A report from Coachella: temporary architecture, notes on camp


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The Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival has drawn some fire in recent years, mostly from indie-rock purists, for booking world-famous baby boomer headliners, including an opening night set this time around from Paul McCartney. But in other ways its organizers continue to make room for experimental culture’s sometimes ragged fringe. The curator of Coachella’s art programs, Philip Blaine, commissioned a number of pavilions this year that straddled the line between architecture and installation art. They also took advantage of the growing prominence of temporary structures in a world suddenly drained of capital.

The short-term future of American cities, after all, involves lots of provisional and low-budget projects -- and a whole lot fewer iconic towers. In that sense, Coachella -- at least in its nooks and crannies, far from its main stages or any former Beatle -- seemed to be sketching a loose blueprint for young architects to follow. Leading the way in that regard were the talented L.A. architects Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues, who worked with a group of students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture to create an imperfect but hugely charismatic Coachella installation called Elastic Plastic Sponge (pictured at top).


In its combination of digital savvy and seat-of-the-pants pragmatism, it seemed custom-made for a culture in which temporary architecture may be the only kind any of us can afford. It hardly seemed coincidental, for example, that on the same day last week that I was firming up my plans to visit Coachella and reading about a temporary summer pavilion at London’s Serpentine Gallery proposed by the Tokyo architects SANAA, I opened up my mail to discover a new book called ‘Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space.’

Written by Charlie Hailey, who teaches at the University of Florida, ‘Camps’ argues that provisional architecture of all sorts -- whether high-design pavilions or emergency housing -- deserves serious attention. Stitching together analysis of refugee camps, Burning Man, terrorist hideaways and the Glastonbury music festival outside London, Hailey makes a surprisingly persuasive case that ‘defining the camp is the central problem of our contemporary moment.’

To be sure, thanks to the economy and to the shifting priorities of architects and patrons, the distinction between permanent and temporary buildings is collapsing. The ruined economy is forcing unemployed thirtysomethings to ‘camp out’ at their parents’ houses, while new Hoovervilles for unemployed migrant and blue-collar workers are popping up in many parts of California. And Coachella, Burning Man and other temporary festivals increasingly resemble cities.

I saw evidence of those shifts in seemingly every direction when I finally reached Coachella at dusk on Friday. The festival, with its $269 tickets and $7 Heinekens, is hardly the province of the down and out. And if its thronged spaces suggest those of a metropolis, this is a homogeneous and decidedly commercial kind of urbanism.

Still, it seems foolish to think about its collection of temporary structures and what they mean in a vacuum, entirely apart from the economic crisis. This year Coachella offered a layaway ticket-buying plan for the first time, and tens of thousands of attendees took advantage of it.

After inching through very city-like traffic for more than two hours to find a parking space on one of the grass fields surrounding the Coachella grounds, I made a beeline to meet Ball and Nogues at the site of the Elastic Plastic Sponge. On the way I passed a series of other temporary installations commissioned by Blaine, including a 90-foot-tall bamboo tower by Gerard Minakawa (at left), an elaborate, city-like piece by L.A.’s Do LaB (above right) and a flaming, dragon-shaped extravaganza created by a group of artists called the Flaming Lotus Girls (at bottom).


Some of these projects are big enough to require not only structural engineers but building permits. The local fire marshal reportedly paid a visit to check out the piece by the Flaming Lotus Girls, called Serpent Mother.

If the Sponge was hardly the most physically impressive structure commissioned for Coachella, it was easily the most conceptually ambitious. It was made of long strands of flexible PVC tubing coiled into a series of loops. Those loops were arranged to make an arch on one end and, on the other, to curl protectively around a stage-like interior space.

Designed to spray water on festivalgoers during the day, the structure provided a protection from the elements and the Coachella crowds that was more psychological than physical. It had no roof, in other words, but in the dark, with its purple lighting, it glowed as an obvious refuge.

In the way it was planned and executed -- rather than the community it was designed to serve -- Sponge qualifies a digital-age version of the projects Samuel Mockbee oversaw at Auburn University’s Rural Studio in the 1990s. If the structure shares the sensibility of earlier projects from Ball-Nogues Studio, the task of designing and building it fell ultimately to the students. As a result, the final product was missing the tight integration of concept, computation and craft that marks most of the firm’s installations, in which precision and repetition ultimately blur into a kind of beauty.

In the end, it was something Ball told me as we were wandering through the festival’s crowds that stuck with me more than the forms of the Elastic Plastic Sponge. ‘Now that there’s just no money for new construction,’ he said, ‘what we have to figure out is, how does architecture do the things architecture has always done? How does architecture achieve the effects it’s always achieved?’

It is, as they say, the question of the hour. One answer is that architects will increasingly design projects that are more about spatial effects than structure. Lighting, landscape installations, shade structures and reconfigured spaces between buildings may, at least for a few years, replace buildings as commissions.


Some of these new quasi-architectural designs will rely on digital screens and immersive computer-aided effects. But many others will get by with cheap, workaday materials. Sponge was created largely with off-the-shelf parts that cost a grand total of $15,000, according to Ball.

The architects who thrive in this difficult period will be those able to reinvent themselves, at least to a degree, as sleight-of-hand artists, bringing to inexpensive or immaterial designs a sense of heft or spectacle. And in the coming years, fans of experimental architecture and design will increasingly travel to get our aesthetic fix not to some brand-new museum or iconic skyscraper but to gatherings like Coachella, where the Bilbao Effect is now being recreated on the cheap in temporary, stripped-down and occasionally thrilling form.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Top photo: Rob Andrews, 24, from Miami, Fla., crawls through the Elastic Plastic Sponge. Second photo: Do LaB’s structure. Third photo: Bamboo Starscraper, by Gerard Minakawa. Bottom photo: Flaming Lotus Girls, Serpent Mother. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times