One of the delights of childhood is playing with bubbles for the first time. Dipping that little plastic wand into the bottle of soapy, sudsy, almost-magical bubble mixture builds anticipation for what is to come. There’s nothing quite like the first time you blow on the wand and see dozens of tiny bubbles spring to life and float off into the sky.
If you’ve ever played with bubbles, you know how fragile they are. All it seems to take is a slight breeze or contact with the tiniest object to burst those bubbles. Some people thus find it surprising to learn that architects are using bubbles in new and exciting construction techniques because of their physical properties, including their strength!
Of course, the bubbles that architects use aren’t like the bubbles you blow with soapy bubble mixture. Architectural bubbles are made with all sorts of materials, and they’re not all round. In some cases, architects rely on bubbles for superior strength and lighter weight to make building materials. Others use bubbles in a more artistic fashion to make building visually appealing.
For example, in 2005, Frei Otto, a German architect and structural engineer won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, considered to be one of the world’s most prestigious architectural awards. Otto was known for his daring designs that incorporated lightweight and elegant materials inspired by nature.
Otto once studied the structure of both bamboo and soap bubbles to see how they might be incorporated into modern building systems. He noticed that soap film will naturally spread between a fixed set of points to achieve the smallest possible surface area. This insight allowed Otto to design buildings with newer, lightweight materials that made use of non-traditional building materials.
If you watched the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, especially the swimming and diving events, you probably were amazed by the beauty of the National Aquatic Centre, also known as the Water Cube. Glowing blue against the dark night sky, the Water Cube was a memorable image from the Beijing Olympics due to its innovative design that resulted in a building that looked like it had been sliced from a humongous cube of soap bubbles!
Its design was based upon the repetition found in the natural formation of soap bubbles. Yet its appearance seems completely random. The design won many awards, and many fans point out how ingenious it was to design a building for aquatics based upon bubbles!
But can a building actually be made of the soapy bubbles children are so familiar with? Sort of! The Bubble Building in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is the world’s most fragile and temporary building, since it’s made over and over again on the spot by visitors.
Visitors to the Bubble Building use metal frames in 16 hexagonal pools of soapy bubble mixture to build temporary buildings with bubbly walls. Rather than round bubbles, the architects who conceived the Bubble Building used the hexagon, which is a naturally-occurring shape found in clustered bubbles.