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From above to below, balloons and bubbles redefine design. Inflatable architecture is a revolutionary design concept with a storied past. This creative approach to building structures employs the use of air-filled membranes and fabrics to create awe-inspiring, versatile, and sustainable buildings. From temporary installations to permanent structures, inflatable architecture has evolved from a novelty to a serious contender in the world of design and construction.
Rise of Inflatable Architecture
The history of inflatable architecture, though captivating, spans a century, with origins in post-war military applications. It centers on a simple yet ingenious principle—an anchored membrane supported by continuous ventilation-supplied air. Unlike traditional buildings, these structures tend to rise due to internal and external air pressure differences, redefining their foundation. Post-war, these air-supported storage structures met military needs and later diversified into various applications. Inflatable architecture’s evolution brought double membranes and energy-efficient heating systems. Frederick William Lanchester’s 1917 patent laid the foundation for pneumatic construction, although it was initially met with skepticism. World War II intensified pneumatic structure research, culminating in durable materials for civilian use.
Visionaries like Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto were among the early pioneers who experimented with inflatable structures. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and Frei Otto’s pneumatic structures laid the foundation for modern inflatable architecture. The 1960s saw a surge in the popularity of inflatable structures, driven by their association with the counterculture movement and the desire for portable, easily deployable structures. Inflatable structures were used for events like Woodstock and have since become synonymous with music festivals and temporary installations. Today, inflatable architecture offers an array of applications, from temporary event spaces to emergency shelters and sustainable, energy-efficient structures.
Eco-Advantages of Inflatable Architecture
Inflatable structures offer a suite of compelling environmental advantages. Firstly, their construction and maintenance demand significantly less energy when compared to traditional buildings. Thanks to lightweight materials and their inflatable nature, the need for heavy construction machinery and resource-intensive materials is greatly reduced. This results in more energy-efficient processes, leaving behind a smaller carbon footprint. Additionally, inflatable structures possess the unique capability of being easily deflated, transported, and repurposed in different locations. This inherent flexibility minimizes the necessity for new construction projects, ultimately reducing waste and the environmental strain associated with the creation of entirely new structures.
Furthermore, inflatable structures demonstrate minimal site impact. Often, they do not require a foundation and preserve natural landscapes by reducing site disruption. This characteristic not only showcases a commitment to environmentally responsible construction but also allows for a harmonious integration of these structures with their surroundings. Thus, it gives birth to iconic structures that exemplify the boundless potential of pneumatic design. Moreover, many inflatable structures are constructed using recyclable and eco-friendly materials, thus adding an extra layer of sustainability to their design. These materials not only reduce their ecological footprint but also align them with modern environmental standards.
Applications of Inflatable Architecture
Inflatable architecture has found its place in a diverse range of applications. From temporary structures that grace music festivals and trade shows with their easy setup and eye-catching designs to invaluable emergency shelters deployed swiftly in disaster relief efforts, these structures have proven their adaptability. They have also become fixtures in the sports industry, offering quick setup solutions for various sports facilities.
Moreover, artists and designers have embraced inflatable architecture as a medium for creating immersive art installations, pushing the boundaries of creativity. Interestingly, inflatable architecture is not limited to temporary use; it has also made its mark on permanent structures, offering innovative roofing solutions that provide shelter while allowing natural light to filter through, thus combining function with aesthetic appeal.
In the wake of the devastating Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in 2011, architect Arata Isozaki and artist Anish Kapoor embarked on a remarkable journey to bring music and hope to the afflicted regions of Japan. Their brainchild, the Ark Nova, emerged as an inflatable mobile concert hall designed to uplift spirits and promote the healing power of music. This extraordinary structure, reminiscent of Anish Kapoor’s earlier Leviathan sculptures, can be swiftly inflated, transforming into a 500-seat performance venue. It serves as a versatile space for a wide range of artistic expressions, from orchestral performances to theater, dance, and visual arts.
Named the New Ark or Ark Nova, it embodies the vision of becoming an emblem of renewal in the aftermath of natural disasters. While it may not carry people and animals to safety, it carries the gift of music and art, contributing to the long-term revival of culture and spirit. The ingenious use of a stretchy plastic membrane allows for quick assembly and disassembly, making it easily transportable to different locations. Once the performance is over, Ark Nova deflates and is loaded onto a truck, ready to travel to the next city and continue spreading the joy of music and the arts.
In 2012, Design Miami commissioned Snarkitecture to create Drift, an inflatable masterpiece that defied convention, transforming the entrance into an enchanting floating landscape. This immersive installation, designed as an entrance pavilion, challenged the traditional concept of the white vinyl tent. Drift consisted of massive inflatable tubes, carefully arranged to create a suspended topography. Above, it formed an ascending mountain, while below, it sculpted an excavated cavern. These vertical cylinders not only defined the entrance courtyard’s space but also served as areas for visitors to circulate and find moments of repose.
The buoyancy of these floating tubes emphasized the grandeur of the installation, making it visible from several blocks away. The play of filtered light between the inverted landscape’s tubes created an engaging atmosphere that was contemplative. Glimpses of the Miami sky were seen through the openings in the canopy, infusing the interior with natural light and fresh air. Drift not only marked the entrance as a hub of activity and design but also beckoned visitors from afar, enticing them with its rising landscape and inviting them to explore before entering the fair. This inflatable marvel truly redefined the boundaries of design and space.
SelgasCano’s Serpentine Pavilion
In 2015, London’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion celebrated its 15th anniversary with a remarkable creation by SelgasCano. This striking design wrapped in multi-colored ETFE sheets and webbing, captivated the public with its vibrant and unconventional appearance. The design incorporated a minimal steel frame enveloped by colorful ETFE sheets, evoking a sense of dynamism and lightness. “Secret corridors” within the pavilion led to the main internal space, drawing inspiration from the intricate network of the London underground.
SelgasCano, renowned for their inventive use of synthetic materials, employed ETFE in 19 different colors to achieve the pavilion’s kaleidoscopic effect. This choice of material allowed for dynamic interactions within the rigid steel frame, challenging traditional notions of enclosure and fragility. Architects José Selgas and Lucía Cano paid tribute to the program’s past designs while crafting this exceptional pavilion, honoring all the architects who had contributed to the Serpentine Pavilion’s rich legacy.
SheltAir, designed by Architectural engineer Gregory Quinn, utilizes inflatable cushions to create domed bio-containment pods. These inflatable pods serve as isolation units for coronavirus patients. The structure of SheltAir is constructed using a grid shell made from plastic rods, which are first assembled flat and then transformed into their final domed shape through the inflation of cushions. These inflatable cushions, crafted from PVC-coated polyester, have a dual role – they serve as the architectural envelope and are heat-welded to an outer skin, ensuring an airtight environment that is crucial for quarantining virus patients.
This design addresses the need for sealed, negative-pressure environments to prevent infections. SheltAir provides an innovative solution that offers a quick and efficient way to create isolation spaces during pandemics.
The EXXOPOLIS Luminarium
EXXOPOLIS represents a wondrous celebration of inflatable architectural innovation by Architects of Air. This luminarium showcases an array of massive inflatable structures bathed entirely in natural light. While it continues to captivate audiences worldwide with its vibrant and awe-inspiring domes, EXXOPOLIS pays homage to its origins, stemming from the original EGGOPOLIS, created in Nottingham with the help of volunteers and community service workers. Over two million visitors have marveled at these inflatable wonders, which feature the evolution of founder Alan Parkinson’s personal formal language and architectural expertise.
This inflatable wonder features nylon skins adorned with intricate stained glass window patterns, inspired by the innovative tiling designs of mathematician and physicist Sir Roger Penrose. Stretching across half a football field and towering to the height of a three-story house, this colossal structure is a testament to its architectural ambition. It’s constructed using 3000 square meters of plastic, comprising 9000 individual pieces joined together by six kilometers of seams. EXXOPOLIS transforms natural light into a mesmerizing spectrum of colors, blending light, sound, and architecture for an immersive experience like no other.
The Horticultural Spa and Apothecary Experience
Along the banks of the River Thames is an enchanting inflatable dome called The Horticultural Spa & Apothecary Experience by London-based studio Loop. pH. This installation serves as a communal gathering space. An inflatable PVC membrane, anchored by two tons of steel scaffolding, features a lattice birch plywood arch adorned with potted plants, serving as the entrance to the dome. Visitors can enter the misty interior through a slit in the plastic skin, where scented vapors, infused with essential oils and plant extracts, create an engaging sensory experience reminiscent of a communal bathhouse.
Loop. pH envisioned a future marked by water shortages, offering an alternative to full immersion by using scented water mist. The installation’s aromatic mists are designed in collaboration with medicinal herbalists and tailored to specific times of the day. The project is inspired by traditional teahouses and bathhouses as well as Buckminster Fuller’s ideas about addressing future water scarcity through mist-based showers. The Horticultural Spa & Apothecary Experience showcases the potential of inflatable architecture to create unique and sensorial environments that bring people together.
Korean architects Choi Jangwon, Park Cheonkang, and Kwon Kyungmin, collectively known as Moon Ji Bang, created an imaginative installation named “Shinseon Play” outside the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. This inflatable installation was part of MoMA’s Young Architects Program (YAP) and draws inspiration from an ancient Asian myth of Shinseons, mystical creatures that are believed to reside atop high mountains or above the clouds. Shinseon Play is designed to represent the heavenly landscape of this myth, offering visitors an opportunity to interact with over 50 large, mushroom-shaped inflatable structures that resemble trees, mushrooms, or clouds.
Visitors can traverse the installation via a wooden bridge, and trampolines placed on opposite sides provide an exciting experience of moving between the realms of heaven and earth. A hollow steel pipe supports each inflatable, allowing gentle air pressure to sway them with the wind or human touch. This installation aims to evoke a sense of transcendence from the everyday rush of the urban world, offering a beautiful experience that combines art and architecture. Shinseon Play demonstrates how inflatable architecture can be used to create captivating and interactive public spaces, adding an element of wonder and enchantment to urban environments.
Birdie Cup Coffee
F.O.G. Architecture has created a visually striking coffee shop called Birdie Cup Coffee in Shanghai’s Fengshengli neighborhood. This compact café, covering a 25-square-meter area, stands out amidst the historic and trendy surroundings with its inflatable roof and gleaming glass volume. The design concept embraces a philosophy of de-architecture, integrating expansive glass surfaces encased in a subdued matte-finish metal framework. This results in an open, outward-facing environment. The café’s design harmoniously combines solidity with softness, featuring a predominantly white and gray color palette. This palette strikingly contrasts with the supple, cushion-like forms of the inflatable roof, accentuated by warm lighting.
The inflatable roof serves as more than just a decorative element; it defines the brand’s overall vision and creates a shelter of floating puffs that enhance the metal framework, providing a serene space for visitors. A thin oblique pillar serves as a dynamic design element, striking a balance between structural order and creative softness. Furthermore, the limited color palette emphasizes the open design of the windows and facades, blurring the boundary between customers and baristas. This unique cafe offers a retreat from the bustling streets, inviting patrons to relax while enjoying their coffee.
The development of inflatable architecture has progressed significantly since its inception. Today, it stands as a viable and sustainable solution for a wide range of applications, from temporary event structures to permanent sports facilities and emergency shelters. Its ability to combine innovation, functionality, and environmental consciousness makes it a compelling choice for architects, designers, and event organizers. As technology continues to advance, the future of inflatable architecture holds immense promise.
We can anticipate groundbreaking developments that will further expand its horizons, continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible in the realms of construction and design. With its pioneering spirit, inflatable architecture is poised to leave a mark on the way we envision and create spaces, inspiring architects and designers to reach for new heights while treading lightly on our planet.