Mobile Architectures

Buildings that are constantly in movement, oscillating between expansion into space and compaction for transport, contain another relationship between gestalt and fabric. The design and the physical building are both simultaneously fluid.

The building is still the building when it is packed away on sledges or the backs of yaks. Parts of the building are hard, parts are soft, and the interplay between these opposites creates the rhythm in space.

The majority of such structures are also quite flexible in the forms that they can take on. A northern conical tent can be erected as a steep cone, to shed snow and minimise heated volume, or widened out to accommodate an influx of guests. A Saharan Berber tent, with its centre cross poles can quickly be dropped in height to accommodate a sandstorm, or raised to allow hot air to dissipate through ventilation.

Another zone of fluidity comes in through the process by which the tent renews itself. The Nenet “mya” (usually known by the Russian word “tchoom”), may have been in existence as a single artefact for over a thousand years, and just as the human body regenerates, so the tent regenerates, poles being replaced as they weaken, and when the inner skins (niuks) are worn, the outer layer moves inside and new outer covers are made. There is no reason for the life of such a tent to end, for unlike the human body there is no mechanism of ageing in this process. It is more akin to the Nenet family. The individuals may age and depart form the inner life of the tent, but new members come to replace them. The family and the tent are constant together. The Tibetan black tent is similar but through a different process, new strips of cloth being replaced to either side of the central slot opening centre as the old strips decay at the edges. It is impossible to gauge the age of either the structures or the family timeline within.

Just as with a family, a Nenet Mya can also divide. If the family becomes too big for the tent it is likely (i.e. I have recorded this) that the tent will itself divide and become two families

This renewal allows for a slow process of refinement to take place which is quite different from the restoration that we might make of an old house. In the early 19th century, iron stoves were accommodated into the Nenet winter tent – a huge upheaval for the order of the supporting poles, in more recent times cut floorboards have replaced woven twig mats, and I have even recorded tents with tiny Perspex porthole windows sewn into the reindeer hide covers. It is an immense task trying to date and order this creeping evolution of the design pattern, for it would appear that once a new idea has become accepted, it will, within a generation or so, spread throughout the entire manifestation of the type. As the renewal process continues so an influx of new ideas permeates both the design idea of the tent, and simultaneously the physical tent too, and soon all tents adapt to this pattern.

There would have been some very substantial upheavals in the past, each coming in with a new technological or cultural impetus. The use of 36 axe-hewn poles, for example, has probably replaced the use of fewer round poles. The northern craftsmen still have the skill to use even a crude axe to pare down wood, and formed wooden artefacts (in particular a sledge runner) have been dated at three thousand years old. But earlier excavations of sites of conical dwellings (deemed permanent but the evidence is not clear) suggest the poles were not wrot some 8,000 years ago. We have little left of the evolution of this tent type as they do not leave traces (at least not until one is found in the ancient permafrost). So some of the past development can only be based on speculation, and much further research is required into this area. However, the developments that are taking place right now are also dramatic.

There is a massive evolutionary process taking place, for example, in the summer tent, which must be dragged on sledges across marshy ground. The single skin cover traditionally used has been replaced by geotextiles traded with migrant gas workers. The lighter weight of this fabric is appreciated, but the occupants struggle to sleep at night (where daylight last 24 hours), as it is translucent white in colour. The design is in evolution but does not as yet fit the whole pattern of environmental and social needs of the occupants. Up until this point the summer tent was probably the most traditional, and until recently there were still summer tents covered in sewn covers of birch bark.

So within the unfixed-permanenets we can see evolution of the design-pattern taking places as a result of numerous small adaptations by members of the culture.
One final adaptation should be mentioned as this design pattern jumped cultures. Some 200 years ago Komi traders moved into the area. These people were generally orthodox Christians, and they met the tents of the Nenets which are adapted to the Shamanic tradition. Key to this is the existence of a single spirit pole at the back of the tent. The Komi learned to herd reindeer, build sledges and make tents from the Nenets, but they omitted the spirit pole. Not only is this culturally significant but it is also technically challenging. Each tent actually contains two tripods. The one best known is the erection tripod (which for the Nenets may also be a coupled pair). Using completely different poles a cooking tripod – the size of the whole tent, is created within, and the back leg of this tripod is the spirit pole. Both the Komi, and the Khanty who went through the same process some 120 years later, have omitted the spirit pole. Ask a Nenet where the spirit of the tent lives, and it is in this pole. Ask a Komi, and they will tell you that the tent has no spirit, it is just a house. (I also asked the Khanty who pointed to a large teddy bear in the corner and told me that this was the spirit of the tent).
Spirit pole clasped at the back of the tent by two horizontals from which the cooking pot is hung.