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The inflatable: translucent, lightweight and transient. As architecture the inflatable interferes with the figure/ground relationships and permanence required of traditional building. It escapes the builtness of buildings.

Inflatable architecture doesn't often get beyond projects and posters. It's too dangerous to make real, and it doesn't fit in. it's an architectural sideshow.

The bouncy yellow fairground castle is a childhood wonder and an example of how the inflatable has become slightly dangerous in the public mind. Fairground castles have been in the news recently in Australia, two having taken off in gusts of wind, with fatal results. It is the hint of danger though that attracts kids to the blow-up castles and other off-putting rides in the first place.

The Hindenburg disaster of 1937 came to me via ghostly footage on "The Waltons" in the 1970s. Images burnt to memory of that big awkward dirigible falling against its pylon in a mess of black and white flames. John-boy Walton was never the same after that, and I became wary of hot air.

The inflated membrane is vulnerable and volatile. It can be pricked and deflated, and it can explode and asphyxiate. So it finds no place in mundane day-to-day architecture designed to stand up, stay on site, and keep out the water.

In exhibition design, the inflatable is more appropriate. It's inside, away from the weather and other unforseeables, and it's temporary. At a recent trade show, GC Group of Switzerland used a blow-up dome, albeit strengthened by steel lintels, to manifest the intangible qualities of a telco's ad campaign. It was a risky venture for them, they couldn't obtain help from anyone and had to design it themselves.

A blow up relies on a different kind on construction knowledge. If its not sewn well enough or along the right curve, it pulls apart and fails. The blowup architect becomes clothes designer - pressure becomes more important than gravity.
A recent exhibition at the Vitra Museum in Berlin explored the interaction of clothing, furniture and architecture. In fact it did away with categorizing the disciplines in a traditional sense, preferring instead to group by theme. They trace the new appreciation of the blowup only back to the plastic 60s, but believe the current infatuation has more to do with giving high-tech a softness, what they call "high-touch".

"High-retro" might be more correct. But meanings were different the first time round. In the sixties, the inflatable managed to be both fashionable and politically-loaded. It was big during the French student revolt of 1968. The Utopie group displayed inflatable structures at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1967, in part a frustrated metaphor for their detachment from the establishment of the day (and its associated architecture). The group received a major retrospective at the Architecture League of New York in 1998. Meanwhile, across the channel, archigram were also blowing away the strictures of property with their posters of inflatable sky architecture.



GC Group
Blow Up : GC Group build an inflatable for orange communication. (FrameMag). [LINK UPDATED 01/02]

le cabinet de dr lacan
Vitra Museum Exhibition The Vitra Museum in Berlin recently devoted an exhibition to the air-filled intersection between furniture, clothing and architecture.

Pneumotopian Visions An article tracing the history of the inflatable architecture from the 1910s to France in 1968.

Archigram Britain in the sixties almost looks as if it was fun.

Exhibit takes pointed look, pays homage to inflatable design
Herbert Muschamp, writer of the cheekiest archi-articles at the New York Times, pops the balloon of inflatable architecture.

Luca sartoretto verna
A ballooning VRML world, constructed with microstation. Click on "extensions" at the site.

NASA's plastic. Check some state-of-the art membranes in use on antennae.



This time round, the reasons are different. The 60's blowup is a useful reference point for new work made possible by surface-generating CAD software. The Sixties work located an 'organic' aesthetic that is being revisited as it helps accommodate tricky compound curves.  It's a means to drag architecture into the rule-free world of the vector graphic.

The problem with this is that curvy CAD models cannot usually be built as blowups. They hover in virtual space or are compromised in their transfer to built reality. They won't insulate, are hopeless to back furniture against, and where do you put the light switches?

Meanwhile out in space inflatables are justifying themselves as viable constructions by virtue of their low mass. Low mass means less money if you design spacecraft. Much less. The next generation of craft will have all sorts of blow up extensions - from antennae to radar dishes. NASA has developed new membranes that do away with metal struts and dishes. The next Mars probe* will be an inflatable "tumbleweed" that explores the surface propelled by the martian wind.

These leaps at NASA will eventually find some application in grounded architecture, most of their other ones have. Gravity-bound buildings are cumbersome because of the deadload of the structural components - steel and concrete. These materials are there primarily to hold themselves up, not to support the building's contents. They have high environmental and economic costs. If inflatable 'inserts' could be safely harnessed within a buildings structure, they could lighten the load, lower the price, and still support the furniture.



zebra architecture resources
©  2001
published 11.08.01
last updated 18
dead link cull 18.01.02