The inflatable ‘antepavilion’ by Thomas Randall-Page and Benedetta Rogers is afloat on the Regents Canal


Jim Stephenson

Moored alongside a collection of artists’ studios on Regents Canal in east London, the Architecture Foundation’s second annual ‘antepavilion’ comprises a bulbous yellow inflatable enclosure emerging out of the hull of a 1930s barge. This incongruous object resembles a downed zeppelin or perhaps an over-scaled vegetable – “It’s been called all sorts of things”, says co-designer Thomas Randall-Page, who won the pavilion competition with Benedetta Rogers, “from egg-plant to butternut squash” – but has a practical purpose: deflating the balloon allows the craft to pass under low canal bridges. It also makes a counterpoint to existing spaces in the adjacent studio complex, which doubles as a rugged events venue. “We are surrounded by hard surfaces here, so we wanted to do something soft and forgiving, where you could take off your shoes and lie around”, says Randall-Page.

The client for the project is the studios’ owner, Shiva Ltd, which provides a £25,000 budget. The great majority of this was spent on the manufacture of the physical fabric, with work on site completed by volunteers over the course of a month. Aside from the hull, the pavilion’s two principal components are the inflatable enclosure and a sloping inflatable pvc floor inside, on which up to 30 visitors can lounge while watching performances on a small wooden stage. Both components were made by Cameron Balloons, which specialises in the fabrication of hot-air balloons, dirigibles and other inflatables.

Randall-Page and Rogers worked closely with the company to determine an appropriate form for the nylon enclosure, which is visually separated from the hull by a clear plastic ribbon windows, and prevented from lift-off by zigzagging cables. “You want an even load on the membrane, so it always tends toward a circle in section”, says Randall-Page. “There was a lot of discussion about how to minimise wrinkles”. (The designers had originally considered a more ‘billowing’ form, for which structural engineer AKTII developed a grasshopper script, but “got seduced by images of airships”, says Randall-Page).

The yellow inflatable pvc floor rests on corrugated insulation to protect it from the sharp edges of the hull. “We worked really hard on the floor”, says Randall-Page. “The fabricator initially wanted to make it as a series of parallel sausages, but we thought that would look too much like a lilo or a bouncy castle. We wanted a more ‘Chesterfield’, puckered effect”. To decorate the small plywood stage area, “we had a bit of labour available but no money left”, says Randall Page. A design was made from strips of masking tape, applied in an orderly fashion influenced by Japanese embroidery patterns.

Inflatable architecture is a subject of long-standing interest for Randall-Page, who has previously constructed projects from “polythene, sellotape and an office fan” as a way of teaching students about space and geometry. For the pavilion project, the association of inflatable architecture with a 1960s and 70s counterculture interested both in alternative lifestyles and new construction technologies also appealed. Randall-Page cites the influence of multimedia artist Jeffrey Shaw, whose inflatable pig flies over Battersea Power Station on the cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ album, and notes that “we were really interested in Ant Farm’s counter-cultural approach to architecture”, which saw the San Francisco-based practice proposed cheap, lightweight, portable structures as spaces for non-consumerist communal living.

The ‘AirDraft’ pavilion will be nomadic for a short period, as it navigates the Regents Canal over the course of eight days, tying up at five different cultural venues, where it will host spoken-word, comedy or musical performances. This aspect of the project was added to the brief by the architects, who have also undertaken all the necessary arrangements. Once the structure returns to its base, it will be added to attractions of the events space, and will – hopes the Architecture Foundation – be accessible to the public as part of the London Open House event.


The vivid yellow balloon will also act as an eye-catching advertisement for the studios. The colour choice was also informed by the limited range available in pvc (the designers wanted a single colour for both parts), but more importantly by a concern for the ambience, says Randall-Page. “Everyone looks good bathed in golden light”.

Additional Images