Large inflatable bouncy castles with children shrieking with joy and tumbling over one another were once a common sight in funfairs and theme parks. The delightful palaces with bright, air-filled walls that didn’t hurt are one of the earliest and most easily identifiable examples of bubble architecture. Today, the range and potential of inflatables have expanded beyond simple toys and furniture to span the realms of architecture, art, design, and fashion. From inflatable dresses to innovative chairs, lights, toys, and dynamic artworks, the domain of blow-up objects are expanding irresistibly and indomitably. Influential, ground-breaking, and revolutionary, bubble architecture recently came to be known as bubbletecture has grown to become the torch-bearer of the modern architectural movement, for it is a utopian expression of technological advancement and a transient reimagination of traditional architecture.
The Aberrant Origins of Bubble Architecture
The first inflatable was a hot air balloon created by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier in the 18th century. American engineer Walter Bird gave the inflatables a spatial connotation, for his ingenious invention of ‘radomes’ that were structural, weatherproof enclosures protecting radar antennae for the US military triggered the concept of bubble architecture. Post-war, birds developed inflatable storage sheds, greenhouses, and pool enclosures, hence marking the start of a new era in the history of architecture. In the late 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright worked with the United States Rubber Company to develop a unique and experimental project called ‘Fiberthin Air house’ that used durable vinyl-covered nylon to create affordable living spaces. Though the project did not have long-term success, the concept was way ahead of its time.
With the arrival of cheap, mass-produced plastic in the late 1960s, creative architecture groups embraced the potential of inflatable technology bringing inflatable chairs and cushions into fashion. Archigram came up with its iconic ‘Cushicle’ and ‘Suitaloon’ projects that allowed people to carry around a complete environment in their inflatable suits. In the 1970s, Ant Farm came up with a project called ‘Inflatables’ that allowed users to take control of their Environment. The project questioned the standard norms of construction as it could not be expressed in plans or sections, instead they produced a manual for making your own pneumatic structures, the Inflatocookbook.
Bubble Architecture Today
While the single membrane structures allowed fats and economical inflated structures, they had the disadvantage of being transient or temporary. Hence the double-walled membrane was introduced in the permanent building systems for composite pneumatic structures. There are several artists, architects, and engineers experimenting with bubble architecture sought to extend the boundaries of the achievable while generating awe and delight. The Big Air Package, the largest ever inflated envelope without a skeleton exhibited in the Gasometer Oberhausen, Germany, from March 16 to December 30, 2013, was a milestone in the evolution of pneumatic architecture. With the introduction of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) as a durable, recyclable, highly transparent, corrosion-resistant, and very lightweight material suitable for Bubble architecture, several architects started using pneumatic technologies in their buildings, notable ones being the Allianz Arena in Munich, Media ICT Building in Spain and the Water Cube in Beijing.
The transient, whimsical, and organic nature of the spaces created by bubble architecture has inspired many artists and architects to work towards ephemeral installations and spaces that change their characteristics with place and time.
Skum in Denmark is an installation by BIG that creates a shelter and beacon that is reminiscent of the bouncy castles. The installation can be inflated in seven minutes and has a rotating spectrum of light that transforms the overall feel of the space by mere changes in the color of light.
NEW KOREAN GARDEN, NORTH KOREA
The New Korean Garden in Seoul is a rooftop park with a maze of turquoise inflatables forming a reconfigurable multipurpose space.
The Daedalum is a labyrinth of 19 interconnected egg-shaped domes made of translucent inflatable material that lets people experience the ‘phenomenon of light’.
TIERRA FÉRTIL, MÉXICO
Tierra Fertil is an inflatable bean gallery designed by Mexican designer Norberto Miranda for a traveling exhibition. The inflatable structures were so chosen to facilitate easy transportation and installation.
Plastique fantastique is an art group that works on creating transparent, lightweight, and mobile installations that relate to the notion of activating, creating, and sharing public space. Their notable installations using bubble architecture include ‘Sound of Light’, ‘Frank’, ‘Loud Shadows’, ‘Pneumapolis’, and ‘Space Invaders’.
The Radical Future of Bubble Architecture
The potential of pneumatic technology has been only partially explored and exploited. With the development of ground-breaking materials and technologies, we may expect that bubble architecture could soon have us settle down on the Moon or Mars.