Our graduate structures sequence involves weekly laboratories that give students (and their instructor) a chance to experiment with basic statics and element design in a hands-on environment. While we usually do something like break cardboard beams, or build trusses out of spaghetti (raw, not cooked), our final structures lab has always been a ‘pneumatic classroom.’ Students are given a box containing mylar painter’s dropcloths, duct tape, and a fan, and their assignment is to build an inflatable classroom big enough to contain the entire class.
This year, that class had 22 students, our largest yet. We staged the classroom in the College’s new studio pavilion, which has a conveniently sized double-height review space. It took the class just 41 minutes to lay out, fabricate, and inflate the classroom, and it stayed up with the power of just a small desk fan.
Pneumatics had their heyday in the late 1960s, when they were seen as a tectonic representation of the radical social and cultural statements being made across campuses and throughout society. One architecture school in Paris completely dropped their classes so that students could spend their semester building temporary pneumatic ‘social condensors’ that would serve as gathering places for protesters and party-goers.
Today, pneumatic structures are used almost entirely for stadiums–the Metrodome in Minneapolis being a good example. But they’re handy as temporary classrooms, too.