One of the most fascinating things about Jeffrey Head’s No Nails, No Lumber is that it posits a future that never happened. Imagine bubble suburbs and people filling up at bubble gas-stations, shopping at bubble stores, attending bubble schools. Rather than viewing these as curious blips in architectural history, we could all be living in a gunite bubble world and not thinking twice about it.
Wallace Neff died in 1982, having never realized his ultimate dream of the world embracing his prototypical and efficient design. He is certainly not the only architect to occupy this position, and he will not be the last. This is partly the game of architecture, often at odds with the way things are and trying to bend forces to achieve something different. In this regard, it is amazing that Neff got any of his bubbles built at all. Even more amazing that a few of them are still standing and being lived in.
In the midst of Head’s admittedly incomplete catalog of Neff’s bubble houses—including a few that Neff himself did not know had been built—is the phantom of disappointment and a romanticism for this lost corner of modernism. The author is not the only one with this feeling; I sensed it in myself almost immediately. This nostalgia for what never was. It is all the more poignant because now our landscapes are, for the most part, dominated by the monotonous expanses of stick dwellings. Here, embodied in Neff’s bubbles, was the possibility of difference, perhaps a sort of spatial playfulness that is largely lost in the uniformity of our cities and neighborhoods.
The bubble, or “airform construction” as Neff called it, never caught on. In Head’s telling, this was largely the result of poor business dealings and Neff’s overconfidence in his partners. What ultimately sunk Neff’s Airform International Construction Corporation was one Adolf Waterval, the European regional director of the company that was supposed to take bubble construction global.
Waterval’s questionable business dealings make him an appealing scapegoat, but what is most apparent in Head’s recounting of this failure is the cultural gulf between an architectural vision and the general public. People simply weren’t ready to embrace airform construction on a large-enough scale to make it anything but a novelty.
The story that Head does not tell about Neff is that his ambition to create a form of architecture that could have utterly changed the game of housing on a global scale may have arisen from his childhood. Head alludes to Neff’s early childhood as the foundation of his desire to become an architect, but this is the standard archetype of architectural pre-determinism.
What seems to have influenced Neff’s direction had less to do with drawing buildings at a young age than with his exposure to the family business. His mother was the daughter of Andrew McNally, founder of the Rand McNally publishing empire.
Wallace Neff grew up in a Queen Anne Victorian mansion in a tony part of Altadena, California, known as “Millionaire’s Row.” Head suggests this house and the surrounding mansions of various styles were instrumental in forming Neff’s ambitions and aesthetics. After all, Neff was well-known for his Spanish Revivalist homes—he designed the estates of Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., to name a few. But this in no way explains why he was so passionate about the potential of the bubble form. Clients interested in estates were not keen to live in modest bubbles.
What No Nails, No Lumber unintentionally lays out, then, is a story of an architect’s capitalist ambition. In the appendix, one can find a total of 12 patents Neff developed to protect the bubble designs and pneumatic construction methodologies he fine-tuned throughout his career. He was more interested in the potential of architecture to be prototyped—not prefabricated—and made available to consumers in a mass market. Perhaps this is the valuable lesson he learned from his grandfather, the publishing tycoon.
But it would be too simplistic to reduce Neff to the influence of his formative experiences. As an architect, he was wrestling with the pressing problems of his age, the most paramount being the need to rebuild Europe after the destruction of World War II, and the demand for efficient and affordable housing throughout the decolonizing developing world. There was also the postwar demand for housing in the United States that had to be attended to. He embraced airform construction as the best way to tackle these problems. One bubble house could be built in less than eighteen hours. The shape of the home was itself the structure. They could be put up almost anywhere and suited any climate. Though thousands were eventually built internationally, only one bubble house remains. As Head notes, this last house, in Pasadena, California, was Neff’s own, where he lived for a time with his brother. This was also the very first bubble house ever built and a reminder of a future that never quite was.