Bonnaroo: A Mesh of Practicality and Folly

Jason Leahey
Photo Credits: Brandon Pace

Bonnaroo is not a stadium concert or a club show. We make it what it is. And some designers seriously consider sustainability in their proposed projects.

Bonnaroo Music Festival

City: Manchester, TN
Date: 2011-06-09

Bonnaroo is 700 acres and flat. Outside of Centeroo, the hub with the stages and the merchant tents and educational booths, the place is a seemingly endless plain of tents and cars and port-o-johns, gravel dirt roads with golf carts trundling past, folks hocking lemonade and tacos. Everything is hot, everything is grubby, and everything is public. Maps are little help. Everything looks the same.

Except for the pods. If Bonnaroo had neighborhoods -- and one day it just might -- pods would be the local community centers. You need a medic or a shower or want to buy ice? Wind your way around the camping chairs and tents’ guy ropes toward one of the huge balloons that float in hazy Crayola colors high above. Beneath each, you’ll find the answers to those pedestrian needs, as well as an art installation designed to turn you back off-center, which is what living at Bonnaroo is all about.

The architects at Sanders Pace Architecture, in nearby Knoxville, TN, created the projects for Pods Six and Seven. One of them has attended the festival nine out of the past ten years. When his cohorts asked him what life in Bonnaroo City is like, he told them it is scorching hot and baldly exposed. You want privacy? Crawl into your tent and zip closed the door. Baking in that oven? Crawl back out into the ruckus and dust.

“So we wondered how we could make something that’s not that,” Sanders Pace founding partner Brandon Pace tells me. “One of our first names for the project was Nonnaroo. How do you create privacy and shade and space within the undefined space that is Bonnaroo? What material can we use to define our pod space?”

The material ended up being bamboo, and the name of the project ended up The Thicket. There are two Thickets, about a five-minute walk apart, and each is a 30 x 30 foot grid of one-inch diameter bamboo poles sunk one foot into the ground, spaced sixteen inches apart, and standing ten feet high. Within the poles, small glens have been left open for Bonnaroo’ers to retreat into dappled shade and a respite from the masses. The effect, even on this relatively small scale, is of total escape. Wide open acres and a looming sky are shrunk to narrow paths and the towering, leafy green of bamboo. That seemingly endless plain of tents and people is erased. The air is cooler. The branches rustle in the breeze.

Bonnaroo is already a meshing of practicality and folly. There might be a big mushroom-shaped fountain to run under and a huge inflatable water slide, but there is also heat stroke to be avoided and strategizing to get close enough to the What Stage that your favorite band is more than dust mites on a horizon. The Thicket reflects both characters. What would otherwise by just another anonymous stretch of tents and tarps is now defined as something unique, a landmark that can help you find your way home or contribute to a real sense of place. And it is a source of play, too. I ask a group of 12 college-age people sitting in a circle in the largest of the glens where they are from, and they tell me they met only a minute before when they all independently slipped into the Thicket. I ask them what they think. “It’s a good way to meet people,” one of the men says. “It’s so happyyyyyy,” a girl says. “Hey, did somebody pocket my Allman Brothers lighter?” a second man asks. Everyone starts laughing.

Bonnaroo issues a request for proposals for the art pods, and a serious consideration is the sustainability of the proposed projects. Bonnaroo has set the standard for festival sustainability for years. Among other accomplishments, they went carbon neutral in 2008, offsetting 900 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, a shocking achievement considering 120-plus bands and 80,000 people take planes, trains, and cars to get there each year. The Thicket’s sustainability credentials include the fact that only a single material from a single source needed to be harvested. Bamboo is incredibly dense and quick-growing as well -- it’s strong enough to build hardwood floors and fully regenerates after harvesting in about six months -- making it a readily renewable material that an increasing number of builders are using in place of traditional trees that take decades to renew. When the festival is over, The Thicket’s poles will be donated to Arnold Air Force Base, 41 miles away, where they will be used to create a paintball course serving as a training ground. The foot-deep, one-inch diameter holes are the only impact on the land, which will be naturally restored to pre-Thicket condition in a matter of weeks.

The Scavenger Pod at Pod One, a 20-minute hike from The Thicket, makes sustainability its raison d’etre. Its creator, the Canadian artist and designer Vanessa Harden, last year debuted a biodegradable tent design in response to the approximately 40,000 plastic and metal tents abandoned each year at the UK’s Glastonbury Festival. For Bonnaroo, she has created a shelter out of festival waste: bricks composed of 16 aluminum cans each assembled to make pillars and low walls supporting a Bedouin-like tent under which Bonnaroo’ers can lounge and, yes, seek shelter from the sun. It is surprisingly sturdy, stable without the support of guy ropes.

The needless waste at Glastonbury shocked Harden. “I see my work as a conversation starter,” she tells me. “I’m using design not just to solve problems but ask questions. I use it to make people stop and think for a second by using a design language rather than an art language.” While The Thicket is functional art, the Scavenger Pod is artistic design.

It’s also interactive. Harden arrived three days before the festival opened and began collecting the cans that have ended up her primary building material. The Bonnaroo volunteers tenting nearby spent their evenings after work helping her build the Scavenger’s foundation, and Harden is foregoing all music in order to stay on-site and keep building. Bonnaroo’ers returning from a hot day in Centeroo stop each night to collect more cans, help her build the bricks, help stack them into towers. The Scavenger is a growing thing that will not so much reach a final state as run out of time because Bonnaroo ends. It is an educational plaything as much as a shelter, a way for Harden to discover knowledge that can inform future project design as well as a way for festival attendees to better comprehend the waste generated by festivals and glimpse the possible uses of that waste beyond the landfill or recycling center.

“Recycling consumes a lot of energy itself,” Harden says. “Instead of just recycling, we could be reusing. Reusing is key right now.” And what about her materials? What messages, beyond the commonsense of reclaiming material before it hits the waste stream, does she hope the folks who help her build the Scavenger will take away? “The idea of taking garbage and making it into a luxury,” she says, smiling beneath big Joan Didion sunglasses, “is kind of cool.”

Bonnaroo has always been about what you make of it as much as about what is presented to you. The reason so many Bonnaroo’ers return year after year is that the society created here is the primary draw. You know you’ll experience good music and good art because the people brought together habitually create a peaceful, generous, and inclusive community in which creativity and experimentation thrive. Bonnaroo is not a stadium concert or a club show. We make it what it is.

While talking to Brandon Pace, a man slips out from the pack on the road, slides a pole up from its hole at the edge of The Thicket, and disappears back into the crowd. “The Thicket is eroding.” Pace says, laughing. “It will decompose.” He points out a campsite behind his that has commandeered bamboo to support its shade canopy.

“It will wear and deteriorate and change over time,” co-designer Michael Davis, the architect who has attended the past nine out of ten festivals, says.

“I’m totally okay with that,” Pace continues. “I’m okay with it being flexible.”

Later that night, I will watch a pole liberated from The Thicket, now festooned with glow sticks and stuffed animals and ribbon, weave amongst the tens of thousands watching My Morning Jacket. It is one of the markers groups of friends use to find each other in the crowd. It will stop somewhere in the middle of the audience and begin bobbing happily, a totem stretching up from a sea of strangers’ faces and dancing bodies, a guidepost that helps people find each other and helps decorate the sky.

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