TENTS

The snows, oppress the curving roof, the sands whiplash the cloth doorway, and Maine's fierce seasons do their best to punch the fabric skin. Yet, fragile-looking as a butterfly, tightly meshed as a cocoon, the tent survives them all.

Let nature be its meanest, Moss tents show how soft technology can pass architectural endurance tests. A Moss factory metalworker passed a winter, warm by his inside cookstove, near the company's Megunticook River plant. Another tent dweller recorded 85-degree temperatures under a more than 100-degree Arab sun.

This is an architecture of transcience andm hardihood.

Bill Moss, the tentmaker, has released the genre from the Army-reject modes of memory (mud-colored, mudworthy); he has brought them into Buckminster Fuller fantasies all the while resisting the label architect.m

"I'm not an architect," Mr. Moss insists. "I don't know what I am. I build housing."

His inventiveness and his urge to experiment have produced models that go far beyond the pragmatics of their factory origins and catalog distribution. His buoyant forms have included a 13-pound tent to hold six people, tents that can fit in dufflebags or car trunks, and tents ready to drop from a helicopter for emergency service.

Moss sees nothing inconsistent about the impermanence of such tents and his ecological impulses. Nature is a guide for one of his latest models, a passive solar structure. Made of mahogany and fiberglass with a 520-square-foot living space, it is designed to cost $5,000 -- and to stay warm for a pittance.

"I hope to be able to heat this with a candle, it's so well-insulated," Moss says, explaining the side glazing that dumps heat through the top of the tent structure.

Although Moss's tents have a formal elegance beyond any in the field, the architect-craftsman-artist stresses their technological or social element.

"Out there in Colorado kids are living in tepees -- young people in tents," he goes on, putting his hands atop his head and scowling.

"With our modern technology, we ought to do better than a tepee," he adds.

"There are tremendous new materials on the market. The problem with new materials is that the country doesn't know how to use them."

As inventive in his marketing as in his designing, Moss would package the tent in a kit, sell it on the phone, and deliver it through the mail. He has even created a miniature box showing how the structure could simply snap together and (literally) zip up the front.

A slim man whose curly gray hair, wire glasses, blue shirt, bluejeans, Wyatt Earp vest, and vaguely Fu Manchu mustache subtract from his 58 years, Mr. moss's youthful manner matches his restless invention and the restlessness of his travels to bring his tents to several continents.

In America, his innovation runs in the face of established practice. US zoning and building codes thwart his efforts to rethink the way we live and incorporate it in fabric; so he has had to pitch his tents in Ireland, Chile, or even Abu Dhabi.

Innovation and his concern for quality also run counter to conventional styles of manufacturing. Thus, five years ago he and his wife, Marilyn, a weaver, set up their own plant just outside Camden, Maine.

It is an old mill where 12 to 15 workers stitch out close to 4,000 tents a year, the bulk of them in some dozen designs. the excitement lies in such experiments as a massive museum proposal; the $1,000 Optimum 200 with its three alcoves and see-through windows; and the tents used for cold frames or as a garden shelter with solar collectors.

Both the beauty and the strength of a Moss tent stem from the geometries used. The designer explains how the vesica piscesm -- the lapping shape of interesting circles -- makes the curve of a door. A hyperbolic paraboloid is the root form of another tent. Such classic shapes, tooled by his touch, withstand the elements and, when used as a mold for a foam structure, even held the designer when he stood on the roof for a photograph.

A cautious client once demanded that Moss try out his design's strength on the computer. While the tent proved its stability on the machine, Mr. Moss dismisses any mechanical space-age verification.

"When I do it with my hands, I feel it," he counters.

Nature, or nature combined with the designer, predicts both the appearance and the performance of his tents. "When the shape works, it looks attractive," says Moss.

To the viewer-user, the superiority of even the mass-produced Moss tents lies not so much in the fiberglass rods that support the complex shapes nor in the designs that give headroom beyond the usual pitched tent, but in the blend of the aesthetic and the functional.

To Moss, their meaning lies elsewhere -- in their power as "a solution to the housing problem."

"In Saudi Arabia," he reminds you, "the basic house is a tree. People are wrapped in robes that look like rocks. They're marvelous at creating their own structure."

Moss deplores the 20th-century alternative of steel houses and high-tech "junk" force-fed to the Arabs. "They live a beautiful life in those tents," he says. "It turned my stomack to see mobile homes and toasters."

The real work -- the work of cooking and living the Arab life style -- goes on behind the $200,000 cultural acquisition from the Western architects.

The contrast between his visions for a tented world and the reality of shoddy housing is an ongoing affront.

"I can build a solar tent that people can live in," he asserts. "One side would be insulated. It would be 30 feet long and 12 feet high. The material will last eight years. You can zip it on for a lot less than you can build a barn."

If his ideas grow from social concerns, his tents become nothing but posh pads for rich clients.The fact that a low-cost O Dome might make an emergency house for the Red Cross or temporary quarters for flood victims doesn't always translate that way.

By and large, the satisfactions outweigh such grievances. Indeed, the artist-turned-constructionist enjoys the popularization of his fabric sculptures.

"I go in and I see 300, 400, up to 800 people making my stuff," says Moss. "Then I see people using it in the field. They don't think of it as art. They say, 'Wow!It kept us dry last night.'

"They're a place to work in.There are tents with rooms to live in. There are tents for temporary housing, for emergencies."

The list is endless. "We're on the fringes of some housing problems," says Moss as he looks over the conventional four-walled world of wood, steel, and stone and clearly finds it wanting.

"We should have some answers," he declares. An architecture of canvas is his way of providing them.

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