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Visionaries inspire architecture students to design inflatable structures

Features | May 1, 2010 | By:

Architecture and Vision partners lead University of Minnesota students in a workshop on inflatable structures

For five intense days in March, graduate students in architecture at the College of Design, University of Minnesota (CDES), played with balloons and flexible materials to experiment and construct an inflatable structure during the college’s weeklong series of six workshops organized under the rubric “Catalyst.”

“The primary goal of each Catalyst is to raise the level of discourse about design and to provoke leaps in perception of what design can be,” states a a School of Architecture curriculum brochure. “The Catalysts serve as intense, rigorous, transformative and creative breaks.” They’re part of a new approach to architecture education at Minnesota led by chair Renée Cheng. “I think it’s fair to say that while the Catalysts are the smallest piece of the new curriculum in terms of their duration,” says Cheng, ‘they are critically important to the whole. It would be nice to say that it’s really driven by faculty and student interests. We try to use them to advance faculty research and explore future directions for architectural education.” This year the Catalyst program, under the guidance of assistant professor Greg Donofrio, ran six workshops under various topics, including software to run digital fabrication, conservation science for historic architecture, daylighting strategies and scientific light monitoring, virtual environments using SketchUp, and portfolio/career positioning strategies for the current job market.

One of these workshops was led by two partners from Architecture and Vision, the international architecture and product design collaborative of Italian architect Arturo Vittori and Swiss architect Andreas Vogler. Vittori and Vogler led 13 graduate architecture students and one CDES faculty, assistant professor of architecture John Comazzi, on a materials and technology odyssey that examined nature, outer space and textile technology. The outcome of this flurry of production—a 4m-diameter inflatable dwelling, and hundreds of sketches, study models, progress photos and presentation drawings—seeks to examine “the adaptability and portability of inflatable shelters that provide multiple uses,” including for use in “extreme hot or cold climates, rugged environments or casual situations.”

The student design is constructed from a continuous roll of material sealed in air-inflated triangular pillow shapes in repeating pattern to form a long straight shape. Some triangles are left uninflated to provide other uses, including solar panels, LED fabric lighting and water collection devices. When the triangle pillows are rolled together they form a faceted sphere (not unlike a geodesic dome) enclosing a 4m-diameter space that becomes the basic module in the students’ dwelling scheme.

Students described their design in a last-day assembly in the architecture school courtyard: “While the primary function of the shelter accommodates emergency habitation, the demands of a population require multiple uses. Groups of modules can potentially rely upon specified service modules, providing showers, toilets, first aid, cooking and food/storage functions.”

Vittori and Vogler suggest that the students’ design could be ideally adapted for use when natural and political disasters occur, such as with the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Turkey. More durable than camping tents, semipermanent structures with a 2- to 5-year expected life, structures like this could go a long way toward meeting the UN’s Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Assistance needs in disaster zones.

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is the editor of Fabric Architecture magazine.

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