The Bubble House

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South Pasadena’s Airform Bubble House was designed by architect Wallace Neff, who also designed for some of California’s wealthiest, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Judith Garland. Despite his extensive architectural resume, his Airform “Bubble House” is said to be one his finest–and most proud–works.

Like many great design stories, this one has a humble beginning. In the early 1930s, the housing crisis put a halt on many promising construction sites, as companies and individuals struggled to find reliable funding. Neff was shaving at his bathroom sink when a bubble formed on his finger and he realized that if he could find a way to build with air, he could save money and build quickly, with no need for wood or nails.

The construction was therefore one of the most curious of its time. It was built using an inflatable balloon covered in chicken wire and then sprayed with gunite, which is a mixture a sand, water, and cement that’s applied through a pressure hose. The gunite then produces a dense layer of concrete, and is often used for structural repairs. Using this method, open-plan, curved homes could be built within 48 hours.

Neff tirelessly attempted to campaign and convince the U.S. government to adopt this style of design in their wartime housing initiatives. After World War II, there were simply too many people and not enough houses. Neff believed it would be the most cost-effective, efficient way to industrialize housing efforts. According to one book printed by Hennessey, another goal of his was to “resolve the dilemma of being an architect close to affluent clients and a designer for a mass of anonymous clients with low budgets.”

However, many people weren’t convinced that the igloo shape successfully optimized space, and the unconventional structure deterred large money-makers from adopting it completely. While 400,000 were originally planned for construction in the United States, only 3,000 were actually built. However, overseas Neff had better luck, and he constructed airform houses in cities around the world like Cairo, Rio de Janeiro, and Senegal.

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Today, the only existing Airform house in America is in South Pasadena, California, where the current owners take special care to maintain it. The ceilings are seven feet high and the domed ceilings stretch up to 12 feet. It was built in 1946 and the neighbors weren’t receptive to it, because at the time, it did not fit into the Period Revival aesthetic of the nearby homes.

Despite criticism of its elliptical structure, it was featured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Home Magazine, and was eventually praised for its inventive solution to the mid-century housing crisis. The South Pasadena home is where the architect personally lived until he died in 1982.

Current owners Sari and Steve Roden, who purchased the house in 1998, said in a Los Angeles Times article that they “can’t imagine living anywhere else.” The couple also inherited several pieces of vintage furniture originally owned by the architect.

The house comes with its own share of fame and rumors. The owners have heard that Elvis once visited the house, most likely to discuss a home that he wanted Neff to design for him. The irony here is not lost: while Neff is most renowned for his elaborate designs, his heart was in simple, open, and flowing architectural spaces. Though the house is occupied, you can still drive by 1097 S. Los Robles Avenue for a look at piece of design history.

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