Today’s Architects Are Obsessed With Inflatable Design–Here’s Why

Inflatable architecture, which was wildly popular in the 1960s and ’70s, is back

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Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden Bubble
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden Bubble by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Utopian architects tend to be irrationally confident that their work will make the world a better place; even if their designs never quite deliver in the real world, they’re damn convincing as images. Inflatable design, in particular, has been inextricable from architectural constructs of utopia for decades–though it’s never fully taken off. The New Inflatable Moment, a new exhibition at BSA Space, home of the Boston Society of Architects, dives into why.

“Inflatables are big, cheap, easy to make, and transform life into this magic bubble,” Mary E. Hale, co-curator of the exhibition, with Katarzyna Balug, says. And now, they’re experiencing a renaissance, driven by cultural, political, and economic forces.

The inflatable experiments of the 1960s and ’70s are seared into my memory as the embodiment of utopian architecture. Take Ant Farm, an experimental art collective active in the 1960s and ’70s. Its enormous “pillows,” as it called its inflatable spaces, were made from tape and polyethylene (the most common type of plastic), and inflated by normal fans. They were the definition of counterculture architecture: Anyone could make them, they were inexpensive, and they could be constructed virtually anywhere. Their shifting, organic shapes were the opposite of Modernism’s dictatorial emphasis on perfect forms and proportions. Naked hippies loved them. Rebellious architects, too.

“You walk inside and it’s a complete subversion of Modernism,” Hale says. “Modern architecture is regimented and regular; it’s right-angles heaviness. Here you’re in a bubble, these translucent environments where there’s no structure. It’s a membrane held aloft by a fan. It’s so simple and subverts everything about Modernism.” […]