Inflatables have been around for a long time. The Romans had airbeds made of leather skins sewn together and there are even earlier records of inflated animal skins being used as flotation devices to cross rivers.
The type of structure that Architects of Air build directly follows on from the more recent innovators/ artists of the 1960s/70s who explored the potential of the newly available flexible sheet plastics.
Our luminaria are designed to work as accessible, ephemeral sculptures and yet be functional in all the architectural essentials. The inspirations are the pure forms of geometry and nature, Gothic cathedrals & Islamic architecture and modern architectural innovators such as Gaudi and Frei Otto.
All AoA’s luminaria have to work within a number of practical parameters. Their site plan (footprint) has to be of a small enough scale to be able to fit on to the majority of public spaces yet big enough inside to permit a journey of discovery for the visitor. There have to be places to sit down that are not thoroughfares and they also have to be wheelchair accessible.
They have to be made in easily portable sections. They have to be effectively anchored against the wind and they have to have efficient drainage. The floor throughout must be in contact with the ground in order to provide secure footing for the elderly or infirm. They have plenty of headroom and adequate light levels.
If they are to have smooth surfaces pneumatic structures must follow the laws of physics in terms of their shape. The engineering design approach permits a high level of accuracy in terms of planning the smooth, unwrinkled form. The engineering approach is also one that allows most of the experimentation to be done on the drawing board using standard engineering principles. It essentially breaks down forms into cones, spheres and cylinders and their infinite combinations. However for a flexible unsupported pvc such as we use there has to be a compensation for the deformation of the material and gravity too has a deforming effect. This compensation is arrived at by working from experience of how surfaces will deform under internal pressure and gravity compression.
The principal staring point for a design is its footprint – developing an arrangement of passages and domes. Once a satisfactory ground plan is achieved then begins the detailed drawing that culminates in engineering analysis of the forms and template design.
The double curvature of the inflated forms often lead people to assume a computer programme is used to achieve the cutting patterns. In fact the design is basic and it is air pressure deforming the plastic that generates the complexity. A uniform seam width of 12mm is usually employed to maintain a certain level of invisibility. The seam itself is often used as a conscious part of the structural motifs – often functioning in a similar way to the lead in a stained-glass window.
There is something almost intrinsically subversive or comic about pneumatic structures. There is often a sense of levity around an inflatable and it is a challenge to develop a ‘serious’ inflatable architecture that reflects the purpose behind the structures – more so as the luminaria are single-skinned. It is the work of Architects of Air to develop an pneumatic architectural aesthetic capable of doing justice to the beauty of the luminous colour found within the luminarium.