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Interview: Architects of Air

4 April 06 interview: Kate Symons

“What interests me is to develop new architectural forms to house the experience of light.”

Nottingham-based company Architects of Air specialise in creating and exhibiting them. The business, located at Oldknows Studios, is the brainchild of former Trent Polytechnic student Alan Simpson. Alan’s luminaria sit somewhere between art, sculpture and architecture. His awe-inspiring structures have been exhibited at arts festivals, theatre festivals, science festivals or as individual exhibits in 34 countries, on five continents and been viewed by 1.5 million visitors. Not bad, for what is essentially a load of PVC. Each luminarium is made to inspire. To induce a sense of wonder in anyone who takes a shoeless walk through their womb-like tunnels of colour.

“What interests me is to develop new architectural forms to house the experience of light,” explains Alan. Inspiration crosses all boundaries inside an Architects of Air luminarium. Children, families, single men, old women, middle aged couples, grumpy teenagers who enter one will wake from mundane reality and walk in wonder. Set up in 1992, Alan has now designed several different luminaria for Architects of Air. From the outset, projects with a socially responsible aim fed Alan’s own inspiration and set him on the path to setting up Architects of Air.

After his degree studies, he got a part time job with Nottingham Probation Service. He was responsible for offenders on community service orders. ‘Some of the people I was supervising were involved with the Winbag Inflatable Project, a charity designed to give a resource to the community that would be manned by offenders who might benefit from doing something different to gardening or painting and decorating,’ Alan explained. Then, at an outdoor festival in Nottingham, Alan met Leicester-based community arts worker Roger Hutchinson who had built his own installation that people could enter. ‘I was touched by the beauty of the light to be found inside a PVC structure,’ said Alan. ‘Roger helped me get started building my own.’

He began with basic knowledge about blowers and plastic suppliers, and was shown how to do simple cutting patterns. His first structure was built in 1985. Now, in 2006, he is looking to build a new structure and collaborate more with local company Salamanda Tandem ‘to create more projects where we get to work with people with special needs.’ The site that inspires him most and which fed into his design of the ‘Arcazaar’ (pictured), are the bazaars he visited in Iran. ‘I appreciated the use of surface, the structure, light and geometry, discovery, disorientation, the harmony of the sacred and the worldly spaces.’ We were lucky enough to walk through the ‘Arcazaar’, when it was exhibited as the main attraction at an arts and environment day held at Nottingham Castle. Working alongside staff from Architects of Air, a group of long term unemployed people, supported by employment specialists Working Links, were given the chance to erect the structure.

From outside, the Arcazaar undulates like the roof of a middle-eastern bazaar and inside the path meanders to open out into tall, domed chambers. The premiere of the Arcazaar in Prague saw 7,000 visitors pass through the structure in just four days.

Of all the places in the world they have toured their luminaria, Clapham, North Yorkshire provided the backdrop to his favourite project. ‘I particularly liked the event we did there. It was a mini ‘Fitzcarraldo’ experience of hauling a structure up a mountainside. Exhibiting three structures simultaneously on significant locations in Madrid was also a high point.’

Alan is now a decade and a half into running a successful company that has inspired over a million people around the world. He said: ‘I feel enormously fortunate to have stumbled across something I can do that also has a value to people.'

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