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.

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