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Frank Lloyd Wright’s lost inflatable architecture

His idea for a plastic dome showcased his desire to make architecture affordable

Fiberthin Village (Mishawaka, Indiana). Unbuilt Project. 1956
Copyright © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s opinion of his own genius wasn’t the only thing inflated about his work. In the late ‘50s, during the height of his fame, the architect took a slight detour to design a different kind of home. While many of his masterpieces, such as Fallingwater, featured bold cantilevers and extended roofs which seemed to float on air, this project actually relied on pressurized air to stand up.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fiberthin Village project, completed for the U.S. Rubber Company, featured a series of 25-by-46 foot hemispherical homes, split spheres made from Fiberthin, a vinyl-coated nylon fabric. Wright’s design for a village of these structures, and the celebrity he lent to the product, represent one of his periodic attempts to create affordable housing for the common man.

Unlike his prefab or Usonian designs, however, these experimental dwellings were closer to bouncy castles than mass market homes for the everyman; they were supported by “extremely low air pressure provided by a combination warm-air-heating and air-conditioning system with a blower attached” according to a New York Times article. Tubes of the space-age plastic, filled with 1,700 pounds of sand, served as weight and ballast.

Life magazine spread about the Fiberthin concept in the November 11, 1957 issue.
Life Magazine

Wright’s contribution served as an early example of what would later be known as inflatable architecture, a post-war movement that combined new plastics and radical politics to create bendable, portable, and even buoyant ways to redefine space and the built environment.

Like many later inflatable designs, Wright’s Airhouse had a military pedigree. Manufactured by Irving Air Chute Company in Lexington, Kentucky, then the country’s oldest parachute factory, it was one of a bumper crop of novel, inexpensive designs hoping to use technology to house the oncoming wave of post-war babies. In a 1957 Life magazine article, Wright’s Airhouse shared feature space with Alcoa’s Aluminum Beach House, a molded plastic mushroom-shaped home by Monsanto, and a steel-roofed house by Ulrich Franzen.

 
Fiberthin Village (Mishawaka, Indiana). Unbuilt Project. 1956
Copyright © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York)

Underneath the curved “roof”—strong enough to withstand brisk winds, a heavy snowfall, and the weight of a grown man walking across its surface—the interior was split, living room occupying half the floor space, a bedroom covering another quarter of the interior, and the remaining room divided between a dining area, kitchen, and bathroom.

The entire structure measured three feet by three feet when folded—small enough to be stored in a car trunk. During its debut at the Showcase for Better Living home exposition at the New York Coliseum in 1957, a smaller 15-foot by 25-foot version was displayed next to a fully furnished dome, outfitted with Herman Miller modular furniture upholstered in Naugahyde. The junior dome was deflated and stuffed into a suitcase several times each day, only to reappear and impress onlookers with its space-age ease.

The Fiberthin experiment was only one of the potential uses architects had devised for these structures. Another concept, the balloon arena, was created to help provide portable and easily erected outdoor concert facilities, according to a 1957 Billboard article.

By the Fiberthin homes went public, Wright had been working for years to make his designs truly affordable. In January 1958, during a presentation at the Chicago Athletic Club, he stated he could sell a middle class home for $15,000, even though his most recent prefabs for Erdman Associates retailed at $50,000. The Airhouse, though perhaps best suited for temporary structures, nonetheless had a compelling price point: $2,245, plus $75 for the blower and $100 for the front door.

The experiment was short-lived, however. The architect was involved temporarily, the home never really took of with consumers, and one of the structures later collapsed, leading Wright to issue the following statement: “Tempest in the public teapot over the U.S. Rubber Company’s own invention of a cheap, transitory shelter is funny. If a tire blows out, nobody gets excited. If a plane falls, we keep on flying.”