Q & A with Architects of Air Artistic Director Alan Parkinson
Architects of Air have been creating spectacular pneumatic structures from their Nottingham workshop for over three decades. Their latest Luminarium, Katena, will be at Whee! The International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival at Lakeside Arts later this month. We got a sneak preview inside and spoke to founder and artistic director Alan Parkinson to learn more about the company and the unique experience they create.
The Luminaria have toured all over the world but Architects of Air is still based here in Nottingham. Does the city make a good home for the company?
Nottingham has been the only home of my inflatable activity which began in 1982. I’ve been based in a number of Victorian church halls and factories until finally ending up in the Oldknows Factory where we’ve been now for approaching 20 years. It’s good to work in a space that has character, that has great light and marvellous views over the city.
In our years of activity we’ve had many local people coming to work with us and whilst some may have been very temporary, some have stayed with us for a decade of two, and in that time have grown with the company, growing their expertise at the same time.
So, yes, having the space and the staff makes Nottingham a good home.
How long did it take to complete Katena? It must be quite a labour intensive process for a small team?
We began the build last September and are finishing off some details right now – so it will have taken about 7 months. The structure is all hand-built with no machinery for the cutting and gluing so it is quite a labour-intensive process.
The Luminaria are fully wheelchair accessible. Photo by John Owens.
Can you tell us a little about the design process? What was the inspiration behind the Katena structure?
There’s quite a lot to say about the design process but basically there’s a parallel consideration of functionality and aesthetic. The functionality is all the various practical architectural considerations that are intrinsic to a huge temporary building, the aesthetic is in the forms, the use of colour, the journey within the structure.
Katena’s design inspiration came from the catenary curve – the shape of a chain suspended between 2 points. Gaudi used suspended chains when he designed the Sagrada Familia and I found the catenary curve to have a visual sympathy with pneumatic forms.
The main dome’s point of departure was to have been the catenary but I couldn’t find a satisfactory way to incorporate it. So its inspiration became that of finding a practical solution to the excessive stretchiness of new plastic that took us into creating a complex riveted mesh to contain the form.
Photo by Robin Easton
Photo by Alan Parkinson
Accessibility and a participatory experience for all have been key focus points of the Luminaria. How has this concept developed?
When I began working with inflatables it was by working on a Nottingham voluntary project that provided inflatable facilities to children and adults with special needs, some of whom were wheelchair users. So when we built our first inflatable environments it was automatic that there should be an entrance that made it easy for wheelchairs and that inside the structure the different volumes should all be designed to have solid contact with the ground so that wheelchairs could get around freely.
When I started Architects of Air I wanted maintain that inclusivity and to continue improving on accessibility.
The exterior of Katena. Photo by Alan Parkinson.
Do you find that the atmosphere inside the Luminaria change much according the location? Is it a challenge to recreate the same environment or is a unique experience each time all part of the fun?
The Luminaria tend to create their own world – so set up on a hillside or a city square the experience of the structure can be similar. The experience of the structure may change according to the light, sunlight at different angles or an overcast day or even night-time with artificial lighting outside. What perhaps has most impact on varying the experience in different locations is the behaviour of the visitors who come inside to share the experience. To experience of the Luminarium is also to experience one’s co-inhabitants and how they act can vary enormously from location to location.
Katena will be a part of the Neat16 festival this June. Are there any festival events that the AOA team are particularly looking forward to seeing?
Top of my list would be Gob Squad’s ‘War and Peace’ and Michael Eaton’s documentaries. I’d also like to go on one of Primary’s ‘Armchair Traveller’ walks. I’m also looking forward to spending a bit of time in Katena at the Lakeside Arts Centre – seeing how people inhabit it, seeing what I do or don’t like about it and hoping it fuels ideas for our next Luminarium.
Katena will be back at Nottingham Lakeside from 28th May- 5th June for Whee! Lakeside’s International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival, as part of Neat16.
You can also find out more about Architects of Air by visiting their website.
The colorful illumination inside is created by natural light. Photo by Alan Parkinson.