Change is in the Air
Norwegian firm MMW has made pneumatics new
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
This spring, after decades of false starts, Norway's National Gallery will complete a major expansion. Sort of. Unlike other museums, with their starchitect-powered edifices, the Oslo institution is making a lighter design statement. This 21,600-square-foot addition won't be permanent, nor will it even be constructed, strictly speaking. Instead, it will rise as air pumps into a fiber-reinforced, woven-fabric shell, the work of Magne Magler Wiggen Sivilarkitekter.
Founded by a Bernard Tschumi alum, MMW is known for inflatable architecture—the eight-member firm has employed pneumatic technology for everything from a mobile movie theater to roving exhibition space and even offices. Working with Helly Hansen, a Norwegian manufacturer of high-tech textiles, MMW fashions elliptical tentlike structures stiffened only by a continuous flow of air.
Not all MMW projects are pneumatic. But those that are inherit the mid-20th century's utopian fascination with mobility, new technology, and affordable production. Think prefab houses, geodesic domes, and 1960's collectives such as the Archigram Group and Utopie, which dreamed of entirely inflatable cities. For MMW, pneumatic structures still spark the imagination. As Magne Magler Wiggen herself puts it, "They really stand out, like aliens. And that can open up one's view of architecture."
As part of Oslo's architecture triennial in 2003, MMW created a caterpillar-shape capsule. Its white fabric body was framed by tubular rings pressurized by air. Noticeably out of place in a capital not known for trailblazing architecture, this contraption simply popped up at various locations, where passersby could walk inside. "The aim was to stimulate ordinary people to think about their own vision for the city," Wiggen explains.
Lately, blow-up designs have been surfacing everywhere. Take Inflate, the London company that makes everything from egg cups to pendant fixtures and pavilions. Or the pneumatic domes of the U.K.'s Eden Project, the wildly futuristic greenhouse by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners.
A rekindled romance with retro-futurism has intersected with digital-age technology and the organic aesthetics it inspires, resulting in a pumped-up infatuation with ballooning volumes. "My interest has long been in free-form architecture," says Wiggen, whose designs all start out on the computer. "I'm also interested in shortening construction time and creating shapes in an inexpensive way. With fabric and 3-D digital planning, you can do that easily."
To these pragmatic concerns, however, MMW adds a more elusive element: narrative. For this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, MMW created a tunnel between the main exhibition hall and a tent annex. Linking the physical journey with a literary one, the designers drew inspiration from Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen's play about a philandering youth on a fanciful voyage of self-discovery.
The white fabric tunnel, supported by yellow air-filled ribs, was divided into three sections, each corresponding to a scene of the play. In the entry scene, white lighting and playful music evoked the wedding during which the protagonist briefly abducts the bride before going into hiding. Moving forward, fiery red lights and an ominous soundtrack signaled his descent into a corrupt kingdom of trolls. The odyssey ended in the yellow glow of the Arabian desert, where he begins to find redemption.
For a young Oslo advertising agency called Inferno, a name shared by the first section of Dante's Divine Comedy, MMW installed three pneumatic huts that serve as meeting rooms. Each is a different shape, representing one of three beasts that confront the narrator of Dante's story: a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. Taking the optimistic, retro associations of pneumatic structures and reappropriating them into a classical epic does make a certain amount of sense. After all, the huts are temporal by nature, and their forms have a biomorphic life of their own. They literally breathe.
Bringing such ideas to a large-scale project, the National Gallery's froggy-looking addition will be connected to the existing museum and a more conventional MMW-designed pavilion by two pneumatic "legs." The interior area of 2005 square meters corresponds not only to the centennial of Norwegian independence but also to the one-year duration of the structure.
Its shape and lifespan intentionally take on narrative echoes of the "Frog Prince" fairy tale. "Norwegians are still a bit indecisive about the project," Wiggen jokes. "But if Crown Princess Mette-Marit comes and kisses it, who knows?"