The rise and fall of Wallace Neff’s bubble houses
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Wallace Neff (1895-1982) may be best known for the Spanish Colonial Revival homes he designed for Hollywood stars including Judy Garland, Groucho Marx and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., but Neff considered his most significant contribution to the field of architecture — his legacy — to be a type of construction called Airform.
Airforms were often called “bubble houses” because a gigantic inflated balloon was used to create their round form. They were Neff’s solution to a global housing crisis, and in the 1940s and ‘50s, Airforms went up around the world — Airform houses in South America and Africa, Airform schools in Mexico, Airform wine storage facilities in Portugal, even Airform grain bins in Jordan.
Among the structures that were completed locally: a 1942 bubble building for Vernon swimsuit maker Cole of California, who used the Airform for war-time parachute manufacturing, and 1944 projects at Loyola Marymount University, which used one bubble house as a dormitory for university employees and a “triple igloo” (three bubble structures combined) as a work space for engineering students. Neff’s largest bubble structure, 100 feet in diameter, was an industrial laundry facility constructed in 1944 for the Pacific Linen Supply Co. in downtown Los Angeles.
Airform bubble structures initially built in 1956 as housing for railroad employees in Angola remain standing today and have been converted for use as school buildings.
A 1946 bubble house was built in South Pasadena, its construction funded by Elinor Ince, the widow of silent film director Thomas H. Ince. Neff’s wife and children lived in the house during the couple’s long separation. Toward the end of his life, Neff moved in with his brother Andrew in a Pasadena bubble house built in 1946; today it is Neff’s last bubble house in the United States. (We have reposted the 2004 Home article on that house.)
Neff described the bubble houses as “a revolutionary method providing for a low-cost, labor-saving process of extremely rapid construction of permanent houses and buildings.” Extensive testing proved that the bubble houses were more resistant to fire, earthquakes and hurricanes than traditionally built structures of the era. Throughout his life, Neff frequently said that Airform construction permitted the best modern design for the least money using materials that were plentiful.
Neff’s patented method called for a circular trench to be dug. Inside the trench, a layer of concrete was poured, forming the foundation and floor. Before the cement set, steel rods were inserted into the foundation and then bent to form hooks. The utility wiring and pipes were installed.
Then a Goodyear balloon made of industrial-strength Neoprene nylon was placed, deflated, on the foundation. Grommets mounted on the balloon were attached to the bent hooks set in the foundation. Then the balloon was inflated through a valve at the bottom.
With steady air pressure, inflation took about five minutes. Wooden frames for windows, doors and other openings were placed outside of the balloon, which was coated with powder and covered with reinforcing wire mesh. A cement gun then sprayed gunite onto the balloon, from the top down, forming the ceiling and interior wall of the house.
After the first layer hardened (about eight hours), a 1-inch layer of waterproof insulation was applied. That was followed with another layer of wire mesh and a second layer of gunite, which formed the roof and exterior walls. After 24 hours, the balloon was deflated and removed through one of the wood-framed openings. The powder applied early in the process prevented the gunite from sticking and enabled the balloon to be reused.
The bubble house, free of interior load-bearing supports, was completed in less than 48 hours.
Despite the speed of construction and low cost, the unusual design failed to catch on. During Neff’s lifetime, plans for about 400,000 bubble houses led to the construction of fewer than 2,500 buildings. Unbuilt projects included a 1953 collaboration with another beloved Southern California architect, Paul R. Williams, that called for 1,000 Airforms to be used as public housing in Las Vegas.
Though bubble houses’ lack of internal walls left the kind of largely open floor plan that many desire today, the layout may have posed too many questions for buyers more than 60 years ago. How do you place furniture in a round room? What if you want an addition?
Overseas, the bubble houses were welcomed as alternatives to huts or shanties — a fact that also might have created something of a stigma in the States. Ultimately bubble houses couldn’t compete with conventional housing of the era.
Today, Neff’s Airform architecture appears as both retro and futuristic — modern inspiration in the ongoing quest to develop efficient and affordable housing.
— Jeffrey Head
Adapted from “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff,” published this month by Princeton Architectural Press.
Among the places where the design sprang up: Dakar, Senegal, as seen in this 1953 aerial photo documenting newly built bubble houses.
Photos from Princeton Architectural Press