Throughout the 1960s, Western Europe and the United States, young architects and artists, like the English Graham Stevens, adopted the materials and aesthetics of the lunar Space Race to create immersive architectural environments, especially attuned to Earth.
This paper argues, that these inflatable structures emerged across the West to fill with life-supporting air, literally and conceptually, a void left by the unraveling of the modern understanding of the world. These sculptural, architectural objects appropriated the physical materials, iconography, and even the narrative of a quest for extra-terrestrial worlds, yet produced the imaginary of a new world not in outer space, but one firmly grounded on an Earth seen anew. The paper aims to accomplish several goals: its starting assertion is that although the inflatable formally resembles the aesthetics of the Space Age, its existential disposition aligns more closely with the late-Enlightenment hot air balloon.
Despite capturing public imagination, the balloon was ultimately sidelined due to its responsiveness to, rather than navigability in the air. This continuous responsiveness is key to understanding the modern inflatable form, and along the way we unpack the changing logic of flight and Earthly representation, from the hot air balloon, to the 1969 moon landing. Following this, the paper explores why inflatable forms have been largely overlooked in architectural scholarship since the mid-1970s, despite being prominent in the decade before, and why now is the time to re-examine them.
By tracing the historiography of architectural theory from late modernism to recent influence from media studies, tentative explanations surface. Finally, the project deploys insights from media studies to untether the inflatable form from architecture’s disciplinary limits, arriving at a clear link between the flying balloon and the grounded bubble, that illuminates the inflatable anew. Along the way, the work of Graham Stevens, whose texts and structures deploy scientific principles to reveal and embody a human entanglement with elemental forces, grounds the exercise.