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
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
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.
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.
PETER JOHNS ©
* REAL VIDEO REUIRED