The pneumatic structure concept breaks all preconceptions of architectural construction. Inflatables defy the rules governing common materials and are substituted by air pressure and textiles. The possibilities regarding shape and size are infinite and their usefulness can be appreciated from pavilions to massive emergency structures.
Inflatable architecture was a popular movement in mid 20th century; features like lightness, ease of construction, and low cost gave access to experimental architects and artists to express space in alternative ways. In the 70’s decade, ephemeral spaces and artistic installations abounded with the intention of ending with public space stiffness. Society showed concern for the environmental crisis and architects who were pioneers on pneumatic structures understood the importance of working their skills on a different construction method. In this piece, we explore the aspects where we can value the contributions these structures have made through some of the most outstanding projects to this day.
The Ant Farm firm was established in 1968 in San Francisco by architects Chip Lord, Doug Michels, and Curtis Schreier. Their architectural and design work was characterized by its foundations on cultural criticism. Their incursion in pneumatic structures was the answer to the Brutalist movement which dominated the style of the time, contrasting heaviness with light structures. The group of architects acknowledged the usefulness of inflatables for the production of ephemeral spaces and for encouraging encounters, dialogues, and social situations. For more than one year they led experiments for their Inflatocookbook handbook, setting up structures for different events in schools and fairs. One of their best known performances was Clean Air Pod, at the University of California, as part of an environmental event. They held a drill where they shouted that the air had reached a dangerous pollution rate and they all had to enter the inflatable room set on the square.
Cedric Price, a British architect and writer, delved into potential uses of pneumatic structures in society. His essay, Pneumatics: A Key to Variable Hybrid Structuring, states that exploration should go beyond conventional uses, searching to exploit their value to provide flexibility in the conception of the urban space and the permanence of its components. One of his suggestions is to reverse the order of traditional urbanization instead of arranging people around one big architectural landmark, like an auditorium or market, and he stated the possibility of improvising the space, depending on the needs. This was the case of Ark-Nova mobile auditorium, by architect Arata Isozaki and artist Anish Kapoor, which traveled the cities damaged by the Japan earthquake in 2011. A multimedia and music art program was offered with the collaboration of artists from different countries. The structure allowed people living in cities whose equipment had been destroyed, to enjoy a cultural event that did not require traditional architectural spaces.
Art and Society
Michael Rakowitz is a US-born conceptual artist, his work spoke about current social, cultural, and art issues. ParaSITE (1998-present day) are inflatable emergency houses he creates for homeless people by using the air from building pipes. Rakowitz asks each user about their tastes and needs, causing all parasites to be different. Among the most common demands are having transparencies which allow inhabitants to watch around their surroundings for safety. Others have asked for Star Wars references and even have managed to improvise sanitary facilities. Michael’s art showing is acknowledged for its ability to turn the serious housing problem, faced by millions of people all over the world, into something tangible.
These shelters have to disappear, as does the problem. In this case, the true designers will be political actors. -Michael Rakowitz