How the house bubble movement took hold in Switzerland

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Futuristic architectural sketch by Pascal Häusermann, 1970. Competition in Cannes, private urban atmosphere. Collection Frac Center-Val de Loire / Donation Pascal Häusermann

Swiss architects were drawn into the movement of building concrete and plastic bubble houses in the 1960s. While the bubble movement erupted decades ago, many of the original structures still stand to this day. .

This content was published on November 21, 2021 – 10:00

Need more space? Why not just build an extra room at the side of your apartment? Fifty years ago, a Geneva architect radically made this dream of many tenants a reality. In the late 1970s, 23-year-old Marcel Lachat and his wife were expecting a child, but there were no larger apartments available on the market. Lachat found a way to solve the problem: build an extension.

With the help of friends, he hung a polyester bubble “coin” on the front of his rental apartment. This gave it the extra space for a comfortable kid’s room. What Lachat did not know then, is that these ten square meters would capture the attention of the Swiss media, like an “anarchic” extension. The “bubble” had to be demolished shortly after.

The outcry was more focused on Lachat’s daring to build an extension on his rental apartment than on its bubble form. In the 1960s, experiments in bubble architecture flourished internationally.

Revolution in form

In the 1940s, American architect Wallace Neff began building houses by powdering neoprene beads and covering them with shotcrete. It has spread around the world, with some 1,500 bubble houses built to his plan still standing in Senegal. However, it has struggled to gain a foothold in the domestic market. The bubble house, despite its inexpensive and quick construction method, was not attractive enough to industrialized countries in the West. Practical questions have arisen: where does the furniture go when you have round walls?

In the 1960s, the idea took a rebellious turn. The strict geometry of modernist town planning and its functionalism seem more and more restrictive. Urban building for the baby boomer generation was about efficiency, not the individual.


Wallace Neff’s first bubble house, 1941. Huntington Library, courtesy of Jeffrey Head

It was a time when privacy was declared political – single-family homes and vacation homes became places of expression. Architecture critic Michel Ragon said at the time that thanks to plastic and shotcrete, architecture could finally compete with structures such as skeletons, cobwebs, water drops and water bubbles. soap and could rebel “against the tyrannical formula of the six walls”. Many designs of the time were attempts to literally move away from the straight lines of modern architecture with organic and biomorphic forms.

Neff’s bubble houses suddenly seemed to follow the tradition of Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum, the architectural utopias of Hermann Finsterlin, or visions like the futuristic architecture of Buckminster Fuller’s Cathedral. The shape of the bubble, above all, conveyed the image of a very unique world suited to a special individual.

At the same time, it fits perfectly into the 1960s as a symbol of dreams and illusions that threaten to explode.

Anarchic interventions

Lachat’s Geneva bubble not only illustrates how necessity is the mother of invention, it also follows a radical concept of DIY architecture. Lachat had read the “Manifesto for Insurrectionary Architecture” by French architect Jean-Louis Chanéac. Chanéac’s vision goes beyond radical chic family houses to anarchist interventions.


In May 1971, the experimental architecture firm Himmelb (l) au from Vienna ran through the city center of Basel in a plastic bubble. “Restless Sphere” was the name of the performance: the bubble as a revolutionary sphere that upset the public sphere. Peter Schnetz

The dream is architecture without architects. Claude Costy said in 1981: “The industrial era made the creation of one’s own house and its traditions disappear. (…) In our ecological age, the possibility of building your own house is resurfacing ”.

Claude Costy and her husband Pascal Häusermann had already made a name for themselves as architects with a range of bubble-shaped buildings. In 1959, Pascal Häusermann built his first small house near Geneva on rocky ground. The basic structure was a shotcrete bubble. In 1967, he and his wife built the village “L’eau de Vive” in Raon-l’Étape, France, which can still be visited today. It took a form similar to the animated characters of Barbapapa and was promoted in 2000 as a prototype of a hotel.


Jean-Louis Chanéac: parasitic cells, aerial view with marking, 1968 Collection Frac Center-Val de Loire / Donation Nelly Chanéac

Häusermann, Costy and Chanéac planned to build homes from plastic “domobiles” that could be freely reassembled so that the living space could be continuously reorganized. People would not have to look for a new apartment when their living conditions changed. The apartment itself could adapt.

Swiss bubbles in Iran

The 1973 oil shock metaphorically burst architectural bubbles. This was in part because the bubbles, with minimal insulation, suddenly appeared like an energetic extravaganza. Besides, at the end of a period of prosperity, their enthusiasm for fitness suddenly looked like withered flowers in the hair of aging hippies.

The Swiss architect Justus Dahinden, member of the avant-garde “International Prospective Architecture Group”, and the engineer Heinz Isler, who had been experimenting with elaborate concrete cup constructions since the 1950s, are two faithful to the bubble architecture.

Amid the biggest economic crisis since 1945, the two set a goal of building a city in northern Iran for 30,000 people – made up of bubble houses. A first unit was built in Amirabad in 1976. But the Islamic revolution prevented the construction of the bubble city of Moghan.


Only one of Isler’s bubble houses was built in Iran. Amir Hossein Rad / CAOI Archives

While Dahinden turned to new projects, Isler, the engineer, tried to turn the concept into a business idea. He founded Bubble Systems AG and tried to sell the houses in Switzerland. He had little success.

If you stray into the woods near Burgdorf in Canton Bern, you can find weathered concrete spheres that look like the lonely building in Iran. But while its twin in Iran seems to resemble the region’s traditional domes, Isler’s bubble house in Lyssachschachen, weathered and covered with moss, still recalls the burst future of concrete and plastic bubbles.


Heinz Isler’s bubble-shaped building in Burgdorf. David Aebi

Literature

  • Raphaëlle Saint-Pierre: Bubble houses. Organic architectures from the 1960s and 1970s. Heritage 2015
  • Leïla El-Wakil: Pascal Häusermann, a libertarian architecture to transmit the world (Traces 5/2017)
  • Matthias Beckh / Giulia Boller: Building with air: Heinz Isler’s bubble houses (Construction History Society Conference 2019)

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