The forces of matter

Hadas Steiner

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The unique properties of the soap bubble, long a focus of science, demonstrated the potential for an air-supported architecture: even under conditions of duress, the bubble enclosed the maximum space with the minimum boundary and required no upright supports. While pneumatic architecture would never attain mainstream acceptability, for those who wished the profession to keep up with the cultural changes of the 1960s, air-supported structures had particular significance. Inflatables not only suggested a democratic alternative to conventional construction, but everything about the air-supported enclosure spoke of continuous change, from its constant adjustment to climatic conditions to the ease of its transportability. Moreover, British scientists had used the soap film to demonstrate that nature was not a series of abstract physical forms but rather a dynamic, biological system; after the second world war this insight came to inflect the understanding of structure within the innovative contingent of the architectural community. Metamorphosis, or ability of structure to adapt and change, was declared the true destiny of the modernist project. The old modernism had celebrated the products of industrial technology and was built of hard angles and cool surfaces. By contrast, the rounded contours and flexible materials of pneumatics suggested the emergent technology of the system. The bubble itself contained the duality of being a model of formal perfection under ideal circumstances while having the capacity to represent process through its optimal adaptation to environmental change. Under jobsite conditions, the desire to do away with the duality of form and formlessness in favour of the continuum of process relied on distinctions being drawn between abstract and organic forms, permanence and instability, 'hardware' and 'software'. By allowing for the component of time to be introduced into structure, the flexible membranes of pneumatic software approximated the dynamic system of organic life. Such elisions, however, would bring with them their own binary obfuscations, as the 'Suitaloon', a proposal for an inflatable suit by Archigram's Mike Webb, demonstrates. The confusions over the domain of acquiescent materials and compliant technology that was pervasive in the translation from bubble to building would linger on in the following generations of so-called virtual architectures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-109
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Architecture
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Architecture
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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