A Glimpse Into a Future That Floats With BSA Space Exhibit

In an imperfect world filled with chaos and unrest, sometimes we strive for the unimaginable, attempting to make the impossible a reality. The New Inflatable Moment at the Boston Society of Architects Space (BSA Space) features the creations of architects, artists, and engineers who have envisioned a new world of inflatables since the first flight of a hot air balloon in the 18th century.

Opened to the public on May 3, 2017, the exhibit closes this coming Saturday. Through a collection of installations, photographs, videos, and models, the exhibit explores the history of inflatable architecture and the projects that were created with the intent of transporting those who encountered it from the real world to a sort of utopia. Not only are these structures revolutionary in the field of imaginative architecture, they serve practical purposes such as housing and environmental care.

The curators of The New Inflatable Moment, Mary Hale and Katarzyna Balug, were inspired by the resurgence of inflatable structures in architectural experimentation that were linked to ideas of an imaginative utopia on Earth. Hale and Balug wrote the proposal for the exhibit three years ago, noting that the counterculture inflatable structures popular in ’60s and ’70s were resurfacing in modern day design. Two years of research were dedicated to the exhibit, which included general research as well as interviews with architects, many of whom lived through the inflatable movement of the ’60s. Hale and Balug also took a research trip to Berlin in the summer of 2016 to interview other architects who ended up having their work showcased in the exhibition.

“We were primarily interested in structures that were really beautiful manifestations of artistic and architectural imagination, particularly an interest in projects that had a utopian angle; projects that were about more perfect views of the world,” said Hale.

Take Graham Stevens’ early ’70s utopian work Desert Cloud. Created at the peak of the OPEC Oil Crisis, the structure has a clear top, reflective bottom, and black sides. As the sun warms the structure, it creates hot air that allows it to inflate all on its own. Water then condenses on the underside, and pours down through holes, making it a true artificial cloud.

“It’s a very iconic symbol of how humans could sort of  free themselves from fossil fuels if we were just using our imaginations and working more creatively to harness available energy on the planet,” Hale said. “For us that was very aspirational, very unusual and very imaginative in reaching for a more perfect world.”

Other projects in the exhibition took utopia in a more literal manner, such as living spaces under inflatable domes, and floating cities in the sky. Inflatable architecture also has a presence in the efforts to colonize on other planets. In 2016, Foster + Partners proposed three different types of robots that would assist in building a solid structure over an inflatable dome where people could live on Mars.

Many projects showcased in the exhibit show a concern and response to climate change and pollution, such as The Eden Project of 2001. This project was a series of eight “biomes,” or transparent domes covered in steel frame tubing, that covered four acres, and encapsulated a range of climates—a sort of mass greenhouse. This project and others relate to the resurgence of environmentalism, nomadism, and open source movements integral to the counterculture of the ’60s. Tthey take on a new form in today’s modern era.

“Architecturally, the way that manifests, at least as far as inflatables go, is that a lot of the projects that architects who are experimenting with inflatables are inspired by are from the late ’60s,” Hale said. “They’re tied up more with this kind of culture of dropping out of society and living a more idealistic lifestyle. Today’s projects, even though they’re borrowing from that visual culture and the spirit, they actually have budgets; they have real clients. They’re not like temporary installations … They are reappearing today but they have sort of a different character. The show is investigating that different.”

The exhibition itself captures the utopia that the architects of this movement are reaching for. One of the installations created by Hale and Balug allows the viewer to go inside a bubble and experience first-hand the surreal experience of being disconnected from the outside world that one gets inside an inflatable structure.

The unprecedented works of imagination that The New Inflatable Moment showcases sheds light on how art, architecture, and history can collaborate to strive toward a common goal of creating an idealistic space on Earth and beyond.