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More Than Hot Air: The Lasting Impact of Inflatable Architecture

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Germans strolling down the genteel Treppenstrasse in Kassel, Germany, in late June of 1972, might have been surprised to see an unexpected addition poking out of the facade of their beloved Fridericianum. One of the world's first independent public museums and a model of classical style and enlightened culture built in the late 18th century, the institution once employed brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the library. In 1972, it was in the midst of hosting the Documenta contemporary art show, and as part of the event, a group of experimental architects were installing a plastic orb amid the columns and stonework on the facade, a pneumatic pimple of PVC foil, 8 meters in diameter, that contained a catwalk of tubular steel. Created by Haus-Rucker-Co., a collective of like-minded, avant-garde architects, the experimental bubble was the work of a group concerned not with habitability, but with expansion and experimentation.

"After completing our studies, we didn't want to waste away in some dull office," says Haus-Rucker-Co member Laurids Ortner. "Music bands showed us the way things could be. We wanted to be a glamorous and successful band in the area between architecture and art."

The Fridericianum project, called Oase No.7, had a similar utopian and artistic slant, part of the group's ambition to challenge concepts of contemporary architecture. The name Haus-Rucker is derived from a mountain range in the region of Austria the group came from, but was also a motto—"Häuser zu verrücken," or rocking or shifting houses. A challenge, that is, until literally, the bubble burst. Someone pierced the installation before the exhibit officially opened.

"As the material is quite tough this must have required a considerable effort," says Ortner. "Especially as the underside of the Oase N°7 was about 9 metres above ground level."

By this point in 1972, Haus-Rucker-Co. had already made a name for itself as one of a loose confederation of groups experimenting with the possibilities of inflatable architecture. The Viennese group, founded in 1967, had riffed on the period's obsessions with plastic structures, audio-visual experimentation, and curved, critique-laden structures that challenged convention (in 1971, they installed a 14-meter-tall inflatable index finger next to the highway near the Nuremberg Airport). Contemporaries such as Superstudio and Archizoom from Italy, Ant Farm from San Francisco, Archigram from the United Kingdom, an influential collective of publishers, thinkers, and designers who utilized a portmanteau of architecture and telegram, and fellow Austrian group Coop Himmelblau spent the '60s and early '70s creating a wealth of fantastical reinterpretations of architecture, often in the form of plastic, seemingly floating installations.

"They offer a bubble-like atmosphere, a separation from the world," says Andrew Blauvelt, curator of the Walker Art Center's current show Hippie Modernism, which included numerous examples of inflatable architecture. "There are no right angles. It's definitely not the suburban home. It's very symbolically important."

Often ephemeral and always lightweight by design, inflatable furniture and architecture was a means for architects to make heavy statements about design, space and culture. It's easy to take that in the colloquial, and infer that the "heavy" statements about radical politics and shifting definitions of society attached to glorified balloons were nothing more than hot air. But the eccentric and eclectic history of inflatable architecture and design, from early dome-shaped structures to chic plastic chairs and radical installations, offers an entire genre of transportable and buoyant buildings grounded in theory and more influential than one might imagine.

"There was a link between this idea of lightweight materials and reconfigurable spaces, and the idea of architecture enabling a certain idea of cities and spaces and so on," says Lev Bratishenko, Editor of Publications at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. "It's kind of like designing buildings as things that people can rearrange, a fundamentally social conception of design."

It's a fundamental belief held by the designers of the time, who, amid the cultural tumult of the '60s and student protest, saw these structures as nothing less than revolutionary.

"We believed, and we still believe, that architectural means can be employed to exert a focused influence on a person's physical and psychological qualities," says Ortner. "This form of fine energy needs to be discovered. What designers nowadays lavishly decorate doesn't interest us at all."

While the hippie associations with these structures conjure up images of longhairs blowing up, tuning in and dropping out, their inventors were most likely wearing crew cuts and working in the military. The inspiration for inflatable architecture, structures suspended by invisible particles of air turns out to have been equally imperceptible radar waves.

Inflatables, in their simplest and most rudimentary form, were initially designed by the U.S. military as quickly assembled, easily deployable radar antennae. Working at the Cornell aeronautical lab, engineer Walter Bird designed a simple radar antennae protected by a inflatable plastic enclosure and steel rings. The government, seeking to deploy an early warning radar system, especially in harsh climates, invested in Bird "radomes" starting in 1946, and constructed hundreds of them during the '50s.

Like many inventors and engineers in the '50s, Bird would try to take a technology developed and refined with military money and support and make a profit on it in the civilian world. In 1956, he set up Birdair Structures, Inc. in Buffalo, New York, to sell storage shed, greenhouses and enclosures to the suburban set. In 1957, one of his plastic swimming pool shelters earned an incredible plug with an appearance on the cover of LIFE magazine

What may have seemed like another nutty, space age suburban novelty, utilizing the miracle of plastic, had by then attracted the attention of architects. Bird, considered the father of the field, would go on to collaborate with numerous architects, and create memorable structures such as the Minneapolis Metrodome. But his most important work may have been popularizing the concept. In 1959, Paul Weidlinger collaborated with Birdair to design an inflatable roof for the Boston Arts Center Theater. The following year, the US Atomic Energy Commission commissioned architect Victor Lundy to design a massive double-skinned balloon building for a traveling exhibit in Latin America. Able to be transported in a single rail car and assembled by a dozen workman in just four days, it was a flexible monument to efficiency.

By the early '60s, a triumverate of influences—Bird, along with German architect ad structural engineer Frei Otto, and American architectural iconoclast Buckminster Fuller—would help inform a generation of architectural experimentation. In the early '60s both Fuller and Otto proposed and publicized designs for massive domes: Fuller's was meant to cover and protect Manhattan, while Otto had designed a structure to withstand the harsh climate of the Antarctic. The military's inflatable structures would soon be turned into a plaything of the counterculture (Ant Farm's first experiments were created from surplus military parachutes), who took cues and influences from the space race, the budding environmental movement, and a new generation of audio-visual technology.

"The military was interested in things that are easily deployable, such as inflatable bridges, the technology advanced during the war period, and then it was subverted by the counter culture, much like personal computing," says Blauvelt.

The wave of inflatable structures stood for many different things. New ideas about our relationships to space were being pushed, focused around new idea of nomadicism and temporary dwelling. Archigram, influenced in part by developments at NASA, proposed all manner of lightweight, transportable concepts, from the Suitaloon and Cushicle, plastic skins for mobile living, and the Inflatable Suit-Home, another experiment in portable living. In 1965, British critic Rayner Banham proposed an "Un-House," in his article "A House is Not a Home," a portable dome that contained all the necessities of life within a transparent piece of plastic, with a television screen replacing the fireplace of antiquity as the main room's central focus.

The organic, non-linear shapes of these structures, the complete opposite of Brutalism, also went against the norm, and suggested different designs (during an Ant Farm video, one speaker refers to the flexible nature of these structures introducing a "fourth dimension" into the design). Many designers talked about the sense of isolation and alienation, the cocooning aspect of the structures, and removing themselves from current reality. It was, in the words of Archigram member Ron Herron, architecture "built for change … a building that accepted that things don't sit there forever, buildings that adapt."

Ant Farm members discussing an inflatable design.

Chip Lord, a co-founder of the underground architecture practice Ant Farm with his friend Doug Michels, said when he graduated architecture school at Tulane in 1968, nobody was thinking about working in an office, with the student movement in full swing. He told a friend who asked about his post-graduation plans that he wanted to form an underground architecture practice, to which she replied, "like and toy ant farm I had as a kid?" As Lord, who like may, was influenced by Fuller and Archigram, said, they just wanted to be rock stars.

Created during the same era of Marshall McLuhan's media studies and a rise in affordable audio-visual technologies, inflatables also became props and tools for explorations into technology and communications. Ant Farm created a project called the World's Largest Snake; visitors would enter in one end, and as they explored a plastic enclosure measuring the length of a football field, encounter a number of stations involving portable video equipment. The portable viewing centers signified a democratization of communications to their creators, a series of simple DIY broadcast Blauvelt likened to YouTube, citizen journalism and public television.

"It was a means of democratizing," he says. "For some reason, there's confluence between portable architecture and communications."

And, for many, there was also a strong desire to turn these flexible and organic settings into spaces for experimentation and consciousness raising. The Air Pod, an Ant Farm installation at the University of California at Berkeley during the first Earth Day in 1970, created an oasis of clean air amid the polluted environment shared by those dwelling within polluted, smoggy modern society, an agitprop architectural event. Other inventions, such as audio-visual helmets created by Haus-Rucker-Co., were more directly about changing perspectives.

"The 'Mind-Expander' and the 'Environment-Transformer' were prototypes for the possibility of expanding consciousness the 'cold' way," says Ortner. "In contrast, that is, to the 'hot' way – drugs."

Architects of inflatable structures weren't always greeted as revolutionary, and their work wasn't always seen as particularly good by critics and the media. The Whole Earth Catalog, one of the bible's of '60s counterculture, included this overview of the inflatable movement:

"Inflatables are trippy, cheap, light, imaginative space, not architecture at all. They're terrible to work in. The blazing redundant surfaces disorient: one wallows in space. When the sun goes behind a cloud you cease cooking and immediately start freezing. Environmentally, what an inflatable is best at is protecting you from a gentle rain. Wind wants to take the structure with it across the country, so you get into heavy anchoring operation."

But for a certain section of the architectural media world, these structures were a significant focus. Many of the collectives involved also edited and printed their own journals, helped to disseminate information and designs. Important journals addressed the movement, as it was loosely defined; a 1968 issue of Architectural Design titled "Pneu World" have the structures mainstream respect. And different groups and architects cataloged DIY patterns and previous designs, such as Ant Farm's Inflatocookbook and Cedric Price, who worked as part of the Lightweight Enclosures Unit in the United Kingdom, created a vast survey of the movement, Air Structures: A Survey, for the British government. Curtis Schreier, a member of the group who helped out out the Inflatocookbook, says they could have been "the Bill Gates of inflatables," but were more interested in sharing knowledge.

"Price's 1971 air structures bibliography was 240 pages," says Bratishenko. "It's an incredible document, like a database. You can see they were coding every structures they were including, saying what are the strengths and what's relevant. Clearly you can tell this would have been the great online resource.

The movement reached its peak during a series of big events and showcases between 1968 and 1971. Structures Gonflables, which linked pneumatics to political shifts, came to Paris in 1968, just as the student movement reached its peak. A series of public events, including the Freestone Conference in 1970, held on a farm in Northern California, and two Instant City events in the United States, brought together all manner of temporary structures, tents and domes. In April 1971, the Whiz Bang Quick City, constructed near Woodstock, New York, by hundreds of undergrads and enthusiasts, created a city in mere days, with irregular rows of domes and cardboard homes sprouting up in the countryside (a LIFE article about the gathering noted that when one builder ran out of polyethylene, they continued with a flowered shower curtain).

Perhaps the most public and publicized of these events was the Osaka Expo in 1970, a nearly overwhelming display of creativity and cutting-edge design (complete with a monorail and a moon rock display), which featured the work of a young Renzo Piano. Organizers Kenzo Tange and Uzo Nishiyama brought together a massive collection of domes, inflatables and prefabricated structures, in effect creating a futuristic temporary city.

Changing trends, as well as the increasing price of plastic due to the Oil Crisis later in the decade, spelled an end to a period of busy experimentation. Some began to see plastic dwellings, especially mass-produced models without the theoretical underpinnings advanced by avant-garde architects, as impersonal, and a wider movement back towards natural materials rendered plastic passe.

While the more wild, esoteric, and eccentric visions of many pioneers of inflatable architecture were never built, or were simply meant to make a statement, the temporary work has made a longstanding impact on modern design and architecture. The experiments of the '60s and '70s made way for a wave of air-supported stadiums, such as the Metrodome. The curved, organic shapes endemic to the more academic and avant-garde work have become common features in architecture in the age of high-powered computers and parametric design.

The lasting obsession with architectural installations was certainly established during this period, and the movement's impact has filtered down throughout the architecture and design world. Look no further than the day-glo plastic forms Selgascano created for last year's Serpentine Pavilion, an example of bulbous shapes and transparent forms take center stage. Frei Otto, who elevated the shape of a simple tent into complex, beautiful structures, won the Pritzker last year. Other architects from this period, such as Cedric Price, have been celebrated as much for their finished work as for their theoretical designs. Price's proposals for flexible, enclosed plastic spaces, such as the unbuilt 1968 Fun Palace, have been cited as influences on both the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the London Eye, and a recent exhibit suggested he was one of the most influential architects you've never heard of." And plastic, inflatable structures are often the go-to format for temporary structures and relief housing.

As Geoff Manaugh once wrote about Archigram, the group "suggested we could all act differently if we had the right spaces in which to meet, love, and live." It's simple to look at an inflatable plastic wonder and accuse the creator of wide-eyed optimism and impractical daydreaming. But isn't that sentiment at the core of what we consider larger architecture's mission?

· Inflatable Architecture coverage [Curbed]
· Buckminster Fuller coverage [Curbed]