It is a common architectural form. It is a universal architectural typology that transcends borders and centuries, and has been a staple in all cultures. The tent. It is a shelter with fabric draped over a frame made of poles. It is an architectural language that is directly linked to nomadic life. For example, Yurts can be used as a portable shelter for Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens. Tents are a very popular design precedent for architects. A good example is Frei Paul Otto’s lightweight structures. The tent is an intricate architectural language that blurs the lines between permanent and temporary, as well as serving as both a symbol for wealth and scarcity.

It is fascinating to see tents as luxury symbols. A quick Google search today will bring up a variety of “Glamping” options throughout Europe. These luxury holiday homes are elegant and furnished with luxurious amenities. The name is a combination of “glamorous” (camping) and “camping”. The UK has many yurts, and other similar tents, that serve as an architectural backdrop to a more “grounded”, and allow for harmony with nature and easy access to state of the-art facilities.

Yurts in Somerset, UK. Image © RICOH IMAGING COMPANY, LTD., PENTAX 645Z

However, luxury camping is not a new concept. Its roots can be traced back to the 16 th century, when the Scottish Earl Of Atholl set up lavish tents with provisions for King James V and his mother. The “African Safari” was created 400 years later. Wealthy Americans and British aristocrats flocked to colonial Africa in search of adventurous adventures, but not sacrificing luxury.

These tents were simple in design, with a canvas roof supported by poles. These tents were opulently furnished with a host of African porters and guides supporting the colonial traveler in an inherently exploitative relationship. The traveler was free to decide what “adequate compensation” would be.

Luxury Safari Tent - Serengeti, Tanzania. Image © PixHound via Shutterstock

This period has been so influential that even modern safari camps in Kenya try to evoke it architecturally. Luxury tents and camps are now implicitly associated with colonial exploitation’s riches.

The tent, on the other hand, has been used as a symbol for scarcity and deprivation through media coverage. This is more evident than ever in refugee camps. Makeshift tents made from wooden frames and billboard ads offer little protection for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The UNHCR logo is emblazoned on the tents at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and Kara Tepe in Greece. This tent is not a fake-nomadic typology like luxury tented camp, but rather a hostile site for impermanence.

Zaatari Refugee Camp. Image © Ehab Mousa via Shutterstock

The vast majority of refugee camps are located in remote, unconnected areas. Tents in this situation act as a visual indicator of asylum-seeker status. They also function as an architectural distinction between the “urban” area of a settlement. This further marginalizes the immigrants who live in refugee tents. The average stay in UNHCR camps is 17 years. This means that a refugee camp tent can be seen as a hostile place of impermanence, but it is actually a permanent home.

The Concrete Tent is located south of Bethlehem in the Palestinian refugee camp Dheisheh. It was built by the artistic group DAAR and is a gathering place, educational and social space made entirely of concrete and mesh. This is a great representation of the tent’s complex architectural language. This powerful symbolism marks the architectural legacy of refugees who were forced to live in refugee camps. It moves the refugee camp away from a single narrative of poverty or marginalization.

Concrete Tent / DAAR. Image © Sara Anna

The tent is an architectural intervention that can be used in many ways. It can be used as a vernacular architecture, luxury accommodation, or emergency shelter. You can praise it as a typology that provides a temporary, authentic, but luxurious experience while still being permanent structures. This is similar to colonial-style safari camp. They are also stigmatized as temporary structures, as in refugee camp camps, which act as a hard reminder of the violence of border crossings.