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Metronome Sessions

Interview: Architects of Air

6 May 11 interview: Aly Stoneman
photos: Snorlax Kwan

Sticking bits of plastic together for Architects of Air is a rite of passage for many a Nottingham arts graduate. The resulting pneumatic sculptures - known as luminaria - have toured the world, celebrating the beauty of light and colour. This June they’ll be drifting down to land at Lakeside, so time for a chat with AoA’s artistic director Alan Parkinson….

So, what is a luminarium?
A luminarium is a walk-through inflatable sculpture that is designed to generate a sense of wonder at the phenomena of light and colour.
You have four different luminaria currently on tour that all look incredibly complex, How does the design process work?
The starting point is creating the footprint of the structure, to give the visitor enough of an experience that they can lose themselves within as small a space as possible. Our structures usually average around 1,000 square metres. We evaluate how they will function properly as portable architecture – all luminaria are modular and zip together on site – so the starting point is very practical and technical. Concurrent with that is the process of thinking about the forms and the shapes that I want to create. Each luminarium is a one-off, and each structure tries to be an improvement on the last.
How did Architects of Air begin?
We grew out of a project set up by the Probation Service in the early eighties to provide inflatable structures to Nottingham community groups. The structures were built and supervised by offenders on community service orders and were offered to play centres and projects serving adults and children with special needs. In 1992 the project folded and Architects of Air was born from the ashes.
Do you draw inspiration from any artistic traditions?
In terms of design inspirations - basic geometric forms, natural forms, Islamic architecture, Gothic cathedrals…

The technique for making the luminaria by sticking coloured plastics together seems quite straightforward…
I’ve been making structures for thirty years and yes, it’s still a very basic method of construction – but it is pretty labour intensive. The structures are made from a plastic produced uniquely for Architects of Air; only four shades of plastic are used to generate a great diversity of subtle colour through the harnessing natural light.
What can people expect when they enter a luminarium?
I don’t like to define it. Saying it is “designed to generate a sense of wonder” – that’s an aspiration, but I don’t want to be prescriptive about what people will experience; it’s for people to experience in their own way. I particularly like the comment one person made that it was somewhere between the womb and a cathedral. There is something both reassuring and – hopefully – inspiring about the space. I like it when adults describe feeling child-like again, because as you get older you become habituated to the world. To meet an elderly person who feels that they will never experience anything new again and yet, in the luminarium, they feel like a child – I think that’s quite lovely.
Have you ever had any difficult experiences with the public over the years?
There was the time when Naomi Campbell wanted to go in wearing her high heels, which would have caused a lot of damage. She took them off in the end, but she was pretty grumpy about it.
You’ve taken luminaria to thirty-seven countries to date. Anywhere new you’d like to take one?
It wouldn’t really be about geography – it would be more about people. So it could be a school for autistic children or a remote town in the Canadian plains. In the end it is about the people rather than the place.
You’ve hosted performances inside the structures, too…
The first structure we ever built – Eggopolis – came about as aresult of collaborations with local artists – in particular dance and theatre companies – who developed structured activities inside the inflatable environments. We did a lovely collaboration locally with Andy Sheppard, the saxophonist, which can be viewed on our website.
AoA is a successful creative business, which is never easy. What do you attribute that to?
I think it’s just that there aren’t many people who do what we do, and we’re trying to make the most of what we’ve got. Nottingham’s a good place for us to be based; we’ve always felt well supported by local people, and Nottingham continues to be a thriving creative city.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now, we’re trying to develop work in the area of special needs. We’ve always made our luminaria wheelchair-accessible, but we now have an event coming up at a Camphill community in July, which was originally founded on the principles of Rudolph Steiner, and is very much about creating meaningful work for people with learning disabilities. We hope from that experience we can develop a viable and sustainable model for working in that sector. Apart from that - to keep producing more structures!
Levity III is part of the Wheee! Children’s Festival, Saturday 28 May - Sunday 5 June Lakeside Arts Centre, University Park, NG7 2RD.

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