By Ron van der Veen

This article was first published in ARCADE Issue 29.1, Fall 2010.

Sketch of campsite by Ron van der Veen

Every year for the last decade, my family has gone camping with a bunch of architects. Families from several firms in town convoy together to the stable weather of Eastern Washington and create a weeklong rudimentary design commune of up to 25 people. This adventure has become a tradition that my kids especially look forward to because it marks the beginning of summer, and the daughters of the designers we go with are starting to become beautiful teenagers (you faithful readers might recall that I have three boys, ages 12, 14 and 16 who all lack… let’s say “architectural aptitude”). Our favorite spot to camp is Pearygin Lake near Winthrop. The natural landscape in the area is breathtaking as the North Cascade Mountains ease into the Okanogan Plains. The lake itself is warm, accessible, crammed with farm trout and relatively safe.

Before I go on, for those of you who have some romantic notion that I am going to describe a sort of early Taliesin West or Arcosanti, let me give you the real scoop.

The first issue my family deals with each year is “tent envy.” Inevitably, someone brings a new tent that can only be described with adjectives used for spec homes on the Issaquah Plateau. My problem is that I purchased our family tent at a garage sale over a decade ago, so it is probably close to 20 years old by now—it looks and smells like it. In those days, tents were made compact and sturdy so they lasted a long time. Now, bigger is better, and a lot bigger and a lot snazzier is way better. On top of that, these new, huge tents are cheaper than my garage sale find was (I spend an exorbitant amount of time each vacation trying to understand the economics of this). No matter how rough I am with our humble abode, I can’t seem to wreck it enough to justify buying one of these new nylon manors.

One of the most interesting aspects of camping with architects is setting up the actual site because it brings the urban planner out in all of us. How each family assembles their assortment of canopies, tents, fire pits, picnic tables, cars, even towel-drying ropes tells a lot about the architect’s sense of spatial composition and organization. With proper planning and collaboration, an authentic sense of village might even be achieved. This is where I often drive my wife a bit crazy! I like EVERYTHING set up just right: things aligned, objects rationally placed in a clear organization, views considered, balance achieved… I even consider details like where the openings of the tents are and where to place my reading material. My kids mess everything up within an hour, but heck, since we are on vacation I try not to let these things affect my blood pressure.

There is one area of creativity we all timidly participate in religiously each trip: group watercolor painting. Not blistering heat, nor down pours, nor maniacal bugs, nor dust that coats water, nor hangovers deter us from tackling these magnificent mountain scenes with our brushes and paints. The biggest impediment we face is the simple fact that none of us paints or draws regularly anymore, so it takes us most of the week just to warm up! Next year I am determined to bring a laptop so I can capture these panoramas in what I do best: REVIT and Photoshop!

The greatest perplexity for me concerning our trips is how little we actually talk about architecture. And when we do it is usually to complain about our jobs! You would think that bringing a bunch of designers together in a majestic setting like this with plenty to drink at night would initiate great deliberations about art, beauty, design and truth—like you read about from the old masters. I think because we all have teenage kids, by the time we get to camp, we are fried from the past school year and partially brain dead. The best we can muster every night is bringing out a few guitars and singing a hearty round of Beatles songs—and yes, our teenage kids know the words!

I guess what I have comprehended over the years is that camping with architects is really more about camping than architects. When the kids start throwing rocks at marmots and farting around the camp fire, when warm beer starts to taste decent, when dirt and tans start to comingle, when we all forget the second verse of “Yellow Submarine,” it’s kind of nice to lose this god-forsaken profession for a few days. Best of all, this is probably the single biggest reason we don’t drive our spouses crazy by the third day!


Ron van der Veen, our esteemed Side Yard columnist, is a rugged architect who loves camping, backpacking, roughing it and painting watercolors of poor quality. For Side Yard ideas and commentary, please contact Ron at [email protected]

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