Ardabil is an ancient city in northwestern Iran. In 1974 Peter Alford Andrews, who has now been nominated to receive the Burton medal for his work on the Eurasian tent, interviewed the only two Iranian Alachigh makers, They were brothers.
They told him that they were in fact the only two craftsmen who made this specific tent type, legendary because of its elegant curvature and flowing design, a tent that stands alone amongst all the trellis tents of the region, I mean that literally, as it stands alone without a trellis.
The two brothers claimed that the work had remained exclusively the speciality of their family since it was introduced eight generations earlier by Seyyd Bejan, they could name the makers in each of the eight generations.
What a lot of people do not know is about the way it all came about, did you wonder how come the UK has become crazy about yurts? To begin with we all owe the come back of nomadic tent types to a book, that not accidentally bears the same name, the fruit of Peter Alford Andrews’ work. In it he has covered all nomadic tent forms in the Middle East. He and his wife have traveled extensively and lived with the nomads themselves, documenting the tents to the inch, it is a master piece with exact drawing of the frame work, the felts, even the decorations on the door panels.
Peter, who has become a good friend, never imagined that his work to document nomadic tents before they disappear will catch on like that, but that is exactly the point, for something to catch on it needs to have a story in it, he himself was inspired by a one liner from one of his lecturers who said, “no one has taken tent architecture seriously”.
Stories need to have a core in them, something that catches us, in the same way the American guy who coined the phrase “the Mediterranean diet” he never thought that it will become such a hit few decades later, nor did Thor Heyerdahl ever think that his original “back to nature” idea will become a movement, he even later laughed saying he was probably the first hippie.
Similarly Bill Coperthwaite, who had sadly passed some years ago, never imagined that his experimentations with yurts will ignite the a craze in the US. The point is that good design or good ideas always have some core in them, and all those above share a truth, which is a traditional entity, they are based on the lives of rural communities. Be it Italian peasants, Polynesians sea farers and navigators, and the great nomadic people of the Steppe. Their freedom, their rurality, their traditions are those that ignite this thing in us, the feeling of belonging to a wilder earth.
I have predicted two years ago that canvas tents in the UK will start disappearing and be switched over to cabins or wooden huts, and so does the trend seem to go. Meanwhile in Italy, people can not get enough of yurts, in fact after Covid importers can not even get them, my phone keeps on ringing all day.
Whilst Glamping has gone a little crazy, driven by bigger profits, moving little by little to prefabricated structures, or using some amazing design concepts that some small guy worked out in his shed and copying them into a plastic tent, in an industry where intellectual property has never been regulated all can happen.
The trend however is a move away from making yurts or nomadic tents by hand, away from the craft aspect. We would like to take things back to the original story, having sat with the women who invented the word glamping, or having worked with the first people in the industry, I feel also that the idea has been boycotted and executed in some very strange ways. What it aimed to achieve is to give people the feeling of mystery, the spirit of nomadism, and tribalism yet here in the UK. It was so successful the whole world copied it.
It was never a new concept, the mogul emperors invented Glamping generations before, they had cities of tents, that would put burning man festival to shame, court tents that reached the sky, two story decorated and bejewelled pavilions, cities that travelled.
We decided we would like to first take the concept back to its origins in Peter Andrews work, the idea was to not let those tent forms disappear, to be honest, the main Asian nomadic tent form – the yurt has been covered and done extensively, we would like to focus for a moment on some of the other tent forms in order to save their architectural concepts, more so because those are stories of mutant forms, a tribe or a people that had to redesign away from the rest. The Northern Afghan tribe alliance that translates into the 4 tribes in English, all had a double curvature yurt, some of them claim to be descendent of the Mongol army (the Hazzara) but why are they the only ones to use the double curvature? What was the idea behind its design, why the tall profile and the small wheels?
I have theorised before those are because it was in fact the first western yurt, when mongols moved west and encountered wetter climates, so the higher and smaller wheel could be open (each yurt has open fires in the past) and the form may have helped with smoke.
The same goes to the Alachigh, which like a yurt is a curved tent, but unlike it is only uses ribs without trellis, the genius of the yurt was that it allows for shorter pieces of wood and tied bundles that could be simply opened, in fact there used to be a form of tent that grouped all rafters together with a rope instead of a wheel meaning the roof could be erected like an umbrella almost, again it must have been designed around camels for weight. A lot of those tent design concepts have never seen a return, genius almost, yet now lost.
The rib tents of the Turkmen were reportedly adopted from older yurts, meaning a poorer couple would inherit the rafters and wheel of an old yurt, possibly when the trellis gave way, or older yurts had the roof only pitched on the ground to serve as an outside kitchen, at a few places those turned into their own design, and possibly this was the way the Alachigh of the Shasevan was born too. The Yomut or Turkmen of Iran, have taken one of those rib tents and made it with especially long rafters, so it turned into a yurt shape without a trellis, but high enough to stand with a wooden door. I would have liked to understand the design concept behind their thinking, and at times the easiest way is to make the structure itself, which we did a few years ago. That led to a break through in tent design but that is something for another time, plus advertising your design concepts for me usually means someone copies them before I get to realise them.
I pour over old accounts of travellers and avidly look for the mutant design forms, I think that in the last 10 years the industry have been in a design standstill, no new great concepts were actually introduced, the focus on creating prefabricated forms to keep up with demand has also wiped many of the crafts people who used to make structures for the Glamping industry, and little by little it too started to loose its appeal. The UK has always been the leader in this industry, yet now it lags behind, the passion is gone, and with it the joy of the great outdoors, almost as if people have given up on the country, own sustainability, on adventure.
In short Craft, tradition, great design mixed with natural materials will always work better, creating a story line that grabs the soul, where one can feel the gaze of the qirgiz nomads, a woman brining the hand of a guest to her heart saying you are home in my yurt.
We work with a small group of people who always led this industry, and yeah I feel like we all have gone a little astray because of the need to make a living, yet a new trend in tourism is waking up, like a wave, it wants true freedom. Once we were the only people living on the road, 10 years ago we travelled the UK in trucks seeing no one, yet no van lifers have been born everywhere, people are converting vans all across the country. Working as a non profit association in Europe (mainly Italy) also means I see a constant stream of people leaving the country, looking for rural areas and meaning, and so I know the battle for rurality is not lost, traditional ways of life will always win in the end, you can not bend nature away from itself, at the end it will go back to weather and man, shelter and rain. All this development craze and second homes will pass, it only works because people can not access nature in the UK.
Going back to nomadic tent design, I want to focus more on content, bringing sustainable tourism into being the most important aspect, almost the only way through which we can design rural areas back into community. Yet I want it to happen around the magical stories and some great design concepts.
I would like to leave you with an image of one of the greatest craft concepts in nomadic tents, one created by the Nogay.
tent was made like a yurt, except that it was woven, using two big rings around the walls which were fixed, going into a yurt wheel, it was made this way so it could be lifted on and off a small cart, and was only used by the newly wedded couple. This is a great metaphor also for the nomadic tent design and the state of the modern world, because now days the largest of all yurts made are wedding yurts, and the nogay wedding yurt was in fact so small it could be lifted on and off and made intact so it would not need to collapse, a great effort and nomadic tent design now gone. Again I would love to see it remade, in fact the idea behind all of this research is to focus again on making some great nomadic tent design, maybe use some modern materials where applicable but without losing the form and concepts. This amazing little tent can become the best Shepard hut even made.
Soon when time allows I would like to open up the possibility of working and teaching others, so we can together create some of those great tents of the past, we have some great business ideas, enough to allow for at least one or two new independent businesses. This we think would tie very well with the new emerging market of sustainble tourism, imagine moving camps as a safari on rewlibding projects in the highlands, yet done with nomadic tents instead of plastic, imagine arriving at the camp fire, and sitting inside a nomadic tent, the fire is lit, food is served, the magic flows through the wheel, and one can feel the hand of a qirgiz woman almost, going to her heart telling you, you are home inside my tent.