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Modern Living: The Rise of the Bubble

3 minute read

Like blisters rising on a sunburned skin, bubble buildings are popping up all over the landscape. An architectural curiosity only a decade ago, the air-supported, plastic bubbles are rapidly becoming a familiar sight, appearing−and sometimes disappearing−overnight amidst city skyscrapers, in suburban shopping centers and on country fields.

The U.S. Pavilion at Osaka’s Expo ’70 was a bubble building. Harvard has an air-supported field house−a huge structure that covers 45,000 sq. ft. and allows athletes to work out while blizzards rage outside. Columbia has a similar structure. In Manhattan last month, an air-supported building housed the fast-paced musical Orlando Furioso in Bryant Park. Another protects the disassembled blocks of an Egyptian temple outside New York’s Metropolitan Museum. In Mamaroneck, N.Y., a bubble covers the high school swimming pool; in Indianapolis, another protects a hockey rink. In Los Angeles, bubbles are used for classrooms.

Inside a Toad. For some, the urge to try to pop the bubbles is all but irresistible. Twice since 1968, would-be deflators have pierced Harvard’s bubble−but an alarm system brought maintenance crews on the double. Actually, a certain amount of leakage is desirable. “Air-supported buildings must leak,” explains English Architecture Critic Reyner Banham. “They are living things. They must breathe.” If they are not allowed to breathe, strange things happen: the blowers that constantly pump air into the enclosed space cause pressure to build up, and the building begins to screech, pull and tug. To those within the bubble, says Banham, “it’s like being inside a toad.”

The bubbles’ light weight, low cost (roughly $1.50 per sq. ft., plus installation) and portability make them commercially attractive. They were first used industrially, but within the past five years, they have come into increasing use as sports facilities. Air-Tech of Clifton, N.J., a major manufacturer, has sold 25 tennis-court bubbles in 1970, compared with only two in 1967. There is good reason for their popularity. Outdoor tennis clubs, which once closed in the fall, can now inflate their bubbles and operate throughout the winter.

But there are drawbacks. In New York City, the Midtown Tennis Club has used a bubble over its rooftop courts for three years, but it is now so dirty that it no longer lets in much light. There are air-pressure problems with some bubbles−now and then a tennis player will complain of popping ears. Acoustics are often eccentric. A hard-hit volley, for example, sometimes will sound like a battery of French 75s. Heating−or cooling−;the bubbles is difficult. The sun has a way of turning the structures into hothouses, while the cold winds of winter can overwhelm heating systems.

The most unusual problem was encountered when a Los Angeles company called Chrysalis tried to set up a city of inflatable buildings in the California desert last summer. A sudden desert wind arose, reaching a velocity of 70 m.p.h. It whipped an 80-ft. by 30-ft. bubble (with ten men aboard) 25 ft. into the air. For a terrifying moment, the Chrysalis employees thought they had invented the blimp.

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