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The Antioch Bubble

The Antioch Bubble—interior
The Bubble interior under construction in 1973. Photo: Joe Kuszai

On November 4, 1972, a 32,400 square-foot pneumatic dome of .012 polyvinyl chloride film was inflated by a five-horsepower, electrically-driven fan on a meadow at the Columbia, Maryland Campus of Antioch College. Classrooms and offices of the Campus were moved into the bubble in May of 1973, providing a pragmatic living-learning test of the air-supported structure.

This is the story of Antioch's pneumatic campus—how students acquired knowledge, skills, and academic credit while planning and erecting a huge vinyl bubble.

NARRATIVE ACCOUNT AND EVALUATION OF LEARNING EXPERIENCE

The inflation of the vinyl bubble by Antioch students and faculty in November, 1972, climaxed more than a year of study, planning, dealing with contractors, county officials, manufacturers of equipment and materials—and maturing the technology of pneumatic buildings.

These activities were combined into what Antioch calls a “process-oriented curriculum.” This was an experimental and federally-financed program of study, developed as part of this project. And this unusual curriculum has to function as it was being built. Students received academic credit for efforts as varied as telephoning orders to manufacturers, computing stress forces on the steel cables that gird the bubble, begging material and equipment from large corporations, negotiating with Howard County, Maryland, officials for building and zoning permits, designing the building shell and interior classrooms and offices—and acquiring essentials of drafting and design and a working knowledge of what it takes to construct a building.

“These students know much more of the real world than my students (in architecture) at the University of Maryland,” observes Rurik Ekstrom, the architect who served as an Antioch adjunct professor environmental design during the planning and construction of the pneumatic campus.

“There they learn a great deal about design, but they get almost no contact with the real world. These kids here (Antioch) are down hassling with county officials over building permits and fire safety regulations and learning what it’s like to function in real life.”

Ekstrom appears to be correct. The traditional architectural curriculum does appear to insulate its students from the difficulties of day-to-day life in the world of work, equipping them not at all to deal with contractors and cautious bureaucrats. In the Antioch process-oriented curriculum, students learn a little about many aspects of design and construction. But few master design, structural theory or drawing as completely as the better students in a conventional curriculum. In the six months following the erection of the Antioch bubble, students (some salaried, some volunteers) worked to stabilize the building, secure the joints in the vinyl, install flooring, plant grass and gardens on the interior slopes of the perimeter earth berm, install a 90-ton capacity air conditioner to ward off the effects of the Maryland searing summer sun, and a 1-million BTU furnace, four toilets, one shower, several faucets and electrical outlets, and a heat recovery wheel to reduce the cost of heating and cooling the bubble.