Dead in a Tent
On This Day
Captain Robert Falcon Scott dies in Antarctica on 29 March 1912... Probably.
It’s a curious thought, to think about one’s own demise. The potential forever emptiness, the absolute nothingness, the same after that was before. The before being before your being. But curious still is the need to romanticise one’s own death with a symbol of your existence: a stone, a bench, a cartridge in a space shuttle, a tiny printed obituary with loosely formed platitudes or a tomb. What meaning is there in laying to rest your wasted body? What existence can be surmised in a blot of ink, a cut of stone, a text to be read aloud at your local radio station? What is missing is the art, the exhibition of death. Anyone can die, but dying well is the trick.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy embraced the theatre of mortality, and did it with a diary and a cuppa tea. At anyone’s passing it’s the predictable telling of their stories past that fits the billing, a sugary story of ups and downs but all round good egg narrative. But for Scott, he carried his own tomb 800 miles into the icy demise, dead of centre to the Azimuthal projection in the attempt to not get somewhere second. Classic top notch dying.
Thursday, 29 March 1912
“Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
For God's sake look after our people.”
Scott died in his tent, turning tent into tomb, and most troubling of all, upsetting architects’ ideas of permanency versus the temporary. The oxymoron of having a tent tomb plays to the very core of the profession. How can Scott fly the British Flag—a banner of science, meaning, authority, authorship, prestige, honour and a touch of international murder and colonisation—while brazenly undermining our understanding of the built environment? A tent is a temporary structure designed to be mobile. A tomb is a permanent structure designed to hold the memories of man, and a couple of bones and a gold tooth for eternity. Or until the British come and dig you up again and take your gold tooth and stick it in a museum.
To be so self-absorbed and die with such mystery and verve must not be condoned and must not go unchallenged. Sure Scotty had his followers, Ranulph Fiennes thought he was a top lad, but had he considered the implications of Scott’s doing? Who is he to enjoy a free pass on this architectural irreverence? Who is he to lay to rest in his tent tomb, peacefully, with a last diary entry so poignant and poetic that it stirs the heart so unequivocally that adventure, even a doomed one, is logical.
Scott must have known that the existence of a tent tomb was potentially more dangerous to the contextualisation of architecture than any theory past or present, more gut wrenching and appalling than even a Schumacher diatribe on social spaces, that it must be solidified in a death so theatrical that even 100 years on it echoes, however faintly, with the archi-types of today. His death accompanied by prequel demise of his fellow Captain Lawrence Oates' final walk into the blizzard, ‘may be some time’, holds sharp in the mind; a lost shadow in the distance never forever gone, but not yet to return to the tent outpost. The wheezy and winded Evans, mind rotten, reduced to a bitter death as he longs for the tent beacon. The final collective, Bowers, Wilson and Scott, sipping a moment of home; a cuppa tea to heal the mental wounds in the tent home. The short snippets of Scotties’ mind noted in his tent study to let us in, to let us overlay the story into our own curious little words of adventure and mishaps, disaster and hope.
So how relevant is the tent tomb? What is it to be both permanent and temporary? With time all architecture is temporary, it is the event that remains permanent. For the architectural example, eyes must be turned to the forever re-building of the Jingu Grand Shrine, a 20-year-old building that’s older than Britain, a temporary architecture that has lasted 2,000 years. For Scott, his grand and distinguished death gives the tent-come-function its eternity, not its architect. It is re-built every time the story is re-told.