Inflatable Architecture That Doesn't Blow
What does the future of architecture look like? For four young designers living in Providence, it’s time to blow everything up.
Inflating spheres for the bubble dome. Image: Taliesin Gilkes Bower
What does the future of architecture look like? For the four young designers of Pneuhaus, it's time to blow everything up.
It's 10AM at an abandoned summer camp in rural Rhode Island. Matt Muller, Augie Lehrecke, Hunter Blackwell and Levi Bedall are standing around the coffee- and donut-laden hood of an old Toyota pickup truck finalizing their plan to construct their latest project, the Ball Dome. If everything goes as planned, the Ball Dome will resemble a cabin-sized model of a fly's compound eye, constructed entirely from clear beach balls.
Supplies are everywhere: hundreds of TPU balls ordered from Alibaba waiting to be inflated, sprawling masses of extension cord, a guitar amp-turned-stereo blasting Blood Orange, a handful of electric blowers, and over a thousand feet of nylon webbing hand sewn by the bubble boys as harnesses for each component of the final structure. A Moleskine sketch is open next to a few Rhino rendered models, the result of months of planning.
Pneuhaus members, three of whom recently graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, ooze contagious excitement about their work. It's no surprise to see a handful of friends have made the early morning drive to help assemble their latest creation. Cas Holman, a RISD professor and toy designer, has joyfully let them use her land, nicknamed Camp Fun, as a test site.
Everything is in place and it's clear that it will be a very long day of work.
Each ball needs to be partially inflated, placed into the custom nylon webbing, and inflated to full pressure, then each segment of webbing needs to be attached to its neighbors. Finally, hopefully, a giant dome will emerge with no external pressure or support.
Pneuhaus' first commission was a circus tent. Pictures of that and subsequent projects were circulated on Instagram and Tumblr, then calls came for deeply funded Burning Man playscapes and one-off structures for Davos after parties. They did a giant party dome for a country wedding (and handled the catering) and are currently talking to music and arts festivals about pneumatic stages tunnels and more abstract structures. For a company less than a year old, things are going very well. So far no one regrets not moving to New York or Europe to intern or take a junior position with a big name designer.
From a design standpoint, the Ball Dome is Pneuhaus' most sophisticated project to date. The design takes playful departure from Buckminster Fuller's iconic Fly Eye Dome. Fuller's work is a touchstone for the group. Each Pneuhaus project completed so far, including inflatable rooms that mimic cell walls and a massive mylar backed affair set up in a natural wind tunnel, illustrate Fuller's obsession with efficiency and natural systems of organization and structural support.
Before heading out to help erect the Ball Dome, I met with Pneuhaus at their sprawling industrial brick and ivy clad HQ. There's a VW van parked in front, inflato-atelier on the bottom, and communal living on the top. Downstairs a handful of folding tables mingle with industrial sewing machines and thousands of feet of the webbing that will hold together the Dome, along with a collection of industrial blowers, an impulse welder, the latest Makerbot, and a custom rendering rig for their increasingly complex 3D models.
An ancient wood stove burns in shocking proximity to thousands of yards of plastic sheeting of various makes and origins. Upstairs they sleep in a large open room filled with three massive bunk beds, separated by a hanging sheet from the living room and kitchen. Half the Pneuhaus members have part time jobs, and occasionally they collectively pick up side work from former professors and classmates, but right now, thanks to Providence's cheap rent, inflatable architecture is paying the bills.
For architectural historians, inflatable architecture is primarily relegated to a fad of the heady 60s and 70s, when folks like Doug Michels and Chip Lord imagined cheap new flexible plastics as the basis for an entirely new pattern language of design, free from many of the constraints of building codes, structural loads and 90 degree angles. For a brief period it felt like inflatables were going to be building blocks of the revolution.
While Ant Farm buried Cadillacs face down in the desert and trained for an environmental apocalypse, an even weirder and more academic strand of inflatable inspired architecture was brewing in Europe. Coop Himmelb(l)au and Haus-Rucker-Co, both Viennese firms, inspired Pneuhaus with their cooperative models and deeply playful and irreverent designs. Himmelb(l)au's 1971 piece "Restless Sphere" found the firm members inflating a small sphere of clear plastic and rolling through Basel, Switzerland, to explore "the possibilities of pneumatic construction." Haus-Rucker-Co used inflatables to build small single person oases that emerged from the windows of office buildings. These works explored the intersections of power and design, prying at the possibilities of the everyday and pointing towards a future liberated from ideologies of control.
Eventually most architects came to the conclusion that inflatable architecture alone was not going to solve the world's most pressing social issues. Real power is calcified in too many intersecting systems for simple design intervention to dissolve it. The best of the underground architects and designers ideas slowly transmogrified, shedding the liberatory potential in the mystical way capitalism demands, and began being integrated into everything from cheap mass produced mall furniture to the "temporary" holding cells that the ICE now uses to warehouse immigrant communities in the Texas desert. Coop Himmelb(l)au would go on to design furniture for the duty free store in the Vienna airport.
Pneuhaus takes a less explicitly political stand about inflatables than their predecessors. They understand many of the limitations of their chosen form, but know there is decades of future work that has been left unexplored. "I was interested in kinetic things, shape-shifting geometry that was rigid but not inflatable. I just loved playing with shapes and form," said Lehrecke.
Lehrecke and Muller started toying around with the name Pneuhaus as they worked on a collaborative senior thesis. Initially Lehrecke had other ideas for his capstone project. "I was going to spend my thesis on a 1/5 scale workable airship," he said. His collaboration with Muller brought his focus back down to the ground.
First Muller and Lehrecke built a 30-foot-tall inflatable room with a motion controlled cell membrane. "I couldn't really go back to chairs and tables after that," said Lehrecke. "It was just like—we just popped it down in the middle of campus and everyone was like 'what is that?!' Since then, we made a bunch of pieces that were put in public spaces or galleries and the response was always so playful. Just turning the audience back into kids."
Muller and Lehrecke collaborated on their senior thesis at RISD, connecting an EEG headset and lighting to create a responsive immersive inflatable environment. Just before graduation, they realized they had a viable business. First they took the low-hanging fruit, creating inflatable meeting and performance spaces for local clubs at RISD and Brown University, just a few blocks up the hill.
Muller realized that to get a real firm started, they needed to stay put in Providence, as manufacturers and makers in Rhode Island always seemed willing to give time, ideas and expertise to the young designers. "We could see that we could make this work," Muller said. "If we stayed here and could exploit our connections." They liked the community they had built, and were eager for cheap space and less economic pressure to quickly build profits. So far they continue to be self-funded and look to a steady list of project proposal requests to keep the lights on and coffee hot.
Just after graduating, they doubled their numbers, adding Bedall and Blackwell to the mix. Bedall, an architecture grad, had never been to Rhode Island, but was convinced to move from the Midwest with just a few texts from Muller, a friend from high school in Cleveland.
"Matt just texted me one day in winter, after winter break," he said. "It's a lonely time. It's grey outside. He just texted me out of the blue, 'We're thinking about starting a company—would you be interested in coming, or being a part of it?' So I didn't really know what I wanted to do after I graduated… but it seemed like a really exciting opportunity, and then he mentioned inflatables, and I wasn't the most…"
Muller cuts in, "You were like, 'They all look the same." And I said, 'That's why I'm interested in pushing it.'"
"We had all our mattresses in one corner, and we kind of slept in this big doggie pile in the corner."
Unsure of what to do next and excited about controlling his own creative practice, Bedall said, "it didn't take a lot of convincing. It was just that one text." Their friend Blackwell, whose masterful glasswork was increasingly augmented with experimental video pieces obsessed with rotation, repetition, and celestial spheres, also got pulled into the fold. At the last minute he bailed on travelling the world building glass blowing furnaces and took a job in RISD's glass department.
"Then everyone just sort of showed up with their stuff and set to work starting a company," said Lehrecke, describing the scene. "We had all our mattresses in one corner, and we kind of slept in this big doggie pile in the corner. And we just started making bunk beds. It was just six people [two other friends not officially associated with Pneuhaus live in the space], all their stuff and a hot plate for a kitchen. There were just narrow walkways through mounds of stuff."
They picked through departing students' trash on move out day, moved in some of their work, including a living room sized lazy susan/stage that Blackwell built, and called it good."So that took like a month and a half or two months just to get to a point where we could have enough space to start working," Lehrecke said.
Lehrecke says their work is cut out for them. "I was reading this Archigram book and the intro went something like, 'We realize that a lot of these ideas will not be realized until long past we are dead. It is up to everybody to complete the vision,'" he said.
Which is why after a full day of work, the member of Pneuhaus and their dedicated friends are all looking around at each other with sheepish smiles and half cocked grins. Someone puts on "Music for Airports" and we are all transported to a place of dreams actualized.
Towering nearly thirty feet into the air is a massive dome made of hundreds of smaller clear spheres. The reflection of each passing cloud multiplies through the spheres into a seemingly infinite fractal of the Ball Dome. After clearing out the blowers, ladders and extension cords, everyone lays on the ground, laughing and staring up through their creation into the sky. Today's vision is complete.