Tents have afforded shelter and respite in the histories of most cultures around the globe, since ancient times. Whilst cultures have become sedentary with nomadic lifestyles seemingly consigned to the past (or the hotel room), the tent has nonetheless found a new lease of life as the appeal of a stronger, more fundamental link with nature is being actively sought – most especially in the tourism sector with the rise of experiential travel.
As an Anglo-French international architect, Patrice Belle began practising architecture in both London and Paris for clients making the leap across languages and cultures to establish themselves in foreign markets. In 2008 a friend and colleague found an ideal site near Limoges, in France, for an African themed leisure park. Projected to have 200 luxury family sized tents of an irreproachable quality and design, fantasy pool reminiscent of the Great Lakes, and excellent facilities, it was to be open to guests all year round.
While you’re here, why not read our exclusive biographical feature: a journey through tents?
As project architect, Belle carried out research to source the most appropriate tents, providing the best quality, design, longevity and value for money. Exclusive Tents came out significantly ahead of the field (and continue to do so, according to Belle’s monitoring of the market). The global financial meltdown was too much for the “African Legends Resort” Project. However, an excellent working and personal relationship was forged with Paul and Angelika Zway, of Exclusive Tents, where the meeting of architecture and luxury tents has perfectly reflected the emergence of experiential travel.
Belle has witnessed glamping grow rapidly as the concept is adopted in new locations. Mostly, glamping has established its niche as an essentially rustic experience: tents that offer a greater degree of comfort and space than a recreational tent, and sometimes with amenities such as wood burning stoves, bathrooms, electrical supply or kitchenettes. By their nature, they have been predominantly off-grid, with very little infrastructure, purely seasonal, and small scale.
In essence the glamping experience has been fashioned from the range of tents available on the market. With very few exceptions, every owner has had no choice but to adapt their project to the constraints of a defined range of floor plans and forms, and are very quickly faced with numerous constraints with which both they and their designers are unfamiliar. As is to be expected, they lack the knowledge and experience with tents to know what can be done to marry the tent to their requirements. Furthermore, they will not have the expertise to compare and assess between different tent providers, or assess whether or not a certain type of tent will perform as they require.
It is in response to this disconnect that Belle architects have evolved a very close symbiotic relationship with Exclusive Tents as they bridge this divide. As glamping captures the publics’ imagination there is an emergent demand for a more complete and culturally sophisticated experience. This is the field in which Belle delights in integrating, adapting, and designing luxury tents as an integral part of the process of creating exquisite destinations that offer all the intrinsic benefits of an enchanting experience under canvas yet with the underpinning benefits of modern levels of comfort, performance and longevity.
Rather than be constrained to adapt the project to the tent, the tent can be made to suit the project: think custom made fitted shoe but without the cost penalty. As tents, and other forms of alternative accommodation, are adopted for more demanding roles, they need to be integrated within a much broader range of considerations. For Belle, this is where an architect’s specialist skills and experience come into play: for any project to succeed it needs to provide an elegant solution to myriad objectives, constraints, and requirements. Deciding to use tents rather than main-stream construction solutions can prove to be beneficial and advantageous for a number of key reasons – both aesthetic and financial. The romance of a closer link with nature, the exhilaration of creating something exotic, seductive and sexy is the driving force. Yet whilst the imagery is very seductive, making the transition from dream to reality means navigating a huge spectrum of factors with a direct influence on the project, facing myriad choices, and implementing numerous decisions. Without a deep knowledge and understanding of luxury tents and canvas structures, this can quickly become a huge challenge.
Whilst each tent is configured to client specification (canvas colours, tent body performance, door and window positions, etc.), and Exclusive Tents have a long experience of providing luxury tents to demanding customers, their expertise is in the development and fabrication of high-end tents. It is the project designer’s role to work with the client to define the strategic (project) brief: choosing, customising, or designing the tents is only one – albeit important – part of this process. From the brief begins an exciting and challenging journey to create a final destination that responds to location, terrain, geography, geology, climate, fauna and flora. Core to this is the guest or occupant experience – both subjectively (enjoyment, pleasure, uniqueness) and objectively (kept warm/cool, safe, and well looked after in comfort) – which must be framed within the desired and attainable ROI (Return on Investment).
Successful resorts offer a quality experience and service at an attractive financial ROI (for others this need not be purely financial. The ROI for an individual might simply be an exquisite guest suite for visiting family). Luxury tent resorts embody this principal with the advantage of a quicker and potentially better ROI – with a big Asterix. Of course, any resort project depends on much more than just choosing what type of guest accommodation to offer or how to embody the resort facilities, but that will not come as a surprise to existing hotel & resort owners and operators!
The fascination and reward for Belle and his team is multi-faceted:
- Almost without exception, owners and clients that are attracted to these types of project are adventurous, courageous, and open-minded. They have the courage of their convictions and the determination to make it happen. It is enriching to meet such individuals.
- Belle has a simple philosophy for all projects: arrive with an open mind and a blank canvas. This, he confirms, is easier said than done and always provokes a frisson of anticipation, and the experience is always both intimidating and exhilarating.
- Listening attentively to the client, immersing within the project site and its physical and social location, and working closely together to clearly identify and establish the ambitions, goals, constraints, and defining factors that will mould the project: beginning to fill the canvas with the information that will mould the project.
- Creating and refining a fully integrated project design: filling the canvas with each detail of the project where every participant is co-author. Great design is more than just good aesthetics, it is by its nature complex and intricate. Design does not exist in isolation: It is the search for an aesthetically pleasing, fully functional solution to complex interconnecting factors, a reflection of our goals and aspirations, brought to reality with a deliberate balance of light, space, materials, and time that makes its impact in ways both subtle and overt.
- Working closely with Exclusive Tents to either select or create tents that are the best match for the project (not being forced to shoe-horn the project into standard tents when there is a mis-match). The tents need to be integrated into the project and its site – even (especially) if they are the centre pieces – rather than the other way round. The luxury tents are core elements of such a project: there has to be a coherent integration within the project and its context as a whole.
- Enabling our clients, who quickly become our friends, to turn their dreams into destinations that enchant the senses, applying the values of ecologically sustainable low-impact implementation and life cycle with a clear conscience.
At this point, Belle clarifies a key point: his teams expertise and in-depth knowledge of Exclusive Tents methods and products is a valuable asset in aligning the client’s goals with Exclusive Tents prowess. However, when appointed by a client, they will act in strict accordance with their professional code of conduct: the advice given and professional services will be entirely independent. For example, Belle will not systematically propose tents for all and every situation even if the client has come through Exclusive Tents. Instead, their philosophy is to advise their client and provide to the project exciting, beautiful solutions in the context of short, medium and long-term project objectives. Project design can integrate tents with other forms of structure arising from aesthetic or functional choice, for example integrating the creative use of locally sourced materials, or more rigid structures for certain back-of-house facilities such as kitchens, stores, and utilities infrastructure.
The close professional relationship with Exclusive Tents is clearly working well. Together, they have designed and provided some stunning tents as can be seen at Telal Resort in the UAE where the notion of glamping has been taken to a luxurious zenith. The resort, its amazing tents, and eclectic interiors were entirely designed by Patrice Belle Architects to offer an exceptional experience in the Arabian desert. The resort includes a main reception tent inspired by Arabic geometry covering an astonishing 2,625m2 set atop a magnificent dune and featuring a hidden subterranean cloistered pool. The guest accommodation ranges from delightful 50m2 canvas lodges to the resplendent 440m2 interior of the VIP lodge under 810m2 of canvas.
Whilst Telal Resort is clearly at one end of the spectrum, it shows the benefits of the tent being an integral element of the overall project design rather than a fixed point around which everything else must adapt. It also demonstrates clearly that tents are being tasked with meeting new challenges. They are being pushed to evolve, to meet modern requirements of luxury, convenience, comfort, sanitation, technical performance, bathrooms and WC, ventilation, heating, cooling, etc., whilst retaining their connection with nature, ecological and sustainable credentials, and capacity to ‘leave no footprint’.
Whereas most projects clearly adapt to the tent, Patrice Belle Architects and Exclusive Tents are working with clients to provide tents best adapted to each project. Each and every project provides feedback and fuels the constant development of ever better tents with improved performance: thermal, acoustic, wind resistance, materials, longevity, robustness, etc. Rather than steal his thunder, Patrice leaves the in-depth summary of the many advances in high-end luxury tents made over the last couple of years to an upcoming article by Paul Zway of Exclusive Tents.
This brings us back the Asterix mentioned earlier. The demands made upon the tents, and other forms of adventurous accommodation that cater to our desire for experiential travel, become ever more demanding. The tent has to be fully integrated with electrical and sanitary provisions, heating, cooling, and often AC (although the more we move to alternative forms of cooling the better), and should always do so in as discrete a way as possible without detracting from the essential ‘escapism’ of the experience.
As cost and investment rise with the increase in complexity, and provision of greater comfort and luxury, it is increasingly evident that a good quality tent is one (important) element in an extensive armoury of tools and solutions for creating wonderful destinations, all of which should be expected to have a significantly longer useful lifespan at the forefront of ecological sustainable development. As with everything in architecture, a tent is only as good as its design, materials, implementation, and maintenance. From Patrice’s perspective, a well-designed, specified, implemented, and maintained luxury tent project will have a lifespan of decades before significant refurbishment is required – on a par with traditional hotels and resorts. So, as Patrice advises: “Choose wisely, care for, and enjoy your investment”.
These are exciting times as experiential travel captures the public’s imagination, and there are some beautiful destinations that have been created by adventurous investors and talented designers around the globe. Patrice Belle and his team are looking forward to working hand-in-glove with the pioneers of experiential travel to make their dreams become reality. Their specialist understanding of luxury tents and canvas structures gives Patrice Belle Architects a unique skill set designing stunningly beautiful luxury tents, traditional structures, and complete projects, in harmony such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Main image credit: Exclusive Tents