Summer Camp Nostalgia


Transient Nostalgia

Volume 8, Issue 01
September 23, 2022

For several summers, I taught art for a summer camp in the Appalachian region of Central Pennsylvania. I spent most of my summer in a small wooden pavilion, which was relatively unremarkable: a pitched tin roof covered a concrete floor, housing twelve wooden tables. It was open to the forest on three sides, and housed a small storage closet. It was rarely commented on. Occasionally a staff member would note that it was nice to have a space that could withstand paint and glitter, and be cleaned so easily. Eventually, for me, this ability to withstand people began to feel like a generous quality. The campers could draw on the floor with chalk in their down-time, tie bracelets to the railings, It could withstand the creation of a model of a city, with a factory oozing expired green latex paint, a human sized birds nest, packed with mud. The space could be cleared and used for games, used as a sleepout spot, or even a rain-plan reception area for a nearby outdoor wedding.

Summer camp architecture seems to have certain qualities: cheap, suggestive, permissive, communal, easily built, easily animated… These qualities seem to allow buildings to give themselves over to the imaginations of their inhabitants. A large stone podium, half sawn logs, and a clearing surrounded by pine trees begin to suggest the nave and apse of a cathedral. Weddings have happened in this space, but campers have also had a funeral in that space for a pineapple, complete with a few heavy raindrops, black costume robes, and music by Sarah Mclachlan. There’s something about it: the quiet, the air, the gnats that come towards your eyelashes, the smell of the wood…

Today I see summer camp architecture reflected in the Southern Illinois University of Carbondale’s Architecture School in the 1950’s, where classes operated out of an old military barracks, and students built structures in the trees. In the architectural discourse, this typology has often housed experimental pedagogies: at Black Mountain College, which was housed in an old YMCA summer camp, on Laura Halprin’s outdoor deck, where shelter-building games produced experimental choreography, or in Camp Jened, where many of the disability activists who advocated for the first ADA laws would travel for the summer. Perhaps it’s the seclusion, or the urgency of a community which quickly comes and goes, but summer camp architecture seems to permit more radical/unconventional forms of collective expression: later shared as memories. While campers come and go, the tin roofs and storage spaces, the outdoor cathedral, the fire circles dotting the forest like satellites around the main camp will remain for others to use as they may, creating new nostalgias.