There’s been something of a renaissance lately in inflatable architecture. In the past few years alone, this ephemeral typology has been at Collective Design Fair, Performa 17, and the Park Avenue Armory. Inflatables emerged in the 1960s as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with established cultural norms about life, work, and society. They were seen as potentially revolutionary structures that allowed for experimentation with space in order to influence social, psychological, and physical cognition through the built environment. Inflatables were originally invented by the U.S. military with Cornell aeronautical lab engineer Walter Bird to deploy radio antennae in 1948. Bird, often referred to as the father of the field, is credited for taking this military technology and popularizing it in 1959 by collaborating with Paul Weidlinger on an inflatable roof for the Boston Arts Center Theater. In the ’60s and ’70s, when techno-optimism about the future reached its peak, Buckminster Fuller proposed a massive dome over Manhattan, while Frei Otto envisioned one to shelter 40,000 people in the Arctic Circle. What came next in "inflatotecture" was symptomatic of the counterculture era, which viewed it as a way to construct space for dissent and experimentation while taking advantage of lighter, stronger construction methods and new audiovisual technologies. Ant Farm, a San Francisco–based architecture studio, designed inexpensive and disposable structures out of vinyl for counterculture “happenings,” and anyone attending them could buy the group’s Inflatocookbook, a comic detailing step-by-step how to make one’s own enclosure (a practice common among collectives to disseminate information and design about inflatables). Other contemporaries included the U.K.'s Archigram, Italy's Archizoom, and Germany-based Haus-Rucker-Co.—all of whom envisioned inflatable architecture as a way to explore theories about spatial production, social organization, and consumption. Experimental inflatable architecture continues to be a form that designers use to examine contemporary social problems and to radically play with form and space for its own sake. The following projects stretch the medium to its limits, showing how the next generation of inflatables can generate new experiences. Jesse Seegers Looking to practice new forms of architecture outside of the traditionally accepted profession, New York-based designer Jesse Seegers employs the term “spatial practice,” a framework to create structures that draw from architectural knowledge but are equally related to other disciplines. For example, the Potlatch Pavilion was an ethereal inflatable for a gift exchange party, referencing the Pacific Northwest indigenous American tradition where one’s status is derived from how much you can give away, rather than how much wealth you possess. Here, the inflatable was deployed to “construct alternative systems of political economy.” Seegers’s recent projects include a temporary yoga space called Yoga Dome, which premiered at the opening of Sky Ting Yoga; an installation at a Pioneer Works exhibition on Ant Farm; a concert backdrop for musician SOPHIE’s live tour; and an inflatable landscape for musician Oneohtrix Point Never’s M.Y.R.I.A.D. concert at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. In 2017, Seegers helped French, Los Angeles–based architect François Perrin bring Reyner Banham and François Dallegret’s 1965 conceptual drawing The Environment Bubble to life as a site-specific installation for dance workshops in Brooklyn Bridge Park and Central Park as part of Performa 17. Alex Schweder “An inflatable space in process speaks to the bodies we have. It’s a fleshier, time-based architecture,” said Alex Schweder. The self-proclaimed performance architect began working with inflatables in 2005 at the American Academy in Rome, where his first blow-up installation, Sick Building Sequence, encapsulated feathers floating inside of a translucent plastic “room.” Since then, his inflatables have traversed Collective Design Fair, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Venice Architecture Biennale, Tate Britain, and Performa 17. These include a “room” with photosensitive fur, an inflatable hotel inside of a cherry picker, a floor-to-ceiling mass that collapses and expands into and away from itself, and a spiderlike robot that inflates and deflates to reconfigure space on a dance floor. What’s next? Schweder is working with a team of international artists on a traveling show that responds to László Moholy-Nagy’s Mechanized Eccentric, which will debut at the Bauhaus 100th anniversary next year. Seattle Design Nerds Formed in 2014 as a volunteer nonprofit organization dedicated to designing for the public realm, the group is officially the Seattle-based chapter of the international Design Nerds Society. Known for their inflatables, Seattle Design Nerds is a multidisciplinary collab started by Jeremy Reeding and Trevor Dykstra. The pair works with other local architects, designers, and artists on public interest projects to “make Seattle a little more awesome.” True to their mission, Reeding and Dykstra’s first inflatable was a large-scale installation for the 2014 Seattle Design Festival Block Party, a pop-up space shaped like a giant monster and filled with random objects for play. The team veered into the conceptual realm with The Gas Trap, a performance work where a car's tailpipe seemingly fills the inflatable to illustrate our dependence on gasoline. Last year they dreamed up an installation at the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park composed of eight cuddly, inflatable orbs that change color when bopped. For the 2017 Seattle Design Festival Block Party, the group envisioned an illuminated inflatable mural crafted by visitors at the event with Velcro pixels. Their latest work for Cooper Hewitt’s Design with the Other 90% features a giant egg-shaped inflatable that will debut at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center in Seattle in mid-September. Nicolas KK A young Nicolas KK grew up in Brazil in a family of hot air ballooners. From these beginnings, he developed an innate understanding and appreciation of the form. Putting his “family stuff” to good use, he started making his own blow-ups while studying industrial design at the Maryland Institute College of Art. That trajectory has continued through collaboration with digital, audio, and light artists in a shared studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, called Future Space. Inspired by the inflatables of the 1960s and ’70s, Nicolas KK produces experimental structures by applying his expertise in computational design. His digitally driven experimental performance pieces create “dynamic” qualities and always include a programmable element that directly responds to existing digital infrastructures or naturally occurring biomimetic systems. Nicolas KK plans to study Integrative technologies and architectural design research at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, where he will continue to work with inflatables and collaborate with other artists on projects that respond to the emerging computational environment. In December, New York's New Museum will debut his work in an online exhibition described as “the original live desktop theater internet television show.” Pneuhaus Matt Muller, Augie Lehrecke, and Levi Bedall spearhead the Rhode Island-based design collective Pneuhaus dedicated to the mastery of all things inflatable, specifically spatial designs, temporary structures, contemporary art, and large-scale installations. It all started at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2014 when Muller and Lehrecke designed a handful of different inflatables inspired by Art Farm’s Inflatocookbook. The university hired them to continue to explore those ideas and design a space for the school’s annual design conference. Soon after, Beddall joined Muller and Lehrecke when they got their first professional commision to design-build and perform a circus for the RISD Museum. Since then, the trio has imagined transient spaces for Spotify, Burning Man, and Brown University. Ranging from inflatable fabric prisms built around the fundamental properties of light to inflatables outfitted with pinhole cameras, their growing list of projects develop as iterations of previous works. Their most recent project, Compound Camera no. 2, is a new iteration of the pinhole camera inflatable dome as a giant tunnel at the LUMA Projection Arts Festival in Binghamton, New York.
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A great golden gourd has materialized on Regents Canal in northeast London. For the next eight days, the inflatable creation will touch down at five different venues along the canal from Hackney Wick to Kings Cross, where it will invite local artists into its soft, playful belly to host live concerts, improvised comedy, and spoken word poetry, among other events. “AirDraft” by architects Thomas Randall-Page and Benedetta Rogers is the winning submission for this year’s Antepavilion: an annual competition co-organized by the Architecture Foundation and Shiva Ltd. to produce a public installation on the Hoxton Docks. Established just last year, the initiative has already made a splash as an experimental counter-weight to the more commercially-minded Serpentine Pavilion. By providing an opportunity for younger artists, architects, and designers to create a temporary structure on a modest budget of $32,000 (£25,000), the Antepavilion is a playful foray into new means of living and working together, with a critical edge. Last year’s winning entry by PUP architects—a rooftop hut disguised as an industrial air duct to subvert planning permission—set a bold precedent for AirDraft, which has nonetheless emerged as a true successor in the Antepavilion’s evolving ambition. For Antepavilion 2018, Randall-Page and Rogers have flown the coop of the Hoxton Docks. Their bulbous creation embraces the sinuous, unregulated vibrancy of the canal as an inflatable performance venue. Working in collaboration with Cameron Balloons, the Bristol-based purveyor of balloons, blimps, and other oxygenized joys, alongside London-based structural engineer AKT II, the pneumatic vessel emits a permanent golden aura that is highly conducive to flattering selfies. “More butternut squash than phallus,” according to Randall-Page, AirDraft takes after the work of artist Jeffrey Shaw and the inflatable architecture aficionados of 1970s, Ant Farm. Seemingly torn out from the pages of Ant Farm’s DIY pneumatic manual, Inflatocookbook, AirDraft emerged from its intense 10-week gestation period with remarkably clear vision, complemented by an impressive attention to detail. The entire structure can be deflated in 12 minutes (re-inflation takes half as long), which makes crossing under the canal’s many bridges a breeze. Meanwhile, ventilation and centrifugal fans keep the butternut buoyant without stealing the spotlight from the performers: “The fans can be turned down during events,” explained Rogers. The sunny squash is a striking visual contrast to its local industrial surrounds, but its warm inflatable enclave also serves a deeper purpose as a temporary events space for London’s vibrant yet precarious canal culture. A short stroll or sail along Regents reveals a plethora of waterborne businesses and houseboats, as well as the countless galleries, studios, and grassroots venues clustering around its banks. But as rent continues to climb, licensing laws tighten, and some fear the London houseboat dream is at risk of drying up, the AirDraft intends to “flag the importance of cultural institutions in danger,” according to Randall-Page. As part of their winning proposal, Randall-Page and Rogers organized an onboard event program that draws upon local (sub)cultural institutions, from theatre venues to nightclubs. Their eclectic list of collaborators includes Total Refreshment Centre, a staple of London’s emergent underground jazz scene that was forced into closure earlier this summer by Hackney Council. “If being able to pop-up and disappear is a way around these regulations, that’s great,” consents Randall-Page. “But we shouldn’t really have to seek out these loopholes in the first place.” With a “boat for a mother and an airship for a father,” according to it design duo, AirDraft is an ebullient, if existentially troubled, intervention into Hackney’s canal culture. The 2018 Antepavilion reflects through its hybrid, flexible, intimate and informal structure all that is precious, unique, and worth saving about north-east London’s canal culture. While not for those prone to seasickness, what it lacks in vertebrae it more than makes up for in vibrancy.
There was a moment in the late 1960s when architects (almost always working in groups) wanted to literally lift their projects off the ground and allow them to float over the everyday landscape. Groups like Haus-Rucker-Co, the French Utopie group, and Ant Farm were all inspired by earlier experiments of Archigram, Cedric Price, Buckminster Fuller, and engineers like Frei Otto. Though these experiments were almost always created for gallery exhibitions or one-off installations (Ant Farm placed a large inflatable bubble at UC Berkeley to warn students about the dangers of pollution in 1970) these works continue to inspire architects and every decade they seem to get rediscovered by a new generation. A current exhibition The New Inflatable Moment at the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) is bringing the work back yet again and even cites a previous show, the 1998 exhibition and book The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics and Protest in '68 by Marc Dessauce and The Architectural League of New York, for inspiration and precedent. The French historian of modernism Caroline Maniaque also wrote about inflatables in 2004 for a different generation. The BSA exhibition also highlights recent projects by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Grimshaw, Anish Kapoor/Arata Isozaki, the late Otto Piene, and Norman Foster. But the exhibit also includes even newer projects by Graham Stevens, Chico MacMurtrie, and Berlin’s raumlabor. The idea of these projects also includes an element of idealistic utopianism and there is nothing wrong, at the moment, with idealism in architecture. The show still has a few weeks to run (through September 30th) so if you're in Boston visit the BSA Space (290 Congress Street, Boston, MA, 02210). Admission is free. Opening hours: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm on weekdays, and 10:00 am to 5:00 pm on weekends and holidays.
Boston's BSA Space is exploring the evolution of inflatables at its newest exhibit, The New Inflatable Moment, on display through September. The exhibition was inspired by The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics and Protest in ’68, a 1998 book and exhibition by Marc Dessauce and The Architectural League of New York, which explored the relationship between inflatable technology and utopia. “With this exhibition, we revisit the moment of the 1960s explored by Dessauce to suggest that utopian thought is re-emerging today in architecture and art as evidenced by projects involving inflatables,” said curators Mary Hale and Katazyrna Balug in the exhibit description. From the advent of the hot air balloon to the studies of inflatable houses on Mars, the evolution of inflatable structures will be displayed in an interactive timeline created by Boston-based design agency Certain Measures. The timeline provides context for the different projects on display, showing them adjacent to corresponding sociopolitical moments in history. A series of installations, photos, videos, and models will also populate the exhibit, depicting the ways inflatables have embodied the radical and experimental thinking of architects and artists throughout history. Work by the likes of Buckminster Fuller, Ant Farm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and many others, will explore the experimental designs of this bubble-like architecture as well as the advancements in technology that are pushing inflatables into the future, and into space. “The exhibition reveals some of the most visionary architectural minds working with new methods of display and communication,” said Laura Wernick, chair of the BSA Foundation, on the exhibit’s web page. “Its premiere at BSA space will empower designers to similarly think and work in new ways to create a better future and motivate the general public to believe in it.” An opening reception for the exhibit will be held on Wednesday, May 17 at 6 p.m. The exhibition is currently open and runs through September 3, 2017. For more information about the exhibit please visit the BSA Space website here.
Architects are often maligned for exhibiting inflated egos. Rarely, however, do they have the chance to create inflatable architecture. That could change thanks to a course in New York City run by Jesse Seegers that aims to inform people about the potential of pneumatic and inflatable volumes and how to realize it. Starting on June 6 and taking place in the evening, Seegers will first allow people to experience inflatable spaces while teaching them about the history of the typology. Students will be able to experiment with different materials and techniques including heat welding, tape, and constraining the volumes with ropes and other means. Speaking of his motivation for running the course, Seegers spoke to AN and explained that his interest in inflatables stemmed from his architecture thesis at Princeton University. "Since the 2008 crisis, architecture has mainly become a unit, a means to transform one unit of currency into multiple units of currency," he said. In his thesis, Seegers argued that "During the financial crisis an equally devastating architectural crisis occurred, pulling the curtain away from the alignment of architecture and capitalism" and that architecture itself "has become a form of capitalism." Seegers added that architecture has a tendency to cater to long-term investment opportunities that guarantee return. Hence, structures are seen as commodities, "abdicating their claims to any cultural novelty or spatial experience," whereas inflatable structures, which lack conventional architecture's permanency are "divorced from the whims of capital." "Inflatables deny the normal structure that buildings perpetuate," Seegers continued. "So to have temporary structures that could pop up in a few minutes or a few hours and then go away...they're an excuse for social activities to go on and it's not about the return of investments of a long-term structure." In 2014, his thesis took form, at the Potlach Pavilion in New York. Here, strangers were invited to bring gifts for other strangers, creating a socially active space, amplified in many respects by its temporal nature. https://vimeo.com/66875297 Now a spatial practitioner and the Associate Editor of Digital Projects at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Seegers hopes to teach how the temporal qualities of inflatable volumes can be utilized. He noted that people rarely experience inflatable pneumatic volumes, let-alone get the chance to create them. Seegers also spoke how inflatable spaces can come across as living, breathing organisms, much like how German firm Plastique-Fantastique have been showcasing. "[The spaces] really lower people's inhibitions," he said. "It's a nice etherial space to hang out in and dance in." Ultimately, they're are "meant to be fun" Seegers said laughing, adding that "they're really fun to throw parties in." His course consists of five sessions which run from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.. The course is offered in preparation for an exhibit including a large-scale inflatable that will open at Pioneer Works (who are hosting the course) in September. Further details of the course can be found here.
The Templehof Airport in South Berlin has a history of giving. In 1948, Operation Vittles, also known as the "Berlin Airlift," saw American aircraft carry 80 tons of food into Tempelhof. Shortly after, the famed Operation Little Vittles saw renowned "Candy Bomber" Gail Halvorsen drop candy via parachute to children living nearby. Many pilots soon followed in his footsteps. The airport is now no longer in service, though more recently, it was used as one of Europe's largest refugee camps. This inspired local architecture firm Plastique Fantastique to install an over-sized inflatable dinghy, reminiscent of those many refugees had been using to get to the continent, at the airport. Called LIVEBOAT, the firm, who are well known for their inflatable installations, said that dingy offers space for dialogue surrounding the refugee crisis. The boat serves as a visual pun of being a dinghy at an airport is big enough for people to walk inside. Visitors can walk through the boat and on their way discover multi-lingual sound bites of Homer's Odyssey as well as "fragments of refugee experiences." https://vimeo.com/133220577 Started in 1999, Plastique Fantastique comprises two architects, a set designer, a sound artist, a sculptor, and an intern. As their name suggests, plastic is the material of choice, selected due to its low cost and only needing a fan to form a space. "The fact that we used plastic, was just usually the fact that we had no money," said co-founder Marco Canevacci. Initially, in their first works, they sought to create warm places to stay through the use of a hot-air blower. Since their founding though, their work has, in many ways, continued to expand. Drawing on the pneumatic and inflatable volumes found in Ant Farm's Inflatocookbook, they rely on their diverse knowledge base of sound artistry, set design, and sculpture to integrate contemporary mediums into their work. https://vimeo.com/164302567 One project, SOUND of LIGHT is a notable example of this. The synesthetic sculpture analyses and interprets sunlight, "dynamically" transforming it into audio frequencies. Situated in the former music pavilion in Hamm, Germany, a high-end digital camera placed on top of the structure films the sky above, dividing it into red, green, blue and cyan, magenta, yellow. Commonly known as "RGB" and "CMY" this selection is derived from how colors are formed on-screen and in print (with black the only color missing). Subsequently, the two groups of three colors "receive different frequencies and convert them from visible to audible sensory input." To produce the sound, woofers placed at the bottom of each color column turn the space into a "giant vibrating loudspeaker." "Visitors can also discover their own concert by changing their point of view—an individual spectrum," the firm says on their website. https://vimeo.com/110137909 Sound is once again a key component of one of the latest works, BREATHING VOLUME. Breathing walls constantly swell and retract, giving the impression of being inside a living, breathing organism. Subwoofers at the back "transform the pulsing bass frequencies into the soul of the organism," while four synchronized ventilators work alongside to induce the movement of the walls and sense of breathing. https://vimeo.com/142884817 Another project, installed in 2011 in Neukölln, not far from Templhof, aims to "embrace the Passage’s "waistline" and façade". Called RINGdeLUXE, the inflatable golden ring wraps an archway as part of the "48 hours Neukölln" art festival. https://vimeo.com/25395420 RETTUNGSRING (lifesaver) is a ring that, instead of clinging to a building, floats on the river river Spree in Berlin's Treptow district. "Once inside of the structure, the visitor enjoyed the full experience of walking, sitting and relaxing on the water." https://vimeo.com/14102419 Those interested can further explore their diverse body of work here.