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A report from Coachella: temporary architecture, notes on camp

April 20, 2009 |  3:51 pm


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.

Do-Lab 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." 


Coachella 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.


Bamboo-Starscraper-by-Gerar 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


Comments () | Archives (10)

Dear LA Times. I love the fact that the world is now noticing "experimental architecture," as you call it. To be honest, this stuff made the scene awhile back, at the annual Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, NV. Time to get outta the cave. Challenge your environment. To everyone else, don't go to Burning Man, it's not that fun. Trust Me.

Hey, I have an idea, yeah, I just thought of it now...really cool. How about if one of architects develops a paper outhouse made of toilet paper. Put it on Skid Row, for the homeless in downtown Lost Angeles. The appreciateive homeless would just use the paper from the walls of the outhouse to wipe themselves. When they run out of toilet paper wall, the city knows that it's time to haul what is left away and replace it with a new toilet paper outhouse. Really cool low-tech.

Although I could not make it to Coachella, I heard the event was really good. I was hoping to make it but I couldn't because of prior engagements. From all the pictures I've been seeing and the reviews I've been reading, seems like it was one of the biggest events of the year since Coachella 2005. The pictures are amazing in this article!

Coachella has become a phenomenon. Not only the music and the great bands that are in the line-up make it incredible, but also all the incredible decorations that this "camp" has. Many great architects and students have put lots of work on these projects, and it’s really worth the $269 to see what a spectacular show there is to enjoy. Coachellas awesome atmosphere creates even more awe with the artworks and structures installed. The many different stages and their decorations make people love more the bands, and not only the architecture put at the camp. The lighting and the effects, the perfect sounds and the great music just make of Coachella, for many different audiences the perfect weekend, something out of usual, a great experience. In between the many bands, Coachella bring something that is very important for the audience, VARIETY, and even though the country is not going through a good time, and the economy is not at its best, people still responded very positively. Coachella for many years has been a boom, and the music event of the year, for many: especially for people in California. Cooachella keeps surprising the followers and brings great bands on stage and even though I haven’t been there, I have read so very much about the festivals and seen many pictures through some years, and know how Coachella, can really be considered and investment, getting as a result maybe one of the most awesome experiences. Music and nature; two great settings, that put you and thousands of people to share the same passions. Coachella without a doubt has turned into the Woodstocks that our parents had, except way more appropriate, and much more under control. The architects make of Coachella the place it is, because they actually by putting everything in place created the mood that after is reflected with the music and the shows, that go on for three entire days.

Phil Blaine has clearly amassed an art collection of super-sized sculptures that are metaphoric and representative of this unique genre today. He is a true artist to find these artists, their works, and exhibit them as artfully as one would in hanging a top show at the Louvre or the Met.

Among other things, this show was an amazing display of visual art. Los Angeles is one of the best places to be if you enjoy things like that.

Check out this artist, Mr. Brainwash, that's been making all sorts of visual spectacles around Los Angeles, turning it into a much more artistically viable city.


Great article, and that's me in the first picture! Does anyone know how I can get in contact with the author of this article? Christopher Hawthorne's email? Someone can just email me if they don't want to post it publicly, thanks.

Not only is Coachella, in its conception, awesome, but so is your brainstorm of integrating housing for the homeless with the ideas arising from this architectural phenomenon. Arts integration (the use of the arts to inform another medium, academic subject or community need) is a concept I have been teaching in schools for over 35 years and have recently written about in my newly published book Teaching Curriculum Through the Arts. It is an idea whose time is ripe and if we are to tackle some of the awesome problems we face, we need to start teaching our children to integrate and therefrom to create. Congratulations for making the connection between architecture, this revolutionary Coachella festival, “Camp,” and the housing crisis.

This Archinect article has more information on the SCI-Arc class itself with student accounts, overall class summary and nice phtots...



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