Architecture, Design – Photos, videos and installation of extraordinary floating structures by Rem Koolhaas, Herzog & de Meuron and Christo and Jeanne-Claude are on show at the AERODREAM exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. Visitors can embark a journey of over 100 years investigating the unexpected political, critical and utopic functions of balloons.
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The history of inflatables is industrial, often linked with the transport business. Indeed, it all started with Mr Mongolfier’s aerostats and the zeppelins. Military research and materials innovation have played an important role since the Second World War, starting from the deployment of radomes, NASA structural and weatherproof bubbles protecting radar antennas. In the late 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright experimented with inflatable architecture when he created the Fiberthin Airhouses, an innovative, affordable living space made from durable nylon material.
“Architecture should be inspired by organic shapes,” used to believe Frei Otto. The German architect and researcher referred to soap bubbles to develop his thesis on light structures. In 1964, he founded a research and development centre dedicated to load-bearing light surfaces and completed an inflatable pavilion for the Rotterdam 1958 Expo. Meanwhile, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 1966 installation packaged 1.800 balloons in an 85m high structure floating 6m above the ground.
A few years later, Richard Buckminster Fuller extended his research on geodesic domes exploring inflatable structures. Developed with Frei Otto, his iconic Biosphere for the Montreal 1967 Expo consists of an enclosed bubble of steel and acrylic cells. The architect’s vision to create an energy-efficient dome over Manhattan inspired Archigram, Utopie and other counter-culture Avantguardes in the ‘70s. For the Osaka 1970 Expo, Yutaka Murata designed the monumental Fuji Pavilion, a modular pneumatic structure composed of inflatable tubes.
But the ‘inflatable’ has also become a synonym of Pop culture and a new way of life. Take the youthful Blow chair – the first inflatable furniture ever mass-produced. Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Paolo Lomazzi created this candy-coloured PVC seat to bring a playful and informal attitude into the living room. Pop, fresh and far more affordable than other contemporary works of “high-style” Italian design. Other pneumatic furniture designs on show are the Inflatable Stool by Verner Panton, 1961, the modular design collections by A.J.S. Aérolande, 1966, the Half-moon and molecular seat by Bernard Quentin, and the Chauffeuse Apollo by Quasar Khanh, 1968.
The petrol crisis in the 70s and the sustainability challenge led to a pause in experimenting with inflatable plastic structures. Still, new materials and innovations sparked a new chapter in the new millennium. Kengo Kuma created an inflatable tea house that resembles two golf balls from the outside. Traditionally, Japanese tea-houses would be made with natural materials such as wood, bamboo, and rice paper, but Kuma has used a high-tech fabric, Gore Tenara, as a replacement. Herzog de Meuron wrapped the Allianz Arena in Munich with a luminous colour-changing exterior made of inflated ETFE panels.
The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2006 by Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond features an ovoid-shaped inflatable canopy that floated above the Gallery’s lawn. Made from translucent material, the structure was illuminated from within at night.
More recent projects include The Bubble, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s proposal for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C.: “a pneumatic structure enclosed only by a thin translucent membrane that squeezes into the void of the building and oozes out the top and beneath its mass,” explain at DS+R.
In 2011, two years after a major earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and Indian-born artist Anish Kapoor completed Ark Nova, a nomadic inflatable concert hall bringing music set to tour the affected areas. Inspired by Kapoor’s inflatable sculptures, the 500-seat performance venue is made from a stretchy plastic membrane designed to enable quick erection and dismantling.
In 2012, AZC – Atelier Zündel Cristea proposed a Trampoline Bridge inviting Parisians to bounce across the Seine on giant inflated PVC “doughnuts” with trampoline nets.
For the Spanish Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020, Selgascano proposed a temporary structure with an inflatable roof canopy; the nine yellow cylinders are made from recycled ETFE and are supported by a steel framework.
Curated by Frédéric Migayrou and Valentina Moimas, AERODREAM is on show until August 23 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. The exhibition will move to the Cité de l’Architecture in Paris from October 6 through to February 14, 2022.
All photos: courtesy of Pompidou-Metz, unless indicated otherwise.