Crazy-Radical Soft Architecture, From The 1950s To Today

One of the most exciting design movements in history, “soft architecture” was skeptical of modernism and encouraged individualism, responsiveness, nomadism, and anarchy.

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Article by Neeraj Bhatia, an architect, urban designer, and assistant professor at CCA. Neeraj is the director of The Open Workshop and co-director of InfraNet Lab. He is the co-editor of Bracket 2, focusing on soft architecture, the second edition of an annual journal. Find out more here.

The term “soft” is expansive in its meanings. Soft material, soft sound, soft-mannered, soft sell, soft power, soft management, soft computing, soft politics, software, soft architecture. It describes material qualities, evokes character traits. It defines strategies of persuasion, models of systems thinking and problem-solving, and new approaches to design.

But the most obvious associations with soft have been material characteristics—yielding readily to touch or pressure; deficient in hardness; smooth; pliable, malleable, or plastic. And this is the definition of “soft” that came to define some of the most exciting design motives of the 1960s and ’70s. These new design approaches were skeptical of modernism; soft was deemed to enable individualism, responsiveness, nomadism, and anarchy.

Archigram, Buckminster Fuller, Cedric Price, and Yona Friedman were among soft architecture’s forerunners. Archigram’s investigations into pods, Price’s inflatable roof structures, and Fuller’s research into lightness were all literally soft, and often scaled to the material properties of human occupation. However, larger urban visions such as Plug-In City, Ville Spatiale, or Potteries Thinkbelt can equally be understood as soft. What connects these projects is their attempt to develop design strategies that shifted from the malleability of a material to the flexibility of a system. In so doing they developed new characteristics of “soft.”

Here, we take a look at some of “soft” architecture’s most radical ideas, structures, and concepts.

Cedric Price, Price Potteries Thinkbelt, 1964

North Staffordshire’s pottery industry was suffering an economic crisis in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving the entropic landscape with underused infrastructure and industry. Price published his Potteries Thinkbelt in 1966, converting the railway and facilities into a vast educational network for 20,000 students. The network was malleable and involved scheduling/time into the process of design.

Reyner Banham and Francois Dallegret, Environmental Bubble, 1965

The Environmental Bubble proposed a domestic utopia with all the basic amenities of modern life (food, shelter, energy … television), but without the binds of permanent buildings and structures of earlier human settlements. The transparent plastic dome is inflated by air conditioning and rejects the archetypal home icon. Instead it is defined by the individual and his or her subjective yearnings.

Hans Hollein, Mobile Office, 1969

Before the era of mobile communication, Hans Hollein derived the mobile office. The design transformed the office into an inflatable, transportable, and weather-proof spectacle!

Coop Himmelb(l)au, Basel Event: the Restless Sphere, 1971

Mechanical motion generated from pressurized gas is a realm of technology called pneumatics, which manifested itself in the design culture of the 1960s. The Basel Event was a public demonstration of pneumatic construction, showcasing a Restless Sphere, four meters in diameter, put in motion by its occupant. Coop Himmelb(l)au sought to create an architecture as light as the sky; it had political ramifications through its manipulations.

Philippe Rahm, Interior Weather, 2006

Philippe Rahm’s meteorological architecture incorporates soft typologies and data sets otherwise invisible to the human eye. Interior Weather is an installation with two sets of spaces: “objective” rooms with temperature, light intensity, and humidity in flux; and “subjective” rooms with occupants being observed for physiological values and social behavior. Territory is defined here through the senses, not walls.

Walter Henn, Burolandschaft, 1963

The era of paternalism and strict, fixed, hierarchical office space has transitioned into a new typology of malleability and modularity. The idea of “the cubicle” was novel in its modularity and non-hierarchical form. Henn’s Burolandschaft, literally “office landscape,” launched a movement based on an open plan freed from partitions. It has heavily influenced contemporary projects that create flexible space through the (re)organization of furniture.

Conrad Waddington, Epigenetic Landscape, 1957

Waddington’s formalized epigenetic landscape offers a metaphor for cell differentiation and proliferation, demonstrating how a marble would gravitate toward the lowest local elevation. The resulting Boolean network is an example of visualizing a problematic data set that is constantly reorganizing itself through feedback mechanism.

Writer Sanford Kwinter famously appropriated Conrad Waddington’s “Epigenetic Landscape” as a topological model with which to envision a new conception of form-making (the second picture above)—a concept explored in this “Reverse of Volume RG” installation, Japanese artist Yasuaki Onishi.

Yona Friedman, Villa Spatiale, 1970

The Spatial City articulated Friedman’s belief that architecture should only provide a framework, in which the inhabitants had freedom to articulate space for specific needs. The design is “free from authoritarianism” and is a multi-story, spatial space-frame-grid, which implements mobile, temporary, and lightweight infrastructure.

Michael Webb (Archigram), Magic Carpet and Brunhilda’s Magic Ring of Fire, 1968

Proposed during the 1970s culture of indeterminacy and the dissolution of buildings, the Magic Carpet and Brunhilda’s Magic Ring of Fire is a “reverse hovercraft” facility holding a body suspended in space using jets of air.

Rod Garrett, Black Rock City

One of the principles of the Burning Man Festival is to leave no trace: “We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.” Black Rock City originated as tabula rasa in the Nevada desert; its population fluxes to 50,000 during the festival beginning on the last Monday of August every year. It is urbanism made of a soft framework, that is temporary and adjusted each year.

Want more avant-garde architecture? Check out radical inflatable structures of the ’60s and Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxion drawings.

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