Wallace Neff, a Southern California architect who made Spanish-style mansions for Hollywood stars in the ’30s and ’40s, also tried his hand at designing innovative, low-cost housing for the poor. His Airform houses, often called bubble houses, were inexpensive and easy to build -
Meant to remedy 1940s housing shortages, the houses never caught on in the United States. Only a few hundred of them were built here, rather than the thousands that Neff expected, and nearly all have since been torn down.
The houses’ open layout, while appealing to modern tastes, “may have posed too many questions for buyers more than 60 years ago. How do you place furniture in a round room? What if you want an addition? …. Ultimately bubble houses couldn’t compete with conventional housing of the era.”
Neff himself lived for several years in an Airform house in Pasadena, one of the few that remains standing today. Despite the houses’ tepid reception among the US public, Neff was convinced of their aesthetic and practical advantages. “Beautiful flowing lines and curves come into being without effort …. The absolute absence of girders, columns, and jigsaw trusses, startles the imagination,” he wrote.
“I always thought people would come rushing in by the thousands to buy [them],” Neff said later. “But it never happened.”
Outside of the United States, the Airform house found a more receptive audience. Bubble houses were built in Mexico, Senegal, Angola, Cuba, Portugal, and Brazil, sometimes in great bubble tracts. In all, some 2,500 were built in more than 15 countries. the majority of them in the global south.
Non-Americans liked that bubble houses were cheap, sturdy, and could be built in two days:
The airform construction technique is relatively simple. It requires inflating a giant, rubber coated balloon and then spraying it with gunite. Once the gunite is set, the balloon is deflated and removed though a door or window. The house is then insulated, reinforced with rebar and covered with another layer of concrete.
But the houses’ aesthetic virtues have finally gotten attention, too. Seventy years after its conception and forty years after Neff’s death, the bubble house has a growing list of admirers. “It’s like living in a sculpture,” one of the owners of the Pasadena bubble house asserts.
To learn more about Neff’s “rebellion against the cube,” pick up a copy of Jeffrey Head’s No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff, published in December 2011.