October 2017