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Visual Culture

The Whimsical, Inflatable Designs of Bubbletecture

Kurt Perschke, RedBall Project, 2001–present. Photo by Kurt Perschke. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Kurt Perschke, RedBall Project, 2001–present. Photo by Kurt Perschke. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Victorine Müller, Le Moment Végétatif, 2007. Photo by François Charrière. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Victorine Müller, Le Moment Végétatif, 2007. Photo by François Charrière. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Bubbles and balloons often evoke nostalgia, recalling the whimsy of childhood parties and bouncy castles. But inflatable design has a much longer history (yes, even longer than your blow-up chair from 1997), particularly in aviation.
The first inflatable was the hot-air balloon in Enlightenment-era France. At the turn of the 20th century, the first Zeppelin was launched, and manned helium-balloon flights followed. In the late 1940s and ’50s, inflatable structures shielded military radar antennae from the elements. By the 1960s, inflatable materials had caught the eye of radical young visionaries looking to upend architecture and design.
A new volume published by Phaidon, Bubbletecture: Inflatable Architecture and Design (2019), surveys these lively and surreal inflatables in architecture, design, fashion, and art, from the 1960s to today. They are often ephemeral in nature, such as Leopold Banchini and Daniel Zamarbide’s black PVC nightclub, or the site-specific “pillow interventions” that Geraldo Zamproni
has staged around the world. And—like Anna Maria Cornelia’s Life Dress (2012), a garment that envelops wearers in a literal bubble of personal space—they can be quite tongue-in-cheek, too.
All are representative of the avant-garde of their time, according to the book’s author, architect Sharon Francis. “By their very nature, [inflatable designs] are an expression of advancement; a reimagining of traditional forms,” she writes.
Below, Francis describes 11 key examples of Bubbletecture from the last two decades.

Project Name: Volatile Structures

Artist: Geraldo Zamproni

Location: Grenada, Spain

Date: 2012

Geraldo Zamproni, Volatile Structures, 2012. Photo by Geraldo Zamproni. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Geraldo Zamproni, Volatile Structures, 2012. Photo by Geraldo Zamproni. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Brazilian artist Geraldo Zamproni’s massive pillow interventions have been exhibited across the globe. Each site placement established a tension between the puffed-up inflatables and the built environment in which they were located. The 6-by-6-meter (20-by-20-foot) pillows, custom-made to encase existing columns, created the impression that they were supporting the weight of the structure overhead, establishing a surprising and delightful dialogue with the surrounding architecture. Here they are pictured at the Andalucía Museum of Memory as part of the 2012 Grenada Millennium Biennale in Spain.

Project Name: Anda

Designer: Tehila Guy

Location: Tel Aviv, Israel

Date: 2014

Tehila Guy, Anda, 2014. Photo by Tehila Guy. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Tehila Guy, Anda, 2014. Photo by Tehila Guy. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Israeli designer Tehila Guy wanted to design a chair that was lightweight and easily assembled at home, achieving the convenience of standard flat-pack furniture, but imbued with style. The resulting piece is made from a minimal wooden frame encased in transparent, inflatable cushions, with the playful appearance of invisibility. The cushions apply pressure to the branch-like rods, which keeps all the components together while, conversely, the frame helps support the form of the bubble-like cushions. Inspired by the blow-up furniture of the 1960s, Guy’s chair calls to mind traditional poolside outdoor furniture, with a twist.

Project Name: Skum

Architect: Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG)

Location: Roskilde, Denmark

Date: 2016

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Skum, 2016. Photo by Rasmus Hjortshoj. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Skum, 2016. Photo by Rasmus Hjortshoj. Courtesy of Phaidon.

The multiple bubble forms of this structure create an arc that is both shelter and beacon. Called Skum, the Danish word for foam, the inflatable pavilion was designed to be both permanent and transportable and was used for installations at various events across Denmark. Made of the same material as bouncy castles, the architect’s intention was to create a whimsical structure reminiscent of the playgrounds of visitors’ childhoods. The pavilion can be inflated in just seven minutes, and illuminated by LEDs in a rotating spectrum of colors.

Project Name: Summer Igloo

Artist: Virginia Melnyk

Location: Beijing, China

Date: 2014

Virginia Melnyk, Summer Igloo, 2014. Photo by Virginia Melnyk. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Virginia Melnyk, Summer Igloo, 2014. Photo by Virginia Melnyk. Courtesy of Phaidon.

This vibrant, lightweight geodesic dome was built from off-the-shelf inflatable beach rings—symbols of summertime fun. The multi-colored pavilion was constructed as part of the C!here Art Crawl in Beijing, forming an intimate space within a public area; in this instance, it sat within a large housing development in the city. Artist hoped that being inside the colourful pavilion would provide visitors with a new perspective of their urban surroundings. After the event, the inflatable pool toys were donated to a charity for local children to enjoy.

Project Name: Ark Nova

Architect/Artist: Arata Isozaki and Anish Kapoor

Location: Matsushima, Japan (or elsewhere)

Date: 2013

Arata Isozaki and Anish Kapoor, Ark Nova, 2013. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Arata Isozaki and Anish Kapoor, Ark Nova, 2013. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Created two years after a major earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, Ark Nova was intended to bring culture and spirit to communities still rebuilding after the devastation. Conceived by the architect and artist team of and as a traveling concert hall, the 30-meter (110-foot) diameter, 18-meter (60-foot) high, eggplant-hued, air-filled membrane could be transported to a venue, inflated, then deflated and folded, ready to travel to the next location. The uninterrupted internal space could accommodate five hundred people, and held events such as jazz concerts, performing arts shows and exhibitions.

Project Name: Pointed

Artist: Steve Messam

Location: Gordon, Scotland, U.K.

Date: 2017

Steve Messam, Pointed, 2017. Photo © Guy l’Heureux. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Steve Messam, Pointed, 2017. Photo © Guy l’Heureux. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Pointed was created as part of a trio of works, called “XXX,” intended to disrupt and transform visitors’ perceptions of its eighteenth-century setting at Mellerstain House in Gordon, Scotland, U.K. The environmental artist Steve Messam sought to establish a playful dialogue between the old and the new with this surprising and delightful intervention. Evoking the outline of a stylized explosion or starburst, the white inflatable cones emerged from the pitched roofline of a centuries-old stone building. The twenty-eight elongated peaks rose more than 3 meters (10 feet) into the air, providing a bold, sculptural presence within the picturesque park.

Project Name: Drift

Designer: Snarkitecture

Location: Miami, Florida, U.S.

Date: 2012

Snarkitecture, Drift, 2012. Photo by Markus Haugg. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Snarkitecture, Drift, 2012. Photo by Markus Haugg. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Creating a dreamy entry to the main pavilion for Design Miami in Florida, United States, this installation by played with the vernacular of the vinyl event tent, reconfiguring the material to form a transitional zone that encouraged guests to linger and mingle. Slivers of soft light permeated the space through crevices and voids in the overhead canopy. The tube formation undulated to resemble a topographical landscape—a mountain range above and a cavern of stalactites below—with the sheer scale of the installation being countered by the lightness of the inflated tubes.

Project Name: Eden Project

Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Location: Bodelva, Cornwall, U.K.

Date: 2000

Grimshaw Architects, Eden Project, 2000. Photo © Hufton + Crow. Courtesy of Phaidon/

Grimshaw Architects, Eden Project, 2000. Photo © Hufton + Crow. Courtesy of Phaidon/

The “biomes” of the Eden Project, situated in Cornwall, in the southwest of England, were designed to be built upon the unstable ground of a former clay pit. Eight interlinked transparent geodesic domes cover over 2 hectares (5.5 acres) and contain thousands of plant species within simulated humid tropical and warm temperate climates. The extremely efficient, completely self-supporting structure of each dome is a hex-tri-hex space frame with triple-layer pillows of air-filled, environmentally efficient ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) cladding panels. The panels vary in size up to 9 meters (29.5 feet) across, with the largest at the top of the structure.

Project Name: Life Dress

Designer: Anna Maria Cornelia

Location: Belgium

Date: 2012

Anna Maria Cornelia, Life Dress, 2012. Photo © Anna Maria Cornelia. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Anna Maria Cornelia, Life Dress, 2012. Photo © Anna Maria Cornelia. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Tapping into a desire for instant personal space in an often busy, crowded world, Anna Maria Cornelia created the Life Dress. The skirt section is zipped on before an air cartridge rapidly inflates it into a bubble that rises upwards, encasing the torso and head—it’s advised that the wearer is sitting down for this bit. Ironically, while the dress allows the wearer to feel invisible to the outside world, its voluminous form and the bright yellow of the cocoon are quite an attention-grabbing sight.

Project Name: Blowing Balloon Collection

Designer: Seung Jin Yang

Location: South Korea

Date: 2015

Seung Jin Yang, Blowing Balloon Collection, 2015. Photo Seungjin Yang. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Seung Jin Yang, Blowing Balloon Collection, 2015. Photo Seungjin Yang. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Using colorful, sausage-shaped party balloons, designer Seung Jin Yang had the intention to “turn a simple making process based on personal childhood memories into an industrial fabrication furniture-making process.” His resulting collection features chairs and stools made by applying eight layers of clear epoxy resin over the modelled balloons. Each layer takes half a day to complete, with successive resin layers gradually added on top. Thus, the process of creating a single stool takes around one week. Despite their fragile appearance, the seats have a glossy, rigid outer surface that is able to support the weight of a person.

Project Name: Shelter

Architect: Leopold Banchini with Daniel Zamarbide

Location: Geneva, Switzerland

Date: 2016

Leopold Banchini with Daniel Zamarbide, Shelter, 2016. Photo by Dylan Perrenoud. Courtesy of Phaidon.

Leopold Banchini with Daniel Zamarbide, Shelter, 2016. Photo by Dylan Perrenoud. Courtesy of Phaidon.

This transportable nightclub, made from a black PVC membrane, was commissioned by the Federation of Swiss Architects (FSA), also known as the Bund Schweizer Architekten, to host their annual summer party. The blow-up structure contained a bar and dance floor, as well as an assortment of inflatable furniture including seating, tables and a DJ booth. The work explored philosophical and spatial aspects of “the underground,” as examined by theorists including Gaston Bachelard, Paul Virilio and Beatriz Colomina. With its pitch black interior, Shelter was designed to create a deliberately disorientating experience.
Sharon Francis

Excerpts from the book Bubbletecture: Inflatable Architecture and Design © 2019 Phaidon Press Limited.