Inflatable Structure Don Alan Parkinson Talks The New Luminarium Albesila at Highfields Park

Interview: Mary Dansie
Wednesday 10 May 2017
reading time: min, words

Founded in Notts, Architects of Air are famous for globally touring their giant, colourful, inflatable structures you can wander around in, and they’re bringing their latest offering home at the end of this month – that’s right, the luminarium is back. This time, it’s the brand new Albesila that’s landed, just in time for Architects of Air’s 25th birthday. Our Mary Dansie got down to experience the trippy tunnels first hand, and had a chat with the creator Alan Parkinson...


Entering the Luminarium felt surreal; like I’d happened upon Narnia. I had to crawl through the opening flap to make sure I didn’t let any air out, and the other side genuinely felt like a different dimension.

It is a massive understatement to say that the luminarium is an attack on the senses. Rather, it is an onslaught. The colours of the plastic were astoundingly vibrant; while the shades and hues in some rooms and domes merged softly together, others were vivid in contrast. Sloping circular shapes created a comforting environment, and the humming of the wind passing through the long tunnels was mesmerising.

I met Alan inside, and we found an alcove to sit and chat...

I feel like I’m a child again, completely awe-struck by my surroundings. How would you describe the experience of the luminarium here?
I think the feeling of being like a child is allied to a sense of wonder and discovery. In this case, with this structure, you are being grabbed by the phenomena of light and space. Bringing something like this to a family is something which both adults and children can connect to, it provides a shared experience and creates common ground.

How does the plastic get all of its beautiful colours?
It’s plastic that’s made specially for us. One of the qualities they develop in the laboratory is its translucency. We’re looking for the same kind of qualities in the plastic that someone who makes stain-glass windows looks for in glass.

What types of structures lend themselves well to this type of art form?
I’m not an architect, but what interests me as a kind-of-architect is what is possible in creating architectural forms within the principle of pneumatics. Here [Alan gestures] it’s like working with a sphere; a sphere that turns into a cone joined to another, and so on.

They have to be correct according to the laws of pneumatics and physics, in order for the surfaces to smooth out and be a little bit elegant. You could just as easily create a big bag and put air into it and you’d get something of an experience. It’s to get more precise with the whole engineering side; and that’s an area where we do innovate.


You mentioned your fondness for Islamic design work. What inspires you about the motifs and design?
I’m inspired by the motifs and traditional Islamic architecture and I have been to some Islamic countries. What interests me, following on from what I was saying about working with volumes and spheres and cones, is that there’s a purity in Islamic architecture. A purity that’s kind of like working in a discipline of geometry.

The symmetry of it too?
No, not necessarily symmetry. This structure’s very unusual as it’s based on a quadrilateral, rectilinear base. Whereas usually I go away from symmetry with five-sided and seven-sided forms to actually disorientate the visitor by not having a clear sense of what’s left and right.

Regarding Albesila, was Islamic design and patterns the fundamental inspiration for this piece?
Not fundamentally; I just wanted to break a pattern from what we were doing in thinking about the approach to the labyrinth and the journey that people take. The previous five years we’ve been looking at how to encourage people to lose themselves, and we’ve tried to be tasteful too, whereas this is very in-your-face in terms of big blocks of colours.

It’s a go of doing something different. I don’t know how much I’ll learn from it. I can see one or two things I’d like to do a bit differently, and this is motivation for trying to make the next one a bit better.

Have there been any logistical issues?
Years ago, when I was driving a truck around Europe, there was a nice sense of everything being manageable, except when the truck would break down. But because of the scale of what we do, we have freight companies and we’re very dependent on them not having any problems with drivers, ships, planes and customs.

What are the challenges you face with the designs?
It’s become ridiculously easy, actually. At first it was challenging having to teach myself three-dimensional intersectional geometry and doing that on the drawing board. But now, computers take a lot out of the grunt work of the design, but it also means that you can pass things around. Now I just say “I think I want it to be like this,” and the computer goes and does it! Design-wise, I’m in a very luxurious position. Email-wise, not so good.

The space is a dynamic tool for local people. What type of events have happened in the luminarium?
When I was working on a probation-service project, we used to take structures to schools for children with special needs as well as centres for adults with special needs, and we built a structure designed for a touring theatre.

It was creating that touring theatre which led me to buy the structure off them when the project folded, and that was a way to support myself. During the time of the project, we did quite a lot of work at specialist schools and centres for adults with special needs. This was a particular interest of mine and we have subsequently tried to initiate our own project from that.

A couple of years ago, we started up Little Dome Project which was to do with creating smaller structures that would be financially and technically accessible for people that wanted to do something with them. With the Little Dome Project, we wanted to do something that was a little more collaborative.

I’d like to see us doing work with little structures, which has already happened in Nottinghamshire, but we’re still trying to work towards establishing more small-scale work, not for large audiences, but for special places.

There’s quite a calming effect when you walk through it…
If you broke the community down into children and adults; children aren’t so observant and get rather excited. That’s why, here at Lakeside, there’s an adult-only session for those adults who really can’t bear the children.

I think there’s something very basic and elemental about the structures. It’s a really simple experience and is something that works across cultures, across ages and across lines. For instance, in the financial district of Sao Paulo we set up some footbaths because the street kids wanted to come in. The street kids would be in one pod and you’d have bankers in their suits in the adjacent pod. It’s a simple experience that clicks across all diverse spectrums.

Why do you think Architects of Air has been so successful?
So successful!? I'd query that as I'd see success as us being a well-resourced arts project, but when we build a structure like this, we don’t always get to experiment and try things out. We have to build a structure which then has to go out and work to make the money to build the next structure.

Successful in terms of longevity? It has kept going, and it’s because we build things that people like to experience!

Happy birthday to Architects of Air, who turn 25 this year.

Architects of Air’s World Premiere of Albesila, A Brand New Luminarium, is at Highfields Park from Monday 29 May - Sunday 4 June 2017.

Lakeside Arts website

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