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Something in the air

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Review: The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics & Protest in 1968 At the riba, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 7 August

Strictly speaking it is not The Inflatable Moment so much as An Inflatable Moment, because this likeable show at the riba is primarily about the radical group Utopie whose project designs at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were all conceived as blow-up structures. Following their radical Structures Gonflables exhibition in Paris in March 1968, Architectural Design editor Monica Pidgeon published them several months later in a special 'Pneu World' issue which followed the French student uprising.

It is not as if we were ignorant of inflatables. Cedric Price and Frank Newby had written a government report on them and Archigram had incorporated them in its designs for some years. In the same year Reyner Banham with illustrator Francois Dallegret produced a seminal piece in Art in America, 'A Home is Not a House', in which montages of Banham and Dallegret reclined in a portable blow-up powered by an environment pack.

The wonderful thing about inflatables was that you no longer had to start out designing extensions. Now even a first-year student could build structures as big as an office block in a couple of hours. Any self-respecting architecture school devoted itself to sourcing gaffer-tape, big sheets of builder's polythene and industrial air pumps from Exchange and Mart. Gaffer-tape was then the only known method, apart from expensive heat-welding, of successfully joining two pieces of polythene together.

The Utopie designs were complicated, elegant, structural and quite beautiful; most inflatables, as built, were none of these things. Utopie represented the post-gaffer-tape phase of inflatables and although Norman Foster, with his customary impeccable logic, used an inflatable as a temporary office for a Cambridge computer firm and despite a number of inflatables appearing in the Osaka Expo of 1970, the movement was soon over - except for the occasional piece of blow-up furniture.

There were quite good reasons for the brevity of the blow-up vogue. As a commentator in The Whole Earth Catalogue explained at the time: 'Inflatables are trippy, cheap, light [but] they're terrible to work in. When the sun goes behind a cloud you cease cooking and immediately start freezing.'

There is not much breadth or depth to this show; maybe there wasn't a lot to inflatables anyway. Yet it's a pity that for some years it will stifle any more serious and wide-ranging look at the phenomenon. The catalogue, which it's hoped will add substance, has been due since the beginning of the year.

Sutherland Lyall is a journalist

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