On Today’s Show: Architecture of Air, and of Aluminum; with Neil Denari, and David Weinberg on Wallace Neff

New Keelung Harbor Service Project, won by NMDA in 2012; Rendering of aerial view from the northeast.


On today’s DnA, architecture of air, and of aluminum.

David Weinberg tells the story of the bubble houses that Wallace Neff dreamed would solve a housing crisis. Neil Denari talks about his futuristic architecture and about the music that has inspired it, with Eric J. Lawrence.


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Wallace Neff and the Dream of Bubble Houses

One of the founding builders of Los Angeles was Wallace Neff, an architect based in Pasadena who built houses for LA’s rich and famous in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. But he envisioned housing thousands of less affluent people in spherical buildings made of concrete and air. David Weinberg tells the story of the bubble house dream that burst.

Wallace NeffThe story began, recounts Weinberg, with Neff, shown, left, at an Airform construction site (Huntington Library), “in his bathroom shaving, when he looked down and noticed a small soap bubble. He reached out and touched it. The bubble held firm against his fingertip and the idea struck him — build with air. He saw the concept as a solution to the housing shortage that plagued America at the end of WWII. But Neff’s vision went beyond America. He wanted to provide industrialized low-cost housing to the world.”

The bubble houses were not a success with the public however. “It was a bad idea” says Pasadena architect Stefanos Polyzoides, who works in a Spanish-style building also designed by Neff. He tells David Weinberg that the bubble houses didn’t blend into their surroundings. “It did not vary in form by region, by culture or climate or any way,” adding, “the only thing good about it “was that it was one of the few modernist efforts to focus on industrialization. Architects even after 100 years have still not delivered on this idea.”

David Weinberg produced this story for KCRW’s Independent Producer Project, which supports the work of independent media producers.

Falls Church, Virginia
Visitors at the Falls Church, Virginia bubble houses also known as “Igloo Village,” 1942. Photo by Wallace Neff. Image from from “No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff” by Jeffrey Head. Princeton Architectural Press.


Neil Denari, his Futuristic Architecture and the Music That Inspires It

Another – contemporary – architect with dreams of changing the world is Neil Denari. He is an educator, writer and creator of buildings – from houses in Los Angeles to a condo building on New York’s High Line to a port in Keelung, Taiwan.

Denari was one of the pioneers of applying computers to architecture – not just the process of design, but metaphorically. His buildings all have a futuristic look and the shiny, hard surfaces of machines. Neil says he’s interested in the development of “cultural ergonomics”, by which he means those forms that “fit” our contemporary life. And some of those forms, such as a model of hl23, his condo building overlooking New York’s High Line, are currently on show as part of the New Sculpturalism show at MOCA.

hl23_02 – Aerial view from the southeast shot by Benny Chan Fotoworks.


Denari as Guest DJ

He also talked to DJ Eric J Lawrence about the music that has inspired his architecture for KCRW’s Guest DJ project. Listen to Neil talk about songs and pieces of music as varied as the Theme From Shaft – Isaac Hayes; Kurt’s Rejoinder – Brian Eno; 2nd Movement, Symphony No. 5 – Glenn Branca; The Bridge – Lee Ranaldo; Keep Your Dreams – Suicide (from the First Album).

Neil and EricHe also tells Eric why music matters. “The classic sense is architecture is the most eternal one and timeless and it’s got to be built for a long time and everything else is a little bit ephemeral and things sort of come and go, but I really feel like architecture always needs to connect to its time and its zeitgeist and so forth but I think the sense of mood and atmosphere of different medias is constantly affecting the way I think and I spend as much time doing all the research in other fields as I do my own field to be able to inform the work.”