Masters at the craft of tenting devise creative solutions for challenging installations.
Imagine a theatrical performance where the contribution of every member of the cast and crew is flawless; every costume, set piece and prop functions perfectly; and the sound and lighting come off without a single hitch.
As an audience member, you can appreciate the immense amount of work that goes into such a performance. But you are unlikely to hear the behind-the-scene stories: the last-minute zipper failure, the sweaty actor whose mic tape wouldn’t stick, the scenery piece that fell apart in the final dress rehearsal.
This scenario is not unlike what guests experience at a complex tented event. While they may “ooh” and “ahh” at the final product, they are unlikely to appreciate or even be aware of all the challenges that needed to be overcome to create a flawless installation. That’s the thing about masters of their craft: they tend to make extremely difficult tasks look effortless.
The experts behind some of the tent projects submitted to the 2018 International Achievement Awards (IAA) competition have such tales to tell. Read on about a Baltimore, Md., symphony hall event that used tents to create a greatly expanded reception lobby—despite a snowstorm, a last-minute reduction in the installation timeline, and a vehicular accident at the site; an international art fair in Miami, Fla., hosting a commissioned work of art that required a two-level performance space for kinetic art pieces and a reflective pool; and a private wedding in Southampton, N.Y., with a small village of tents, each housing a step of the multiphase wedding day. These “WOW!” installations demonstrate creative problem solving and the tent industry’s best talent.
Enter stage front
The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall is an icon of civic architecture and a focal point of the cultural district on the north end of downtown Baltimore, attracting many events year-round. A local hospital wanted to host a celebration gala and chose Symphony Hall as the venue, only to learn that the lobby of the 1982 structure designed by international architect Pietro Belluschi was too small for the number of guests the hospital intended to invite. The client asked Loane Bros. Inc. of Towson, Md., to create a lobby expansion with tents, but on a limited budget. The size of space that Loane Bros. could create outside the building would determine the number of people the client could invite.
“The symphony building was designed with lobbies for a full [auditorium] house so that patrons could grab a drink at intermission,” says Bryan Loane, president of Loane Bros., “but there was nowhere near enough space for this number to also have cocktails and a buffet dinner.”
The client brief called for a maximum of reception space in a configuration as open as possible, and it had to include room for catering, registration and a coat check. The area in front of the building provided adequate space for all of these activities, but it was irregularly shaped and dotted with many permanent streetscape elements including light poles, signage and landscaped features that would require work-arounds. “The entire building is curved,” Loane says, “and the lobby has a curved roof from which we could extend [tent units]. It bends about 90 degrees along a 200-feet distance.”
The curved roof was of metal sheeting, and the client requested the tents extend from this cornice to provide full weather protection. However, due to the significance and age of the architecture, attaching tents to the building was prohibited, and the same restriction extended to staking. Another challenge was even more problematic: “The long lobby we were extending only had one entrance,” says Loane, “a set of doors at one end—a huge challenge for guest flow, as guests were to flow in and out.”
Loane Bros. planned to use all Navi-Trac® and Fiesta® frame tents from Anchor Industries Inc., but would need to make several custom connections, Loane says. “A few wedge-shaped tents filled in the gaps of the increased radius that we created by placing rectangular tents up against the curving building,” he explains. The symphony permitted them only four days for installation, with car traffic access to the box office remaining open during regular business hours. Loane Bros. expected four days to be plenty of time to measure and make all the custom connections.
To solve the problem of a weather seal along the curving roof line, the company found that it could tie the custom connection panels to the exposed cross braces inside the roof’s built-in gutter. To solve the guest flow problem, Loane Bros. recommended that the symphony hall management contract with a local glass company to remove some sections of the floor-to-ceiling windows adjacent to the main building entrance. To accommodate differences between pavement levels, the company built a custom stairway from the lobby through the vacated window frames to the exterior plaza. “This would all have to happen the day of the event,” says Loane, “and the stairs would be disassembled after the event so the glass could be replaced. The temperature control of the tents and lobby needed to be the same to prevent drafts.”
So far, so good. But two days before the installation was to begin, Loane Bros. was informed that a movie was to be filmed at the site and the install had to be delayed. Then, the night after the movie filming, an errant truck jumped a curb and demolished a brick ventilation tower that was to be part of the tent plan. The symphony brought in a demolition company to remove the tower debris, fenced it off and told Loane Bros. that it could not work near it.
Then Mother Nature weighed in. “The first day that we actually could start, we were hit by an unseasonable snowstorm,” Loane says. “The demolition company claimed it could not work in that weather and left, never to return. As this was right where the main guest entrance was to be, we had no choice but to tent over the demolition area with fencing, which they covered in drape.”
The event went smoothly and the client was able to hit the targeted invite list of some 1,850 guests. “The custom stairs fit perfectly and looked great, and the temperature control was ideal; the client was so pleased that they told us to plan on doing it again in two years,” Loane says.
Art Basel Miami Beach is about as prestigious an art event as one could imagine. Every winter the international jet set of the art world flocks to the city for a showcase of the best of modern and contemporary art. Unique to the 2017 Art Basel Miami event was a commissioned installation artwork that engaged the audience directly in the art itself. Renowned Los Angeles artist Lars Jan, commissioned by the legacy Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, created an interactive art piece, “Slow-Moving Luminaries,” that featured luminous structural frameworks—literally white skeletal abstracts of buildings and skyscrapers—surrounded by a shallow pool of water raised up to a second-story height. This assembly covered a labyrinth of scrim and flora to form a two-level participatory kinetic pavilion to attract visitors.
Carefully manipulating scale and motion, “Slow-Moving Luminaries” invites viewers to walk through both levels to arrive at the upper deck and reflecting pool, where the five building models move up and down through openings in the pool, each on its own cycle of upward thrust or downward recession so that each visitor experiences a unique sequence of building positions. “The Audemars Piguet Art Commission,” says Jan, allowed “viewers [to] act as performers, becoming part of the piece as they interact with it. The performance [is] spontaneous and unscripted.”
Miami-based Eventstar Structures was called upon to create the two-story frame and support systems, taking over an area of approximately 1,600 square feet. “The design and build was one of the most challenging of the year,” Alain Perez, CEO of Eventstar, says of the 2018 IAA Best in Category winning installation. “The framing of the structure required a minimum of 16-by-5-feet box beam to support the standing pool. Not only did this add significant loads to the members, it also required us to use permanent building methods to water seal the roofing panels.”
Tent roofs are typically water resistant but not entirely waterproof, Perez says. The emphasis on water on the upper deck meant that extra care was taken to leveling the floor instead of adding a minimal pitch, as is customary with flat-roofed installs to allow for efficient runoff of rainwater. Five cutouts of different sizes in the upper deck were required to accommodate the kinetic skyscraper sculptures popping up and down. These skyscraper models rested on computer-synchronized aerial lift platforms, the kind typically used in construction. “This choreographed ‘dance’ of buildings was an essential element to the metaphorical message from the artist Lars Jan,” Perez says. “The lift elements were staged prior to the build which exponentially increased the level of difficulty. The upper level was tiered to separate the art [skyscraper models] from the guest viewing area, but still needed to look and feel like one cohesive platform on both levels.”
Custom tracks with a decking finish were fabricated and installed to ensure the lower level was protected from the elements while still giving the look and feel of a high-end setting, says Perez. “Lars Jan and his team were very excited about the installation and its ability to be the canvas for his vision,” he says. Eventstar is in talks about future projects across the country with new concepts, utilizing the Art Basel structural shell as a basis.
Custom waterfront wedding
Working closely with a Southampton, N.Y., family and the family’s event planner, Stamford Tent & Event Services, Stamford, Conn., designed a unique solution that was understated yet spectacular in its scope to reflect the ideals of the bride and groom. To create the wedding couple’s dream scenario, Stamford Tent spent one month installing multiple tents in a tight backyard setting on 2.1 acres of waterfront property on Long Island. Included in the setup were a cocktail marquee, dining marquee, after-party marquee, tech marquee, talent marquee and multiple service marquees, as well as other smaller tents.
Each tent required custom pickle birch flooring and custom railings, all connected by canopies. As to be expected, there were plenty of challenges to overcome under a limited timeframe. “With the load-in to the site we had to use Terraplas and Rhino Mats to protect the client’s lawn from the weight of the trucks,” says Stephen M. Frost, president of Stamford Tent. For each tent, the Terraplas and mats were put down, creating a “road” from the property entry and across the lawn to the back lot facing the waterfront. Then the trucks were backed out and the temporary road reset for the next tent, repeating the procedure until everything was in place.
Another major challenge came with the permitting process. Meeting the local fire marshal’s “constantly changing interpretation of code” proved especially problematic, Frost says. “We would build setups, and the fire marshal would stop us and say, ‘No, you need a door here … ’ and then we’d have to rebuild to satisfy that new requirement.”
The installation featured many custom elements, including a porch with a covered patio set within a 2,800-square-foot cocktail marquee that involved custom-designed glass panels inset into a 16-by-16-foot frame.
The installation earned an IAA Outstanding Achievement Award in the private tent rental category. “The client and event planner and especially the newlyweds were very happy with the finished product,” Frost says.
Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is an architect and consultant to designers, architects and related professionals, and a frequent contributor to Specialty Fabrics Review, Fabric Architecture and Advanced Textiles Source.