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Tomás Saraceno: Microscale, Macroscale, and Beyond: Large-Scale Implications of Small-Scale Experiments / MATRIX 224

Architecture Takes to the Air

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Tomás Saraceno: 3 x 12MW, 2007; installation view, Berkeley Art Museum; PVC pillows, air, nylon webbing, and rope; dimensions variable; courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.

We think of architecture as immovable, inert, and permanent, but those qualities of building are rooted in architecture’s relation to the ground. They reflect also shared cultural values related to the primacy of the individual over the collective, to our desire for security, to ingrained notions of property and its relation to capitalism and land ownership. Tomás Saraceno looks to the sky and sees possibilities for revising our ideas about the fixity of the built environment and the organization of cities, reshaping notions about nationality and property, and rethinking how we live in relation to one another.

Air-Port-City, Saraceno’s ongoing project, envisions networks of habitable structures that float in the air. The freedom of their airborne location allows for these sections of living space, organized within a modular cellular framework, to join together like clouds, creating aerial cities in constant physical transformation. Saraceno’s ideas, and those of many visionary architects, turn to history for models of collectivity, fluidity, flexibility, and nomadism that are antithetical to more dominant cultural models of stasis. Saraceno speaks of an aspiration to unlearn, implying the stripping away of these basic shared assumptions about how we live, tracing backwards from the perceived limits of what is culturally possible in order to carve out new visions for living.

Saraceno’s suspended and floating environments give physical form to this conceptual framework, and anticipate at small scale the reality of his large-scale vision. The form of the bubble is the building block for much of Saraceno’s airborne architecture. On a metaphorical level the relation is obvious—bubbles contain space and float on their own, and their shape echoes the form of the world. Structurally speaking, as well, they are ideal small-scale models for his large-scale propositions—as a continuous spherical membrane, the bubble represents a flexible building component that relies on principles of tension to gain stability. Such structures are known as pneus, and they represent the essence of form—the most fundamental structures in nature, down to the singular construction of a cell. Saraceno employs the building block of the pneu in the suspended sculptures that serve as models for related parts of Air-Port-City. Minimal surface forms similar to soap bubbles can be achieved by inflating or suspending other kinds of thin membranes such as plastic, or even, in the future, as Saraceno suggests, flexible membranes of aerogel, a remarkably strong, lightweight material developed for use in the aerospace industry and with which Saraceno often experiments. Organized cellularly, with interdependent constituent parts, these sculptures redefine the idea of wholeness and completeness as states of flux rather than stasis. Inside a flexible superstructure, individual living modules can be plugged in, as can modules for recreation and civic use, resulting in an environment that responds to both the needs of individuals and the shifting needs and desires of transitory communities.

Saraceno’s Flying Garden works imagine parallel agricultural modules, at present housing species of Tillandsia and Spanish moss that receive necessary nutrition from the atmosphere—they are “air-sufficient,” an apt metaphor for the human self-sufficiency that his project hopes to engender. Saraceno’s architectural program, like those of Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, and other visionaries, posits questions about the reshaping of social space and human behavior as much as imagining realizable architectural plans. Utopias, especially as modeled through visionary architectural programs, are useful because they allow us to reimagine ourselves and our surroundings in the ideal. This stretching of possibility beyond the immediately attainable allows us to shake off the mistakes of the past, to evade the learned limitations of how we see our world and one another.

Elizabeth Thomas
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by a generous endowment gift from Phyllis C. Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment, Joachim and Nancy Bechtle, Maryellen and Frank Herringer, Noel and Penny Nellis, Paul L. Wattis III, and Iris Shimada.