Lifestyle & Belief

Must see: Air castles for adults (and kids too)


Inside Alan Parkinson’s luminarium, currently the centerpiece for Nottingham’s Lakeside arts festival.


Architects of Air

NOTTINGHAM— Some art fascinates us with beauty. Conceptual art changes the way we see the world around us.

“Exxopolis” manages to do both.

Exxopolis is a luminarium, a walk-through sculpture created by Alan Parkinson and his company Architects of Air. It is made of diaphanous plastic material less than half a millimeter thick.

From the outside, the installation resembles one of those amusement park “air castles” that children love to bounce in. Once you enter, however, the effect is both startlingly beautiful and completely absorbing, a labyrinth of magically lit passageways, geometric domes and luminous alcoves. The modular structure covers 1200 square meters (nearly three acres) and rises to the height of a 3-story building. Gentle music playing in the background provides an otherworldly atmosphere.

Exxopolis, which appeared at the Lakeside Arts Festival in Nottingham, UK, is the latest evolution of 20 similar structures that have traveled to at least 38 countries (the XX in Exxopolis represents the Roman numeral ’20’). An early venue was Scotland’s celebrated arts festival, The Fringe.

Mirazozo, a piece similar Exxopolis, will appear at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul this August.

The appeal is universal. Early last year a luminarium in Sydney, Australia, attracted a half million Australian dollars in entry receipts. At one point a Goldman Sachs financier reserved one for his personal use. Half a dozen luminaria are currently touring the world.

Other luminaria will be on exhibit over the summer in France, Germany, Ireland, Hungary and Switzerland. Appearances are also slated for Arkansas and Texas in September.

Mado Ehrenborg, Architects of Air’s managing director, says the structure gives the impression that it is almost alive, since it seems to sigh slightly when the entrance curtain is lifted as you go in.

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The design process is an evolutionary one. Parkinson experimented for a long time to arrive at precisely the right design to keep the ultra-thin plastic from expanding too much, and to create the luminous effects that create the structures’ stunning internal beauty.

And luminaria benefit from a long pedigree of craftsmanship. Parkinson’s father was a mechanical engineer who specialized in pressure vessels. His grandfather had manufactured boilers for steam generation.

Parkinson himself worked at various odd jobs in the construction industry before discovering photography, which he says reconnected him to the physical world around him.

After earning a master’s degree, he decided that he liked teaching more than actually taking photographs. In various workshops he helped students to experiment with the basic components that make a camera, essentially exploring the nature of light.

His life shifted in a new direction when he obtained a driver’s license but didn’t have a car. He decided to take a job that would enable him to practice driving: ferrying offenders on probation for the Corrections Department. 

At the time, the British courts were sentencing petty offenders to public service jobs instead of jail time. A public service that eventually caught his interest was a charity producing large blow-up mattresses dubbed “windbags.” These served as inflatable trampolines for small children to play on in recreation centers. By the time the charity folded, Parkinson had already become deeply involved in the possibilities of pneumatic architecture, and decided to pursue it on his own.

“The program had run its course, and Alan was ready to move on,” says Mary Stephens, Parkinson’s boss at the time.

A major step forward was Eggopolis, a series of soaring egg-shaped domes and connecting passageways that appeared in 1990.

Parkinson was concerned that children became overly excited when they entered the structures, and he thought a directed experience led by adults would calm them down. A friend, Bill Gee, suggested using a theatre troupe to perform inside the sculpture and to give it more of a focus. Gee was an emerging arts festival organizer, and eventually the structure and the group began touring.

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Architects of Air launched as a company in 1992, evolving into a vehicle for exploring Parkinson’s own feelings and perceptions about creating an environment for other people. By immersing the spectator in a calming environment, completely devoid of stress and external stimuli, the luminarium provides a brief, carefully crafted opportunity to find an inner peace in a world that often seems on the brink of madness.

“At times I feel that I do not really own the structure,” Parkinson admits, looking at the spectators exploring the main dome at Exxopolis. “I feel that it is taken over by the people who come into it. I guess that is the way it should be.”

That said, there is little doubt that Parkinson controls every aspect of the luminarium.

He says that a number of musicians offered to compose music for it, but that he found it difficult to choose the right sound.

“I didn’t want the music to create an image,” he says. “I wanted it to be neutral, so that it would be there but that you wouldn’t notice it. It wouldn’t intrude.”

The luminariums’ complexity has grown with each new design, and Exxopolis is the most ambitious structure yet.

A large dome at the back is expansive enough for a choir, and the Nottingham Festival commissioned three pieces of music especially for the event. Parkinson fretted that the open space directly under the dome might be off-putting to spectators and less welcoming than the alcoves.

He needn’t have worried. The overall impression seemed to be one of amazement, delight and wonder. A Chinese exchange student conducting a survey for her PhD dissertation of the visitors exiting the luminarium noted that nearly everyone had described the structure as having affected them the most at the arts festival.

At a particularly gray moment, when the world seems obsessed with financial crises and joblessness, the luminarium offers a few moments of luminous beauty and calm reflection. That is no small achievement.