After his first camping trip to Yosemite, in 1921, architect Rudolf Schindler declared that he wanted to build a "permanent tent." A couple years later, his newly built home in West Hollywood featured sleeping porches sheltered by canvas for outdoor slumber, and yards landscaped to function as outdoor living rooms, with fireplaces in case one wanted to set up camp right there.
While Schindler tried to weave the experience of camping into urban architecture, some 90 years later the reverse occurred, under the portmanteau "glamping." Glamping, or glamorous camping, entails luxury cabins, with possible amenities including flat-screen TVs, king beds, wifi, and full-service bathrooms. It brings all the comforts of city living into nature, and can cost well up to thousands per night.
Located somewhere between these two impulses is a new project out of Cal Poly Pomona's College for Environmental Design, whose students were asked to design prototypes for affordable cabins to increase the popularity of camping in state parks. One of these designs, The Wedge, was selected for fabrication and shown at the State and L.A. County fairs this summer. It is also under consideration for mass production and distribution into the state park system.
The Wedge was chosen for its aesthetic appeal and buildability -- it can be assembled in just four days from recycled, prefabricated elements. The spartan, 156-square-foot cabin is equipped with three built-in beds, two tables, and a bench. The roof slopes sharply over triangular clerestory windows, which, along with french doors allow maximum light into the cabin. On one end of the structure its floor, ceiling, and two walls extend outward, creating a sheltered, shaded porch. The angled roof creates a modern sleekness, while the whorled plywood and knotty pine add a raw rusticity. It resembles a stylish Tiny House from the pages of Dwell magazine, but keeping close to nature means it will always lack a couple of modern comforts: electricity and running water.
The College's studio class was taught by associate architecture professor Juintow Lin, who explained the parameters of the project: the cabins needed to be transportable, economical, flexible for different kinds of users, and fire resistant. Its walls shouldn't be hollow, which would attract rodents. Most of the students' ten designs brought far more light into the interior than conventional cabins do, drawing from the California lineage of blurring indoor and outdoor spaces. Lin told me that the designs ranged from modern to semi-traditional to whimsical -- one riffed on a tent, another on a lifeguard station. But most designs aimed to make the cabin appear new and attract younger visitors, swerving away from the nostalgic Lincoln-log aesthetic of second-home mountain towns like Big Bear. Student Laida Aguirre said, "What we're really trying to do is a remix of the architecture and culture of camping."
A remix is necessary. Our state parks have suffered a 37% decrease in state funding over the past five years and seen a decline in visitors. The largest group of aficionados (families, older professionals) is still camping, but the younger, and thus future, generation is not. In an effort to find out why, the independent California Parks Forward Commission (of which the Environmental Design College's dean, Michael Woo, is a member) has undertaken a study to assess state parks and make suggestions for their future sustainability. According to their research, millennials are a key population to attract. One, they are currently the largest age group in the country, and secondly, they will "significantly influence the next six presidential elections, and the public policy priorities that will shape and influence conservation efforts."
Experiencing the grandeur of nature first-hand will make its need for protection less abstract. And who better to design for this population than their peers? When asked how this generation might approach camping differently, Lin noted that on a research trip her class took to a Henry W. Coe state park last spring, digital connectivity was a central concern. Some students ran their idling cars to charge their phones. They suggested different ideas for staying plugged-in while camping, like offering solar panels for charging outlets. Lin said they're looking into options. It will be a balancing act to offer digital connectivity, which has proven to increase use of public spaces, while also wanting to preserve the quieter, reflective aspects of being in nature.
Most importantly, the cabins can help mitigate the hurdle of purchasing a set of camping equipment -- an expense that can be prohibitive to lower-income residents. By offering appealing, comfortable, and affordable ways to experience our natural spaces, California's state parks hope to see an increase in camping among groups whose participation is low or waning. With cabins that look this good, camping might be in for a new renaissance.
The Wedge will be shown at the 62nd annual California RV Show, which runs from Oct. 10-19, 2014 in the Gate 9 area at 2200 N. White Ave. at Fairplex, Pomona.