The Pneumatic Nomadic Campus

antioch_bubble_factoryschool.jpg
Domes, inflatables, World Expos, Buckminster Fuller, every once in a while around here, it feels like I’m just blogging about whatever artist Steve Roden blogged about three years ago.
The Antioch Bubble is one of those times. [Though, to my credit, I was within range in Feb. 2008]
After its main Ohio campus was shut down by a student strike, Antioch College began establishing satellite campuses around the country. The school’s hands-on, experiential learning approach lent itself to the development of a giant, one-acre bubble structure in Columbia, Maryland to house administration, classes, and other student activities. There were domes and other bubbles inside the 32,000 sf Bubble.
antioch_bubble_nyt_sauro.jpg
Considering they’re mostly used for tennis courts and sports stadiums now, it’s interesting to how politically polarized this inflatable structure concept had once been. Ant Farm was promoting inflatable lounges for naked hippies at Altamont at the same time the USIA was building a giant, balloon-roofed pavilion for the Osaka World Expo. And at the center of a master-planned real estate development of a city, Activist/architect Rurik Eckstrom was ranting against evil corporations from his Ford Foundation-funded dome.
The Antioch Bubble was contemporaneous with it all; there was a full model and 1,000sf mockup in the bag by 1971, and the real thing started going up in the Fall of 1972. An early Nor’easter flattened it in November of ’73. Design and construction were overseen by Ekstrom, an architecture professor at UMD, and a team of 15 students.
It’s still blowing my mind a little bit that such a radical-sounding guy as Eckstrom could be spearheading a truly experimental program to rebuild America’s schools, and with widespread institutional support. And at the same time that Popular Science is announcing the Glorious Inflatable Future has arrived, and we’ll all soon be living in Goodyear houses. PopSci called it “Antioch’s one-acre Pneumatic Nomadic Campus,” and touted its inexpensive portability.
From a NY Times article on May 26, 1973 [interior photo above], it appears a bit of the educational/collaborative value of the project was lost in a rushed to complete in time to host the National Conference on Air Structures in Education, which sounds like an event created to tap a funding source:

[Student/designer/participant Mike Krinsky] said he came here in January because he thought Antioch and the bubble project might help him learn to become a “competent activist.” He said he had become, instead, a poorly paid day laborer. “I’m leaving right now feeling I’ve been used.”

An important lesson for the interns of the future.
On the bright side, when Roden posted about Antioch in 2007, there was almost nothing online about it, or about Ekstrom. That has now changed. Factory School is building an archive of historical material and first-person accounts of the Bubble, which is being helped along by the likes of Google Books.
And the DC area may see another Pneumatic Event Space yet. If the Hirshhorn’s DS+R courtyard-filling donut bubble comes to fruition, the inflatable future may yet be upon us.
Event Architecture [airform archive]
Learning from Antioch – Columbia [factoryschool.com]