Architecture for One
June 21, 2014 9:37 PM   Subscribe

Mountain Lab: An Interview With Scott McGuire
"As a form of minor architecture," the resulting short article explained, "tents are strangely overlooked. They are portable, temporary, and designed to withstand even the most extreme conditions, but they are usually viewed as simple sporting goods. They are something between a large backpack and outdoor lifestyle gear—certainly not small buildings. But what might an architect learn from the structure and design of a well-made tent?" Amongst the group of people we spoke with that day was outdoor equipment strategist Scott McGuire, an intense, articulate, and highly focused advocate for all things outdoors.
posted by the man of twists and turns (14 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The patience for long-term adventures is waning. People want to go out and have an experience. They want it to be quick. They want it to be impactful. They want it to be memorable. And, to be honest, they want it to be easy. It’s the “I want to see Europe in five days and here are all my pictures” thing. It’s speed and efficiency.

I find this saddening. There's something about getting lost in the wilderness that just opens you up to new experiences that the quick day trip won't give you. The ability to show down and not necessarily Instagram pictures is invaluable.
posted by arcticseal at 10:14 PM on June 21, 2014

You mentioned then that, in Europe, campgrounds are so crowded that a different level of privacy is expected from a tent, whereas, in the U.S., you can get away with using much more transparent materials, because you might be the only people at a certain campsite for two or three nights in a row and you don’t need as much privacy.

That section on global product design stood out to me. I see this all the time when I'm researching and looking at options:

Creating a globalized product in a highly specialized market can be very challenging and, oftentimes, there has to be a tolerance. You either have to have tolerance for a broader product assortment to meet regional needs, or you have to accept the fact that you may have a product that’s not specialized enough to hit the local super-user, because you’ve traded off specificity for an ambiguity that will reach more people.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:38 PM on June 21, 2014

That section on global product design stood out to me

Yes me, too. Very interesting interview, thanks for posting MoTaT
posted by smoke at 10:57 PM on June 21, 2014

They missed their chance to observe tents as more than sporting goods, as more than architecture, to view them as tools of a social movement with its own architecture and city planning.

Occupy Anchorage Tent painted with The First Amendment. OWS members like me fought local government to recognize our occupation of the parks as a political demonstration rather than a leisure activity of outdoor camping. Being portable, Occupy Anchorage moved around the urban area and rebuilt their villages. Deeper into the North Occupy Fairbanks erected commercial grade cold huts used by oil rig workers in severe arctic conditions, and put them right in the middle of town. Like most camps, they had to occupy their tents continuously or the police would declare them abandoned and rip them down. You try continuously inhabiting in a tent that has an airlock to keep out the -40F temps.

At my Occupation here in the midwest, it was a wealthy, liberal community and they donated tents from high end camping goods companies, all different types of them. And they were all completely unsuitable for anything but the lightest use. Most of them were shredded or useless after a couple of weeks. the zippers shot, poles bent and broken, and no way to tie them down. The weather blwe in and they were full of mud and mold. No decent political protester could put up with such misery, so the local homeless took over all the tents and ran the Occupation out of the park.

So now I am expected to listen to some idealistic bullshit like this:

As seen through Scott's eyes, the flexibility, portability, ease of use, and multi-contextual possibilities of outdoor equipment design began to suggest a more effective realization, we thought, of the avant-garde legacy of 1960s architects like Archigram, who dreamed of impossible instant cities and high-tech nomadic settlements in the middle of nowhere.

Been there, done that. It sucked. During the Occupation, those high tech North Face tents were the first to fall apart. We eventually received a donation of a huge army surplus tent about 18 feet in diameter, we called it "the MASH tent" since it was huge and green with rollup sides. It's amazing how functional military gear is after evolving for decades, since it is almost always being deployed somewhere, in some new environment. And the city forced us to move the damn tent once a week, to keep its legal definition ad a temporary structure rather than a permanent one.

SO now these camping goods manufacturers are studying the military gear used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how they carry 1-man self-contained kits for short raids. This is their model for the modern leisure age where someone wants to go on a rapid deployment to invade nature and capture the territory without resistance. No IEDs in the camp, but bring along a .45 in case you run into a bear.

There is something tragically fucked up about this article:

So, yes, we are seeing elements of the military trickle into outdoor gear. I just think that, with the needs of the military being what they are today, and the way that wars are being fought now, it just happens to serendipitously fall in line with a cultural desire for short, fast, light outdoors experiences—you’re done and you’re back.

By all means, let us militarize leisure. This is why I quit the Boy Scouts, the leaders were all old Korean War vets and I did not like marching. I was only 10 years old, I am not going to do marching drills. At ease, camper.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:12 PM on June 21, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think other aspects that were mostly missing were minimizing consumerism, and querying female-presenting users. Except briefly towards the end when they showed some Poler and similar multifunctional gear.

I'm a female-assigned person who uses my outdoorsy gear to do all of the below:
Motorcycle, hike, x-c ski/snowshoe, canoe/kayak, carpenter, mechanic, urban adventure, urban travel... and also set an esthetic.

Even if I could afford it or store it, I don't need to own a dozen different pieces of technical outerwear when what I need is one layering system that will keep me dry, warm, and sometimes safety-armored. Trying to find quality gear in my short/stout size is a nightmare - even custom shops such as Aerostich or Motoport can't always build me what I want, although I will give a shout-out to Motoport who made a now-discontinued armored adventure parka that lasted through two crashes and 15 years. Just three companies available in the US make an all-black (seriously, my only choices in woman-shaped gear are pink or white trimmed?!), all-weather, armored jacket that is not a hopeless buckle/strap/unnecessary pocket snagfest. Forget pants coming in size short or for those of us with serious junk in the trunk (I'm talking about you, Outdoor Research and Columbia Sportswear. Even if your gear is recyclable). Yo, motorcycle "adventure" boot designers - athletic calves are FAT calves. Small armored gloves need short fingers - many brands no longer come in sizes smaller than medium/8" palm and "ladies" gloves seem to assume one needs fingernail endspace. Many waterproof waistbelted packs don't come in size short, and no, piddly little daypacks do not cut it.
posted by Dreidl at 12:03 AM on June 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

Been there, done that. It sucked. During the Occupation, those high tech North Face tents were the first to fall apart.

They are designed for low weight over robustness. You certainly can use them for long periods, but they do need to be used with care. It's a reasonable tradeoff if you're backpacking and have to carry your weight. That said, I personally use an army surplus bivvy bag and tarp.
posted by jaduncan at 12:13 AM on June 22, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm also currently cycling from the UK to Istanbul, so they are having a good long term test.
posted by jaduncan at 12:15 AM on June 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

For those wishing to trek deeper into the backcountry of tents...
posted by fairmettle at 3:57 AM on June 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Interesting interview. I don't think I've ever heard anyone address the cultural aspects of outdoor gear. If anyone's interested in the "I make it all myself" end of things, Ray Jardine's site is a good place to start. He's pretty eccentric, but my wife and I have been backpacking with his packs (from back when GoLite made them) and a simple tarp (just a 10' x 10' square of nylon) for a long time now. The stuff works great and is very low-tech.
posted by Drab_Parts at 6:24 AM on June 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

The stuff works great and is very low-tech.

"Huh, a quilt rather than a sleeping bag. This fellow seems a bit off his rocker." Then I

This particular Quilt has gone with us on several trips and expeditions:

Greenland - Two weeks on the Greenland ice cap.
South Pole - Two months skiing to the South Pole.
Vinson - Seven Days climbing Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica.
Two weeks at Patriot Hills Basecamp, in Antarctica.
Aconcagua - Three weeks on Aconcagua. Highest camp: 19,160' (5840 m)

... I am much less skeptical now.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:33 AM on June 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

god, this article made me swing from wanting to high-five this dude to wanting to punch him in the face (sometimes in the midst of high-fiving). I mean, there's so much wisdom and insight coming from a lifetime of being outdoors and doing adventure-y stuff, and being mindful about it, but it's being mindful in so many wrong ways.

I think the thing that grated on me most was this focus on optimization of gear. I mean, yes, to a certain degree, there is a visceral pleasure in using a well-designed piece of gear -- in wearing a backpack where the pockets are just right for you to reach for something when you need it, or in having a tent that you can assemble in five minutes, at night, in the middle of a rain storm and keeps its interior dry, so you won't spend an entire night as a miserable shivering mess. It's nice when gear becomes invisible and just allows you to bloody get on with it. However, give some credit to the adventurer. Credit the jury-rigger. Credit the clever user who also packs a bunch of spare zip-loc bags, a knife, some nylon rope and, a lot of duct-tape. We don't need you to do our job for us. We just need you to get out of the way.

Credit the fact that one of the photos in the article if of a woman in a bloody skirt and bustle hiking the Alps, and if she can hack it, then there's no need to mollycoddle the rest of us.

I think I got most annoyed when the conversation turned to the idea of trying to perfect a kit for a specific environment, like hiking in the High Sierras vs. the desert, and how people have to, like utterly have to min-max everything for different environments, and I just kept thinking to how I was so happy when I went through a year of camping, hiking, biking, etc. and realized that I made it through that year with buying any new gear. That there's a certain satisfaction in having that baseline of: backpack, sleeping bag, tent, stove, boots, etc. that will provide for your basic needs and with that kit you can almost go anywhere. I mean, no, it probably won't work for Antarctica or the deep caves of the Yucatan, but a week in Patagonia? a winter backpack in the Rockies? a three day in Arizona? Sure, bring it. I feel like too many people adopt the consumerist mentality of letting suboptimal gear get in the way of their adventures, and it annoys me to read things that reinforce that view.

I should say, though, that I get this guy's point of view. I mean, he's a product designer. He's paid to listen to consumers, and figure out better ways of serving us. His life and future would be better if we were all consumerist bitches buying what he's selling; and I like North Face, Osprey, Black Diamond and etc.engough to support them when it makes sense. But, god, you guys, stop encouraging the gearheads, chasing after minimal improvements to very specific needs. It's tunnel vision getting in the way of designing some really good shit.

Don't denigrate compromise like you did in that article! Compromise also equals versatility. I'd prefer having a pack that can be stretched and overloaded a bit to handle a week in Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness, and can also be fine for a long weekend in the desert. They're not the different, you guys.

Though, in contrast to other comments in this thread, I don't begrudge the inclination to be inspired by the military, or the observation that people want a more focused/curated outdoor experience. To the latter, people are squeezed for time. We don't go on week or month long expeditions because we work wageslave jobs with two or three weeks of "vacation" and who's going to spend their year's allowance hiking the Appalachian Trail or circumnavigating Yellowstone? That ain't North Face's fault that we're doing that. We own that choice. They're just responding to that choice.

Similarly, the military is, on top of being a world-class murdering, soul-breaking, regime toppling bureaucracy, also a fantastically pork-barrelled materials research institution. Every modern climbing rope that we use in rock gyms and mountaineering has its roots in WWI and WWII alpine warfare conditions. Canteens, hiking boots, waterproof clothing, freeze-dried backpacker pantry food, antibiotics, goddamn GPS? All of that has been bootstrapped by military research. And I am confident that after a decade of having women in frontline roles, we are going to see some amazingly functional and durable sports bras show up in camping and athletic stores soon.

I mean, no, I'm not interested in bringing a gun into the woods. I have no dreams of using my rappelling skills to pretend to be a special ops warrior. I walked in protest of Iraq in 2002/2003, and would walk in protest again. I think civilian use of nightvision goggles is stupid ... but I'm not going to pretend that there isn't some kind of benefit in massive government investment in putting thousands of people in inhospitable outdoor conditions and keeping them healthy and productive. Because otherwise, who the hell would've paid for it? Hippies? Please.

Overall, I liked the article, and I like that there are folks like this who are paid to think about designing better tools for us. I just wish the focus\market demand was to help with making the outdoors less intimidating. Or really, I wish the article was more about this bit that was buried near the end.
What we’re finding, on the other end, is that the goal is to just make sure the approachability of the outdoors is simple enough, and convenient enough, and affordable enough, that, when people are trading a weekend in front of their Wii for a weekend taking their family camping on the side of a river, that it’s not intimidating. It’s not scary. For instance, how do you design a tent for someone who’s never set up a tent before, or who thinks a tent is so expensive that it’s a barrier to entry? A tent that’s not so complex that I can’t even imagine using it? Or a tent that’s not so small that I can’t stand up and change my clothes? What does that look like?
yeah, what does that look like? Because I have a lot of friends who I'd like to encourage to continue camping, but I need to answer their reservations about investing in gear.
posted by bl1nk at 7:34 PM on June 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

though, in retrospect, now that I've gotten my initial graarrr out, I also realize that this article's done a bit of that classic "taking the reader on the journey that the subject has traveled" by taking an initial POV with the classic Patagonia/North Face, "we're all 70s dirtbaggers who subscribe to a specific outdoors subculture of climbing/skiing/surfing/cycling and we are totally intense about the specific thing we do, and all the stuff that we're selling you is the stuff that we wish we had when we were living out of our vans and climbing in Joshua Tree/surfing in Maui/skiing in Chamonix/whatever" and it's really about how that classic semi-pro enthusiast background is now being challenged by a new generation that doesn't necessarily self-identify as outdoors-y and don't spend every summer weekend in Yosemite, but has a more general and modular interest in adventure. And on a second read, I think he gets what I mentioned about versatility and compromise; and I get why the article gets more interesting in the second half, because this traditional outdoors company mindset is still figuring out this new generation.

But, at the same time, I worry that the inherent flaw with this approach is that it's hard to tease out how this contemporary interest is genuine vs. being something that's just merely fashionable. Like, hipsters with flannel and Ernest Shackleton Antarctica beards are A Thing nowadays, and I don't know how many of these dudes actually know how to use a map and compass or start a campfire. It's been discussed in AskMeFi before, both in terms of the the faux Americana/outdoorsiness aesthetic that needed a name and also as a separate fashion movement that takes the materials science from outdoor wear and recontextualizes them in an urban setting. And it's not that either of these movements are interesting, but I don't see either of them as long-lived, and I worry that the commercial interests in the market will just do some silly things while chasing these trends. I mean, it's easy to forget the Abercrombie & Fitch used to be a serious outdoor gear company like being the Filson/REI of their day, and just sold their soul towards becoming a lifestyle brand and are now an utter complete joke. The North Face and Patagonia ain't that far behind.

I do want more people to be able to appreciate the outdoors, but I worry about the mixed signals, and I'd also utterly dread the idea of the pop-up trailer that they alluded to, that's delivered to your campsite and gives you all of the comforts of home except in a car campground. "Glamping" in general as a meme just has to die.
posted by bl1nk at 8:07 PM on June 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

This discussion is in tents.
posted by Kabanos at 7:50 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Unintentional flying tents
posted by Kabanos at 11:48 AM on June 24, 2014

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