On a Sunday afternoon three weeks ago, denizens of the neighborhood surrounding Watts Towers were confronted with a peculiar sight: a huge, silver, blobular thing dented with gentle folds and cavernous holes. The first investigators were kids, who approached with a mix of curiosity and awe. Inquisitiveness trumped uncertainty, and soon they were clambering all over the wrinkled balloon, finding ways to make it theirs.
The contagious enthusiasm translates into success for Alexis Rochas, the Argentine architect who designed the structure. Titled “99% Air/Aeromads,” the work embodies Rochas’ desire to create what he calls “open-source architectural methodologies,” meaning collaborative paradigms for solving specific urban problems. It also shows the effectiveness of unlikely building materials, namely air. After all, the structure is composed of 99 percent air and 1 percent fabric.
After studying architecture in Buenos Aires and at Cooper Union, Rochas, 30, arrived in Los Angeles two years ago, founded a company called I/O and began teaching at SCI-Arc. His first foray into shared creativity was the Sun Shelter Pavilion, a structure that acts as a threshold space between the street and the Frank Rice Safehaven facility, Lamp Community’s downtown crisis center for the homeless. Working on that project prompted thoughts about other forms of simple shelter.
“I was originally developing these very elaborate structures,” Rochas says, “but then I thought, ‘Who the fuck is going to use these?’ They were not easy to deploy. I had to think about dwelling in the city one day at a time, which is how homeless people deal with their daily lives. We know bricks, we know steel and we know wood, but maybe we can make stuff out of air.”
Ideally, Rochas wanted a habitable structure that would be small enough to fit into a backpack or the trunk of a car. “I wanted something lightweight, mobile and scalable,” he says. “I wanted to create a structure that could become 1,500 times bigger.”
Meanwhile, Rochas was approached by the hosts of FAB, a monthly downtown art market held behind SCI-Arc. The problem was this: The market takes place in the afternoon and gets very hot. There are small tents for the exhibitors, but visitors stand unprotected in the hot sun. So the task was to develop a structure that could be erected and removed easily, one that could hold a lot of people attending the show, and further, something that would lend a sense of identity to the event.
“I’ve always been interested in bringing air to public spaces,” explains Rochas. “It’s been a persistent thing, a desire to open things up, to think about air as a possible technology and as a material that works with ideas of transformation and mobility. It’s very conceptual. But then it got pretty literal.”
Plans for the large inflatable structure, which will debut at FAB’s October 15 market, entail using recycled billboards as the skin that contains the air. “Billboards are made out of nylon material coated with vinyl,” Rochas explains. “So we’re waiting for the demounting of billboards, which happens monthly, and then we’ll use that recycled material. So this goes beyond architecture. It’s creating an urban economy.”
Yet it’s still about the concept: “We wanted to use architecture to trigger curiosity,” continues Rochas. “How do you trigger a certain mystery, or provoke a question? It’s not about the finished object itself, but what it provokes socially in this urban dimension.”
Rochas wants to take the idea even further by handing over the tools for making these structures. “All you’ll need is a pair of scissors and a home sewing machine and you can make them,” he says, noting that he and his collaborators are planning to print the pattern for the structure on 40-foot-by-60-foot billboard panels. “Then you just cut it up and fill it with air.”
“99% Air/Aeromads” continues Rochas’ investigation. The structure first appeared on July 29 at SCI-Arc, traveled to several locations throughout the city, including the Youth Arts Center in Canoga Park, where it served as the location for an art workshop, and then to Watts Towers. It will appear next on September 10, first at the MAK Center’s Schindler House and then in the evening at the TELIC gallery in Chinatown.
“I’m looking forward to what it will become,” says Rochas. “People take over, and it’s hard to get them to leave.” He adds that the final tests for “99% Air” will be to put it in water and then to put helium in it to make it fly. “We’re testing social conditions and material conditions,” says Rochas, “and if one day it blows up, well, that’s that!”