Some Notes on tent cities

 – by Emily Segal

Twice a year, Berlin’s Bebelplatz is turned into a white nylon zone: a combination trade show and champagne room, guarded by people with headsets. In 1994 Fern Mallis, then-director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America proclaimed: We love fashion but we don’t want to die for it. After experimental venues had led to a series of messes, such as plaster crumbling into the lap of Herald Tribune editor Suzy Menkes, he moved the carnival and pitched tents in New York’s Bryant Park.

Even though fashion week didn’t originate in a tent, it’s an apt setting. Tents have a long history of housing temporary spectacles of frivolity: circuses, weddings, Muammar Gaddafi. In the dictionary, a tent is a portable cloth shelter, attached to the ground by cords, loops and pegs. The word comes from the Latin verb to stretch: it’s shelter stretched over the ground. A tent is also always temporary, if not in terms of material, than in site: unlike most architecture, it’s not meant to stay in one spot forever.

A tent city, then, is any area of soft, mobile, low-cost temporary shelters. In abstract, it’s the idea of a city ultimately absent of real infrastructure and stability. But when you connect »tent city« with the word »camp,« which has largely the same definition (»a place with temporary accommodations of huts, tents, or other structures, typically used by soldiers, refugees, prisoners, or travelers: the enemy camp, a detention camp« 1) the somber shades emerge. Tent cities are not just abstract, fluid urban plans; in the cases of tent cities built for victims of natural or political disaster, they’re zones of desperation and poverty. Occasionally, tent cities house protesters (at Kent State in 1977, in post-Katrina New Orleans), prisoners (at Maricopa County Jail in Arizona), religious pilgrims (on the Hajj to Mecca) and even more rarely, spectacles of insane grandeur (in 1971 Shah Reza Palavi pitched one in Tehran to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of Iran’s monarchy).

It was a horrifying coincidence, then, that the earthquake in Haiti happened during the writing of this article. With much of Port-au-Prince devastated, and millions rendered homeless, tents sprung up almost immediately. Vincent Houver, chief of mission in Haiti for the International Organization of Migration, said in a press release on January 14: »What we need is tents, tents and more tents.« UN chief Ban Ki-moon said on January 15th that the basic plan was to construct tent cities on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince »for the foreseeable future«.

This essay is not an attempt to equalize the fashion week tent with the space that houses survivors of the disaster in Haiti (or Katrina, or the US housing crisis, or any massive emergency, for that matter). This essay does, however, see the DERZEIT Structure Issue as an opportunity to take the tent out of fashion week and look more closely at the different forms the structure takes as temporary architecture, housing and shelter. On a spectrum that includes emergency, poverty, piety, grandeur and excess, the tent – and the tent city – emerges almost universally as politically charged and symbolically variegated structures. Tent cities are about power and money.

Until recently, predominant media images of the ›tent city‹ were the unauthorized, makeshift shelter zones of America’s homeless. Notoriously, a sprawling tent city in Sacramento, California, where 150 people squatted near railroad freight line, was widely interpreted in the media as representative of US economic decline. There are many notable and some undocumented ones throughout the US. In 2007, 250 homeless people in New Orleans erected a tent city on a grassy patch outside city hall, taking advantage of the striking visual of their conditions to protest the fucked up status of the housing situation post-Katrina, chanting »Hey, Ray! How about a house today!« into Ray Nagin’s office window. The tent city was both the problem and method of dissent – a bleakly packaged marriage of form and content.

A very different kind of tent city happens every year in Mina, a Saudi desert valley city east of Mecca, where pilgrims stop along the journey to complete the »stoning of the devil,« one of several rituals that are part of the Hajj. The process of housing the millions of pilgrims (every able-bodied Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime) has cost the Saudi government almost about 4.6 billion Euro. There are 40,000 peaked white tents, plus overpasses, tunnels, electricity and water networks. Images of the site show a vast field of white points stretching into the distance. The tents were fireproofed after a devastating fire in 1997 that caused a stampede, killing over 200 and injuring at least a thousand more. Which puts the word ›temporary‹ in a new light: a tent city happens to burst into flame a lot more easily than a city made of buildings. 

In contrast, perhaps the most lavish display of frivolity of the last century (and possibly one of the most lavish events period) also took place in a tent city: a weeklong luxury camp built by Shah Reza Pahlevi in 1971 next to the desert ruins of Persepolis to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Iran’s monarchy. The whole shebang was ›inspired by‹ the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting in France between Henry VIII and Francis I in 1520. Each power attempted to out-dazzle the other’s with clothes, feasts, tents and jousts. Pahlevi’s tent city, in turn, covered 160 acres: three massive royal tents with 59 smaller ones surrounding them in the shape of a star. Guests ate roasted peacock breast off Limoges china and drank from Baccarat crystal. The contrast of the festival with the surrounding poverty was staggering; university students in Iran protested; many say that the event ultimately cost Pahlevi his throne. The event reads as an encyclopedia of excess: it was the most blinged tent city of modern history, making Pahlevi’s delusions of grandeur concrete. 

Almost as visually striking is the tent city annex at Maricopia County Jail in Arizona, the fourth largest jail system in the world. Many people jailed there work in chain gangs and wear silent-movie-style black-and-white striped uniforms. The place is famous for its pink handcuffs and underwear, which the prisoners are allowed to strip down to when the inside-tent temperatures rocket up to 150°F during hot Arizona summers. Joe Arpaio, the county’s sheriff, responsible for all this, said 2003 AP story: saying, »it’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn’t commit any crimes.« 

Here, the second dictionary definition of »camp« comes in handy: »the supporters of a particular party or doctrine regarded collectively.« Tents are as much about doctrine as shelter: it’s where politics meet place.
Even in the case of Berlin Fashion Week, a struggle over the implications of temporary buildings is at play. Bebelplatz, home of the fashion week tent, is also the site where the S.A. and Nazi youth groups burned 20,000 books in 1933, and the glassed-over subterranean monument that commemorates it. A petition by the Berufsverbandes Bildender Künstler Berlin protests the presence of fashion week, arguing that holding an event like this on the spot is politically and historically unconscionable. (Oblivious) global nomads camped out in their (fashion week) tent – it’s both a lame pun and a quintessential Berlin drama, where a site of historical atrocity meets contemporary levity, and chafes.   ◊

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