We Hear the Story Behind Luminarium Inventors Architects of Air

Words: Sophie Gargett
Photos: Alan Parkinson
Saturday 27 April 2024
reading time: min, words

If you have ever agreed with the phrase ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’, respectfully, you are mistaken. Tucked away in one of Nottingham’s many old lace factories, Architects of Air are once again busy building a wondrous world-class experience like no other. The Luminarium: Luminimax has its international premiere at Lakeside Arts at the end of May, so we went down to the workshop to hear more and see exactly what it takes to build such a strange unique experience.

This One

Part art installation, part sensory experience, this walk-through attraction is really something that needs to be experienced to be understood. Many have compared it to a cathedral, a womb or a cocoon, where natural light is transformed into colourful rays and a sense of awe permeates as visitors explore the space.

Founded in 1992 by Artistic Director Alan Parkinson, Architects of Air is based on the principle of making an accessible, democratic meeting ground that could provide a sense of wonder for people from all walks of life. Popping up in city squares and parks, festivals and universities across the globe, once inside these strange, experimental spaces, the explorer is given a moment away from the busy world to pause, consider and marvel.

“I think the luminarium environment has something special to offer – something that has the capacity to make a meaningful contribution to an individual’s well-being,” explains Alan, who started out working on smaller-scale inflatable projects when he was employed by the Nottinghamshire Probation and Aftercare Service during the 1980s.

“The Windbag Inflatable Project was the brainchild of magistrate, Ethel Swann, who sought to provide opportunities for meaningful work for offenders sentenced to serve their punishment in the community by delivering play to inner city children’s projects, schools, and centres for children and adults with special needs,” he explains. The project lasted for ten years in which time it grew to develop more innovative designs culminating in the building of Eggopolis in 1990.

When the Windbag Project ended Alan hit the road with Eggopolis, trying to make a go of selling it to a broader audience beyond Nottinghamshire’s boundaries. Presenting such a unique concept worldwide came with its own obstacles: “'Immersive' as an artistic genre did not have the profile it has today,” says Alan, but fast forward thirty years and the luminarium, in its various forms, has been exhibited in more than forty countries, from Sweden to Brazil, attracting millions of visitors. “Word of mouth has been the main route to build awareness. Our marketing is still minimal, we rely on presenters contacting us and we still don't know from one year to the next if we'll manage to break even.”

Clearly, the idea is a hit with crowds, but having had the pleasure of visiting the Teceradix luminarium at Lakeside Arts last year, I was intrigued by how on earth this wonderful thing was imagined, designed and built. Luckily, they are made right here in Nottingham, so I took a trip to the workshop one day to find out.

For older people who come in, they say they’ve never seen anything like it - the older you get the harder it is to have a new experience

Each year a different luminarium is brought to life, with new tunnels, shapes and colours created through thousands of pieces of PVC, which are cut and assembled during a period of four to six months. The workshop is a hive of activity with several people working across the room to carefully measure and cut the colourful strips. Large pieces of cut hardboard are stacked up on the walls dictating the shapes needed, reams of lengthy zips are hung awaiting attachment, and in the back, previous luminaria were bundled up and carefully labelled, either waiting to be sent off to a distant country or retired after years of touring. Evidently this is a process that involves much preparation and organisation.

“It used to all be designed by Alan sketching out what he wanted to make, then working it out mathematically using draughtsman skills to create all the curves, but since 2011 Alan’s son Meko has been working digitally using a 3D modelling programme,” explains Jon Gatt, Workshop Supervisor. “Now they work together on design and making templates, then it comes to the workshop, where I draw a floor plan and we work out what goes where.” What I find most impressive is the fact they can’t inflate inside the workshop, so each build has to be exact before being taken to its location. I’m told even a millimetre of mis-sizing can cause issues. A hope for the best situation, if it wasn’t for the intense precision garnered over decades.

The particular luminarium being built this year is a new concept again - a collection of smaller stand alone ‘luminis’ that can be attached together as a whole, or tour separately for smaller events. “As always, plans can change and more bits can be added to it, so really it’s going to be one of the largest we’ve ever built,” says Jon.

In their modular parts luminis will go on to function as hosting spaces, as part of the new Lumini Project. Overseen by General Manager Izzy Bradley, this gives scope for more people to experience luminaria with a range of different activities inside hosted by community groups. “For this project, it needed to function, as well as being beautiful on the inside,” Izzy tells me. “It needed to have a central dome where everyone can sit to watch something or work together, it needed to have breakout spaces, and a backstage area. So I said to Alan, ‘Here’s what I need, can you make it beautiful?’”

Bringing it back to the community is still a central tenet of Architects of Air, and making the luminaria accessible and inviting to all is key, from people who use wheelchairs to school children with varied needs. “A big focus for this project is for people with SEN/D, so there will be things like safe spaces if anyone needs it. I’m not sure if we’ve ever worked quite like this before,” Izzy explains. “We want the Lumini experience to be for community groups to get a bit of ownership of the space for a time.”

Another important step in Architects of Air’s future is sustainability. “I'd like to see us refining the aesthetic and the functionality of this art-form,” says Alan. “And I'd like to see us finding a way to do it that uses a material that is more sustainable and environmentally friendly.” While the company donates 1% of annual sales to support environmental organisations, along with reusing as many components as possible, there is currently no infrastructure to recycle PVC plastic used in the build. “We’re constantly looking for organisations or people with ideas for ways to use our scrap PVC or may have a use for our retired sculptures,” Izzy explains. “We’d love to do something innovative with it.”

Who exactly will enjoy a trip to the luminarium I wonder? Of course it is children and families that first spring to mind, but the sense of wonder spans generations. “For children, everyday is new,” explains Jon. “But for older people who come in, they say they’ve never seen anything like it - the older you get the harder it is to have a new experience. We get grandparents coming in and wanting to show their grandchildren what they’ve seen, so it kind of turns it around a bit, and I find that very rewarding.”

Visit the Luminimax at Lakeside Arts Centre, Highfields Park, between Saturday 25 May - Sunday 02 June. Tickets available from Lakesidearts.org


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