Hero Image
The New Inflatable Moment
Antonio Furgiuele

May 3, 2017-September 30, 2017
Katarzyna Balug and Mary E. Hale, curators
Boston Society of Architects

In an age of accelerated production and consumption of images, architectural precedents that are temporary, reproducible, inflatable, and mobile need to be critically placed into historical perspective. The recent infatuation with inflatable bubbles—economic, social, political, and of course, architectural—has propelled interest on how they perform on popular and disciplinary imaginations.
The New Inflatable Moment, an exhibition at the Boston Society of Architects, displays key works and historical pressures that propel the discourse of inflatables and pneumatics. The exhibit’s primary focus, as the curators Mary Hale and Katarznya Balug state, “portrays the work of experimental practices that imagine new worlds from the bubble, and the ongoing research in pneumatic technologies that helps give shapes to the utopian imagination.”1 The exhibit frames the rise of social and political critiques of the 1960s and 2000s, embodied in the environmental, antiwar, and civil rights movements, and the ways inflatables and pneumatics became a means to propel public agency and its imaginary. The exhibition references the 1998 exhibition and book The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics and Protest in‘68 by Marc Dessauce.2 The curators reposition the inflatable moment to place necessary pressure on its recent return in the past decade. They add a renewed sense immediacy and importance to the “Monumental Wind-bags” first theorized by architectural historian Reyner Benham.3 The exhibit finds many real contrasts between the thin skins displayed.

The exhibition juxtaposes more than 40 projects framed by 9 themes that allow for a comparative analysis between these two periods: New Worlds, Phenomenal Optimism, Building Blocks, Utopia Under Cover, Traveling Shelter, Happenings and Social Experiences, Inflatable Machines, Mythologies, and Reaching Space. Within these topics are grouped the works of various architects, artists, corporations, and student collectives from the 1960s such as Buckminster Fuller, Graham Stevens, Frei Otto, Ant Farm, Haus-Rucker-Co, Otto Piene, and the group Utopie. The contemporary cast includes Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Grimshaw, WorkAC, Anish Kapoor and Arata Isozaki, Chico MacMurtrie, Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond, and student groups such as raumlaborberlin, among others. The exhibition displays the seductive media central to these temporal forms, the way they were documented, communicated, distributed, and remembered through photos, videos, drawings, models, and one-to-one prototypes. Many of the works exhibited include rarely seen archival images obtained from a litany of distant sources such as the Buckminster Fuller Estate, Frei Otto Archive, and Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, to name a few. Positioned at the entry, a unique form of media—Chronorhythms—specially constructed for the exhibit offers visitors a visual chronology that allows them to access and control the history of inflatables and pneumatics. Chronorhythms offers the public an understanding of historical events, technologies of the environment, cultural trends, and shifting interest in lifestyle that frame the First Industrial Revolution to the present, throughout all its bubbles.

As the curators state in the show’s introduction, “Utopia offers a critique of the present-day by proposing a radically improved alternative.” Each work exhibited suggests a means to operate on sociopolitical realities and offers an opportunity to fill that critique with a “radically improved alternative.”4 Able to operate on an array of issues and then fill in that critical void with an architectural speculation, most works articulate three things: an issue, a position, a desired effect.

Organized into theme after theme, bubble after bubble, the exhibition allows both baby boomers and millennials, architectural experts and public passersby, image consumers and the environmental vanguard, a single shared space. The exhibit aggregates seemingly atomized camps and provides various publics a productive and tension-filled historical surface, from Buckminster Fuller’s Dome over Manhattan (1960) and Graham Steven’s Desert Cloud (1972) to Grimshaw’s The Eden Project (2001), from Ant Farm’s Clean Air Pod (1960) to raumlaborberlin’s Spacebuster (2009).
While the projects exhibited are separated by a generation, the work and the topics discussed seductively mirror one another. Moving through the exhibition one is confronted with the counterculture and civil rights movements of the 1960s and the identity politics of the 2000s, the environmental movement of then and global climate discourse of now, shifting media consciousness of the 1960s and savvy media platforms of today, early ideas of space exploration and the science of deep space travel, all mediated by various thin—often translucent—skins. Through juxtaposition one element becomes clear: While the 1960s and 1970s inflatable moment carried an urgent and palpable utopian pressure, a sincere and playful technological desire to allow architectural practices to propel countercultural politics and environmental awareness (think Ant Farm), the new inflatable moment seems to find new value in that optimism.
If the 1960s gave rise to the “society of the spectacle,” the works that mark the new inflatable moment make a conscious attempt to evoke the aesthetic politics and practices of that era (G. Debord, 1967).5 While contemporary inflatable forms evoke the representation of the 1960s, they seldom place them into a contested and productive political performance and rarely find new programmatic opportunities. The new inflatable moment capitalizes on the desired effects, while almost never articulating a polemical issue, and takes on an even more tepid disciplinary position. Unlike their predecessors, current inflatables don’t propel new opportunities for people to engage in a “critique of everyday life” and an increasingly important and renewed sense of a “right to the city.”

While this critical difference between the inflatable architectural practices of then and the inflatable institutional spectacle of now is implied by juxtaposition, it does evidence itself explicitly at one key moment: the wall text under the theme Happenings and Social Experiences reads, “The inflatable for social gathering is gaining popularity today as an intervention in urban space. Does this more familiar aesthetic form and social program still hold political charge or does it function differently?” This question demands the viewer return to the central thesis of the exhibit and cast their own speculation: What is the real pressure behind the new inflatable moment? The question itself recalls the transformation of how inflatables propelled an architectural counterculture and became part of a cultural capital of cool.
In our age of accelerated “society of the spectacle,” a key form of architectural success is contingent on the speedy creation of projects that can circulate through forms of social media. The inflatable offers a popular tactical and urban means for an instant and reproducible work to occur, again and again. With a frequency only matched by a cultural appetite to consume more and more spectacle, and more and more images, our thirsty imaginary relies on the tides of consumable images that the Information Age provides in real time, on demand. While architecture production has necessarily responded to fill this void with thin skins and air, a key part of our new inflatable moment needs to move past our thinly veiled fetish of newness to address the absolute environmental and political challenges that remain part of everyday life.

Mary Hale and Katarznya Balug, The New Inflatable Moment, Boston Society of Architects, (May 3—Sept. 30, 2017).
Dessauce, Marc, ed. The Inflatable Moment: Pnuematics and Protest in’68. Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
Reyner Benham, “Monumental Wind-bags,” New Society 11, no. 290 (April, 1968): vol. 11, no. 290: 569-570.
Mary Hale and Katarznya Balug, The New Inflatable Moment, Boston Society of Architects, (May 3—Sept. 30, 2017).
Debord, Guy. “from Society of the Spectacle (1 983).” The City Cultures Reader 3 (2004).
Lefebvre, Henri. “Critique of everyday life. Vol. 1.” Trans. John Moore. London: Verso (1991); Harvey, David. “The right to the city.” The City Reader 6 (2008): 23-40.

How to Cite this Article: Furgiuele, Antonio. Review of The New Inflatable Moment, curated by Katarzyna Balug and Mary E. Hale. Boston Society of Architects, Boston, MA, May 3 – September 30, 2017. JAE Online. March 30, 2018. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/reviews-exhibits/new-inflatable-moment#/.

Chronorhythms: A Visual History of Inflatables