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Space Invaders: Los Angeles Installation Inflates, Titillates

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Photo: © Rob Kassablan


Jenna Didier and Oliver Hess’ front yard in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood has seen a host of spectacles. In 2002, Didier stretched fabric over her home’s facade in asymmetrical, cascading strips that evoked super-plus–size fashion. Provocative displays that followed included a miniature topography, a vortex comprising 504 gold-tinted Mylar sheets, and a bamboo bridge traversing a small body of water that bubbled and surged to passers-by.

These aren’t cerebral pranks à la Real Genius. Rather, they are the experiments in art and design that Didier and Hess champion as the founder and technical director, respectively, of Materials & Applications. The nonprofit organization, which is funded by Didier’s fountain design company and fueled by the efforts of volunteers, turns over its outdoor space to twice-yearly juried installations that stress innovation at all costs.

“Bubbles” is the latest effort. Sixteen rip-stop nylon inflatables are tightly packed in the 25x50-foot space. The volumes operate in pairs: When a visitor bumps or pushes a bubble, it deflates, channeling its air to a mate that dangles higher above the courtyard, and the air exchange in one pair moves the adjacent pair enough to spark a chain reaction; “a person comes in like a virus,” says architect Michael Fox. More visitors also equate a more dynamic installation.

When FoxLin principal Michael Fox and Kilian first discussed entering a proposal into the Materials & Applications submission pool, he admits that the vision was not quite so clear. “At the time it was really to look at a space that could be completely consuming and that could be customizable in scale, in all axes,” he says. “But we weren’t necessarily thinking of bubbles.”

As the team slowly added members—beginning with Scott Franklin, one of two principals of NONDesigns and Fox’s former student, followed by Fox’s partner Juintow Lin—the concept slowly evolved in both form and its ability to be realized. “In old renderings we have these balloons floating around, and we left the top off.”

Now the installation has a cast of young thinkers and makers to its credit, including the design firms FoxLin, NONDesigns, and Brand Name Label, with support from Axel Kilian and Darius Miller. And the installation itself is correspondingly sophisticated, despite a miniscule $20,000 budget. The bubbles suspend from a 30-foot-tall steel structure, and their interactive behavior is generated by internal polyethylene “seeds” that house a mechanical switch, internal lighting, and air filter. Insightful details include the 30-degree angle that trips the mechanical switch (so that a gust of wind doesn’t activate the installation), and Velcro attachments that release the bubbles when a rambunctious youth goes climbing.

“This project, although an exhibit, proves a lot in terms of interactive design at an urban scale,” Fox says. Besides demonstrating the worthiness of the technology, it’s also a billboard, and springboard, for talent. Indeed, Fox notes, “the project is important to us because while we are fairly well known in academic circles for pioneering interactive architecture, our primary goal as a professional office is to build architecture.” “Bubbles” is open to the public through February 15. 

David Sokol