Air Structures by William McLean and Pete Silver surveys incredible pneumatic buildings, bridges and other structures.

Air Is a Magical Building Material

Air Is a Magical Building Material

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
Aug. 28 2015 12:10 PM

Incredible Inflatable Trampoline Bridges, Mobile Scientific Laboratories, and Furniture Powered by Air

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Bouncing Bridge, Atelier Zündel Cristea, Paris, 2012. This proposal for a bridge across the Seine is formed of three inflatable modules and equipped with giant trampolines.

Courtesy of Laurence King

Air is invisible, impossible to draw, and easy to take for granted, but forward-thinking architects and designers have long experimented with this most ephemeral of building materials as a magical ingredient for creating lightweight, portable, flexible, pneumatic structures that include inflatable buildings, bridges, sculptures, furniture, and more.

Air Structures, a new book out next month by William McLean and Pete Silver, who both teach at the School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster, shows the potential of pressurized air as an inexpensive and renewable building material. They survey innovative inflatable structures from the past several decades and consider the use of air-based technology to create air beam structures and facilitate construction methods such as air-inflated steel, aerated concrete, and blow molding that make it possible to build in ways that would be impossible using conventional means.

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Using lightweight materials such as PVC membrane, trampoline mesh, and air, the bridge proposal was designed to cross the Seine at a specific point, but could easily be adapted for larger or smaller crossings.

Courtesy of Laurence King

This compact, informative book aimed at architects and designers is full of enlightenment and inspiration for those curious about how architects and designers approach their work.

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Architect Oskar Zieta and materials scientist Philipp Dohmen, both researchers at Zurich’s Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, welded thin sheet metal together along seams before inflating it with high-pressure air through a pre-installed valve to create the lightweight but remarkably strong Plopp stool.

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The stool is light enough to be easily lifted with only one hand but can support 2.75 tons of weight.

Courtesy of Laurence King

This test bridge designed by Rolf Luchsinger and Mauro Pedretti in Switzerland was built using pneumatic technology inspired by the Tensegrity structures of Buckminster Fuller and the floating compression ideas of artist Kenneth Snelson. Lightweight, inexpensive, easy-to-install air beams have the load-bearing capacity of conventional steel girders, allowing them to be used as bridges, temporary enclosures, and roofs.

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A Tensairity beam holding a 2,866-pound VW Golf.

Courtesy of Laurence King

A mobile scientific laboratory made of pneumatically inflated air beams and nylon mesh includes an overnight shelter and storage facilities. It is designed to be air-lifted along with personnel by hot balloon and deposited on water or, as below, the canopy of a rain forest. 

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The Canopy Raft is a mobile scientific laboratory.

Courtesy of Laurence King

AirClad from designer Nick Crosbie uses low-pressure inflated air cells connected to structural ribs that create an armature for an inflated wraparound skin that can be used to create garden offices, house extensions, or pop-up pavilions.

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A lightweight AirClad house extension structure has an opaque PVC inflatable skin.

Courtesy of Laurence King

Kristin Hohenadel's writing on design has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Vogue, Elle Decor, Lonny, and Apartment Therapy.