Wallace Neff was a “starchitect.” He designed houses for the wealthiest tycoons and biggest Hollywood stars of the 30′s 40′s and 50′s, including Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Groucho Marx.
But Wallace Neff didn’t live in a mansion himself. He lived in a 1,000 square-foot bubble made of concrete. And he believed that this simple dome was one of his greatest architectural achievements. He called it the Bubble House.
The story of the “bubble house” began with Neff 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.
Neff saw the Bubble House 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.
Bubble houses were cheap and could be built incredibly quickly using a new method of construction that Neff invented. He called it Airform construction.
A giant balloon was inflated through an inlet valve and then coated in Gunite, a special type of concrete which was shot out of a cement gun at high pressure. The stuff was more than twice as strong as regular concrete.
Once the Gunite dried, the balloon was deflated and dragged out the front door so it could be reused on the next house. Two workers could turn a bare patch of soil into a bubble house in less than 48 hours.
After Neff fine-tuned the Airform process he went in search of a client. He found one in the U.S. military, which was looking for low cost housing for employees. In October of 1941 Neff built 12 bubble houses in a forest in Falls Church Virginia. The experimental community was known as Igloo Village.
“There was no lighting of any kind on the street and we arrived in the daytime,” remembers Kathy Miles, who grew up in one of the Falls Church bubble houses. “But it was still quite dark because there were so many trees,” she says.
When she was five years old her dad drove the family into the forest to show them their new house. He hadn’t told his wife and two daughters that they would be living in a village of igloos in the woods. It was dark and damp and isolated.
“When we got to the house there was a cleared area with many trees and very little grass, if any, and there was this house,” says Miles of the first time she saw her future home. “It didn’t look like a house to me but there was something rising up from the ground.”
Igloo Village was a failure. But despite this, a few dozen bubble houses were built around the U.S. and thousands more in other countries. But eventually everyone in the United States moved out of their bubbles and they were all demolished.
Except for one, which happens to be in Pasadena. It’s owned by Steve Roden, who says he was compelled by the cheap price tag and the weird photo on the listing.” He was fascinated by the way the bubble house looked and by its history and especially by the idea that he could live in a house that built by air. “We are essentially living in a space that was formed through air. It’s pretty profound”
Roden also makes sound installations and the bubble house’s acoustics surprised him. “This is not a perfectly smooth very precise shape. It was concrete resting on a balloon being supported by air so in the areas where there’s a little bit of disruption of the surface you get these pockets” says Roden, pointing up to the pock marked surface of his curved ceiling. “So once in a while depending on where you are standing you have a parabolic where you have sound coming directly down into your ear but no one else can hear it.”
When Kathy Miles and her sister were growing up in Igloo village they also discovered these parabolic imperfections in the walls. And they used them to send secret messages to each other. “I remember conducting experiments to see where we could not be heard” recalls Miles.
Steve Roden loves his bubble house. And being inside it with him it’s easy to appreciate the house for its strange beauty and its historical significance. But there are plenty of people who think they weren’t well thought out.
“It was a bad idea” says Pasadena architect Stefanos Polyzoides. He says the houses don’t blend into their surroundings “It did not vary in form by region, by culture or climate or any way.”
Stefanos works in a Spanish Colonial building in downtown Pasadena that he says is an example of great architecture. “This building is magnificent because of the thick walls. It’s perfect for a hot dry climate,” says Stefanos. It’s also built by Wallace Neff.
As for the bubble house, Stefanos calls it an architectural bad hair day for Neff. 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.”
Architects still haven’t come up with mass produced low-cost housing that works as well in the Sahara as it does in Canada. Wallace Neff seemed surprised that the bubble house didn’t achieve that goal. In 1977 he told the Pasadena Historical Society, “I always thought people would come rushing in by the thousands to buy houses. But it never happened.”
David Weinberg is a freelance producer based in Los Angeles. Prior to moving here he lived in New Orleans where he was a regular contributor to WWOZ’s Street Talk series. His work has been broadcast on Weekend America, Day to Day, Voice of America, The World, Hearing Voices, Marketplace, 99% Invisible, WireTap, Transom.org and Love + Radio. He also produces a podcast called Random Tape which you can find at RandomTape.com, iTunes and SoundCloud.