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Habitable sculptures: The poesy of Ensamble Studio's concrete 'tent'

Painting concrete over a reinforcement cage, the Spanish studio’s Tent in Costa da Morte draws a parallel between construction and a brushstroke.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Mar 28, 2022

We are used to seeing concrete cast in rigid cuboidal forms. Concrete is a fluid material, and can be moulded or sculpted into a variety of different forms. The versatility of concrete extends across many parameters, including its constituents, composition, which can be modulated based on their intended purpose. Pushing the capabilities of a material has been part of Ensamble Studio’s practice since its conception in 2000. The Spanish cross-functional team led by architects Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa carefully balanced the dualities of imagination and reality, while constantly engaging with innovative typologies, technologies and methodologies. Their programmatic engagement is diverse and ranges from prefabricated architecture to landscape sensitive design.

The Tent is located amidst trees overlooking the sea | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
The Tent is located amidst trees overlooking the sea Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio

The Tent, located on the top of a hill in Costa da Morte, Spain, covers the surrounding landscape like a blanket. This is referenced in the structure's form which incorporates surface folds into its architectural language. Considering the edges and overlays that constitute the geometries of the Tent, one would presume the structure is a product of computational fabrication. However, the conception and construction are both hand-moulded. The importance of using one's hands is particularly important to Ensamble Studio, it is in fact the first statement in the studio’s practice manifesto which states, “We think with our hands, we experience. We seek to control the processes more accurately than the results. Because finding the logic in the development makes it harder to be wrong.”

Project development | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
Project development Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio

Folding in architecture is a delicate balance between the structure and the space. The sculptural characteristics of the architectural fold often circle back to conversations about the imagined distinction between art and architecture. Ensamble conceptualised the concrete Tent as a tactile experiment, starting with the model, which served as the rudimentary prototype, to a miniature construction, they were all created by hand. The studio then documented and scanned every movement of the process to create the final structure. This was particularly important when one considers the outcome was largely guided by intuition.

View of The Tent from the sea | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
View of The Tent from the sea Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio

Intuitive conception as a design methodology is another key aspect of Ensamble’s manifesto which states, "We go to the origin of the processes, to the raw materials, we try to arrive at the essence of the elements and construction systems. And this scientific understanding enables an extreme freedom to operate outside the preconceived processes. We use industry at the service of architecture but not vice versa." This point effectively connects the experimental scale of the Tent with the engineering of the final structure. The entire process took about 10 days, with five days of design and planning and another five days to enact the project in the selected rural environment.

Setting up the reinforcement on site | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
Setting up the reinforcement on site Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio

The construction is reminiscent of the design process in terms of its dynamic. With the form already established, the structures calculated, the site lines marked out, the construction began by first placing the reinforcing bars in a three-dimensional grid. One is essentially drawing the tent into reality. Once the measurements and proportions were checked, and the lines and vertex validated, the studio started to 'paint the structure' into being. The concrete acts as a painting on a sketched-out canvas. Instead of pouring or installing, the key gesture here has the same effect as the unrepeatable movement of a painter with their brush. With each additional stroke a unique blend of material, texture and colour is added to the structure.

  • Exterior view of The Tent | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
    Exterior view of The Tent Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio
  • Alternate exterior view of The Tent | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
    Alternate exterior view of The Tent Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio

Ensamble Studio works in tandem with a scientific understanding of the nature of the material and of structure, taking us to another element of their manifesto which states, “Structure is the architecture, which is not only entrusted with the important task of dealing with gravity, but also traces the space, frames the landscape, orders the program, expresses; and so, defines architecture. Without dressings or disguise, with constructive economy and honesty.'' The Tent allows for a free flow of light and its openings, while allowing the landscape to become an aspect of its design. As the Tent is painted over layer by layer, the flexible folds become more rigid, and the elastic nature of the surface membranes harden. Appearing fabric-like and reminiscent of the rock formations in the surrounding area, the structure gives way to architecture.

If we make mistakes, we learn. But the perseverance in doing keeps us alive. If we do not have work, we invent it.

For all its architectonic and scientific experimentation, the Tent has an inherent poesy as it lies amidst the trees, looking out at the sea, silently welcoming nature into the fold.

  • Detailed view of the exterior | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
    Detailed view of the exterior Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio
  • Detailed view of the interior | Tent | Ensamble Studio | STIRworld
    Detailed view of the interior Image: Courtesy of Ensamble Studio

Project Details

Name: Concrete Tent
Location: Costa da Morte, Spain
Area: 35 m²
Year of completion:  2020
Architect: Ensamble Studio, Antón García-Abril, Débora Mesa
Design team: Javier Cuesta (building engineer), Borja Soriano, Alvaro Catalan, Fernando González
Construction management: Materia Inorgánica
Consultants: Jesús Huerga (Structure)

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