The big bubbly

Inflatable architecture seems to speak of optimism. Yet as Peter Lang argues, these transparent experiments can be as claustrophobic as they are progressive.

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Haus-Rucker Co, Oase Nr.7 / Air-Unit (installation view at Museum Fridericianum), 1972. Photograph © documenta Archiv 

Bubble diagram
In John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz, Sean Connery runs up against an immense glass dome-like structure. The world he left outside was rife with frenzied chants and acts of naked savagery, while inside the dome his free will is supressed by powerful mind controllers. The film is set some 300 years from now and the dome is a stage for two oppositional worlds – one primitive, the other futuristic. On the outside of the dome are the Brutals, a ragged people herded by violent, gun-wielding exterminators; on the inside, are the Eternals, an immortal community of hopelessly bored telepathics. Connery’s character, the moustachioed Zed, finds himself transported inside the transparent hemisphere aboard a massive stone figurehead that glides across the skies. Zed’s arrival eventually destabilizes the tenuous social balances of these privileged inhabitants, and much like in The Wizard of Oz, the Frank Baum tale that inspired this one, Zed gets to go home, but not before he has punctured the Eternals’ utopian bubble.  

Besides imagining the transparent shelled dome that envelops half the countryside, Boorman places a number of other inflatable bubbles in different scenes. As a spectator you come to understand that the rotund forms trigger something deep in our subconscious, conjuring up both a primordial past and a cybernetic future, both Arcadian and utopian. What intrigues us about the world of bubbles is that their rounded forms, dynamic shapes, womblike interiors create visceral conditions that can make us want to cuddle, feel vulnerable, or expose us to some really primal sensations. 

Yet the subject of bubbles in architecture is far from mainstream, and they are basically considered temporary, good for making indoor tennis courts, goofy entertainment spaces or at best emergency shelters. Yet their pure forms can be traced a long way back in time, to the first human-recorded histories.

Egyptian foundation myths, for example, deploy the bubble as the medium through which the gods are released into the world. The bubble springs forth from an infinite sea releasing the sphere of life. From this sphere emerges the first generation of divine gods, who will create all living things and command the earth and skies. The bubble therefore describes the protean moment before all things become possible – the egg-like form rises from an oceanic cosmos that will one day resubmerge the human universe. This myth is symbolised in the god figure Nun, a male-female divinity who represents the before and after, the void and chaos that recall current Big Bang theories. The ancients understood the tenuous dynamic that held their world together, something we are just beginning to recognise with the rising seas brought about by the devastating effects of climate change.  

The noted design visionary John Thackara refers to the term “in the bubble” as the moment when air traffic controllers reach synchrony among all the incoming and outgoing flight trajectories. The danger, of course, is when airplanes wander outside the air traffic controllers’ predictable patterns and chaos ensues. Thackara’s flying predicament is clearly a familiar scenario, where the bubble represents a state of fragile equilibrium that, when ruptured, sends everything out of whack. 

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City of Hemispheres: The Fifth City
The city is a dazzling sheet of crystal amidst woods and green hills. On nearing it, one realises that it is made up of the covers of 10,044,900 crystalline sarcophagi, 185cm long, 61cm wide and 61cm deep. The walls separating the sarcophagi are transparent; the bottom, however, is shiny white. Inside each sarcophagus lies an immobile individual, eyes closed, breathing conditioned air and fed by a bloodstream – in fact, the blood system is connected to a purifying and regenerative apparatus which, through toxin elimination and doses of hormones, prevents ageing.

A series of electrodes applied to the cranium controls an external sensory apparatus, of hemispherical form, diameter 30.5cm; this hemisphere of silvery metal is capable of moving and remaining immobile in the air and on the ground thanks to a propulsion system which emits no gas and no noise and has an unlimited life. One might think that the hundreds of thousands of hemispheres that continually crowd the air and are suspended over the city or its surroundings are moved by telekinesis.

The flat surface of the hemisphere contains its sensory organs; sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. The sensations which these perceive are transmitted directly to the brain of the individual commanding the hemisphere.

At times one can see hemispheres placed on the sarcophagi of the owners, exactly over the head; this is the position known as “profound meditation”. At other times, especially on sunny days, many hemispheres can be seen united in couples; this is the position of “sublime love”; these spiritual unions naturally do not have the power to create life, but this is unnecessary in a place where death does not exist. 

Image and text by Superstudio, “Fifth City” from City of Hemispheres, 1971. Courtesy the artists 

Yet while the bubble can comfort, its undulating and elastic membrane also stirs feelings of queasiness and unease. That is probably why the most fearsome scenes in the short-lived 1960s British psychodrama The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan as an ex-secret agent, featured a squadron of bubbles. McGoohan, known only as “Number 6”, is held against his will in an isolated holiday resort where escape is virtually impossible. Trapped inside the town, the only open way out is across the sea, but every escape attempt is thwarted by “Rovers”, water-bound, balloon-like bubbles. These menacing viscous shapes bob above the waves as they roll toward their panicked targets. And indeed, to be captured by one of these psychedelic bubble-guards means suffocation or even death. 

The architecture theorist Georges Teyssot, who has investigated the existential history of interior environments, describes eggs, bubbles and balloons as the most primal spatial archetypes. The hard shell of the egg and the soft, flexible membrane of the bubble find their fusion in the building experiments conducted by the pioneering architects Eliot Noyes and John Johansen, who used rubber balloons as moulds onto which they sprayed liquid concrete. Once the concrete hardened, the structures could be made inhabitable. On the other end of the spectrum, one of the great architecture critics to document the profound transformation of early 1960s British post-war architecture, the architectural historian Reyner Banham, was particularly enthused by recent experiments in flexible structures. Teyssot credits Banham for speaking openly about the natural delights of being inside a soft-shell bubble, its fluctuating, “quivering” membrane relates far more directly to the natural elements than would stodgy old-style houses with bad ventilation and poor natural light. 

By the early 1960s, bubble-like structures began spreading throughout the international design community, with fantastical prototypes cropping up in Japan, Europe and the US. At the very beginning of the decade, the Japanese Metabolists designed huge speculative, residential and urban centres built around cellular capsules that could be combined into towering superstructures, like the cylindrical units pegged onto towers designed by Kiyonori Kikutake in 1963, or his geodesic dome cells mounted onto the Expo Tower in Osaka in 1970.

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François Dallegret, Un-house. Transportable standard-of-living package / The Environment Bubble, 1965. Collection Frac Centre, Orléans 

In Britain, Mike Webb from Archigram invented inflatable structures like the Cushicle (1964) and the Suitaloon (1967), intended to reconcile personal space and the urban environment. In Austria, Haus-Rucker-Co’s work focused on a variety of spherical structures, from the wearable Flyhead Helmet (1968) to a design for a weekend house – a sort of wrapped inflatable structure with the odd shape of a translucent bladder. Its most iconographic project was a vertiginous bubble structure, Oase No. 7, which was attached to the front of a neoclassical building in Kassel in 1972. In Italy the group UFO paraded its inflatable tubular bubble structures in Florence’s streets and piazzas in playful political demonstrations it called urboeffimeri, or “urban ephemerals”, to demonstrate against war, capitalism and public authority. The sight of crowds of young people hauling huge, sausage-like inflatables with toothpaste adverts and Viet Cong slogans painted on them which profaned the Renaissance squares and monuments, did not go down well with the Florentine authorities.

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UFO, Urboeffimero n.6, 1968-2012. Courtesy Centre for Contemporary Art Collection Luigi Pecci, Prato 

In the US, the group Ant Farm began experimenting with temporary inflatable structures and in 1971 introduced an Inflatocookbook, to accompany its coast-to-coast road tour of American college campuses. These large inflatable plastic structures came packed inside a customised travelling van, and were supposed to promote spontaneous gatherings and alternative collective actions. 

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Ant Farm, Clean Air Pod at the Air Emergency Event, 1970. Courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Bubble boy
The inverse of the human-scale inflatable bubble is the bubble dome, a theme explored to great satirical detail in The Simpsons Movie (2007), in which the town of Springfield is sealed off to stop its noxious pollution from spreading to the rest of the country. The townsfolk are trapped inside, provoking a series of increasingly desperate attempts to break through the shell. Though many have remarked that there are similarities to Stephen King’s 2009 novel Under the Dome, later made into a television series, the Simpsons story is the more subversive of the two, given that the “Dome over Springfield” references Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s 1960 plan to place a dome over midtown Manhattan. That dome, the mother of all planetary-scale projects, was intended to save energy and keep out pollution, the opposite of the Simpsons’ tragicomic scenario. As things are turning out, a dome over Springfield suggests something much more relevant to our situation today. At a certain point, there is a critical moment when the tables are turned, like in a Ballardian construct, and the goal no longer is to preserve society but to keep society from destroying everything else.

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Left, the dome over Springfield in The Simpsons Movie (film still), 2007. Right, Hazel Larsen Archer, Buckminster Fuller Inside His Geosidic Dome, 1949 Courtesy ICA Boston 

Then again, the most televisual dome ever to cover an entire city was in The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir in 1998. Here, reality and fiction melded under one enormous stage set, a sort of dome over the known world. The film was shot in the then up-and-coming New Urbanist city of Seaside, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This meant that Weir chose to stage his fictional film about a fictional reality show in a real town designed to resemble an imaginary version of a New England town built in Florida. Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, finds he has no place to hide – an obtuse reference to the original “boy in the bubble” David Vetter, an American child born in 1971 who literally lived hospitalised in a plastic bubble, his entire life spent under the media’s uneasy gaze. Truman, unlike Vetter whose life would be portrayed by John Travolta, had access to a much larger volume of inhabitable space, but still experienced his world as oppressively claustrophobic. Under a dome, reality tends to flip, the transparent clarity of the structure perverting the sense of the visible and invisible, the public and the private. 

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Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond with Arup, Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, 2006. Photograph © John Offenbach. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries

These days, however, the bubble’s future is less in the hands of radical designers and eccentric screen writers. Contemporary experimental groups such as Raumlabor use inflatable structures to spur collective actions by bringing together alternative communities, just as Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond’s bubble canopy erected for the Serpentine Gallery in 2006 hosted non-stop talks that demonstrated a commitment to neo-radical research. Not to mention a whole generation of form-generating, parametric-programming, 3D-fabricating architects who delight in making squirmy, mushy, bubbly things: bubble structures that point to a future where people will live unencumbered in free-form, non-Euclidian spaces. 

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Left, Raumlabor, Duismülsen, 2007. Courtesy Raumlabor, Berlin. Right, Matt Damon plays an astronaut who builds a greenhouse on Mars in the film The Martian (film still), 2015. Courtesy 20th Century Fox 

But a more significant trend involves the proliferation of biospheres, those bubble-like, self-contained, self-regulating and independent ecosystem environments that are gradually becoming the prototype of choice for the human conquest of Mars. Unsurprisingly, The Martian (2015), Ridley Scott’s latest film, does not best make this point. Instead, it is a project like NASA’s inflatable dome structure on the remote and inhospitable volcanic slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii that houses researchers  who are collecting data about living laboratories for would-be martian explorers. As we begin to learn about the task of surviving the hardships of deep space voyage and remote human settlements, the very physical shape of our survival remains tied to these archetypal bubble-like spheres. Which brings us back to where we began: living life in the bubble might hold the future for the entire human race. §