WEST MALL, THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
1250 SQUARE FEET
Social Helium was a cloud-like pavilion formed by an enormous floating curtain supported by helium-filled balloons and built as a temporary installation at the University of Texas at Austin. The design, which explored the use of fabrics in contemporary art and architecture, was selected from more than 160 proposals in an international competition.
We were inspired by today’s world of social media and digital trends, specifically how physical social interactions and experiences are becoming less frequent. At the heart of this observation is the discovery that innovation is often a product of collaboration and serendipitous encounters. University campuses foster such physical interaction. The University of Texas at Austin is a community of people gathered from around the world to share ideas, challenge convention, and manifest the unexpected. We chose to harness the power of this community by creating an unexpected public space for one week aimed at drawing people together serendipitously to create spontaneous social interaction.
Social Helium transformed West Mall, the heart of the University of Texas at Austin, with two simple layers: fabric and air. Helium-filled balloons supported a large diaphanous curtain anchored to a simple grid of water-filled barrels. Triangulated tie-backs allowed the whole piece to sway softly while centering its mass around a central gathering area where students and faculty gathered for impromptu classes, lunch, and social exchange. Curtains are traditionally hung, suspended, or supported by a rigid physical support system which exerts visual dominance over the curtain. We chose to combine support and curtain into a seamless organic and symbiotic form. This playful expression juxtaposed to the formal setting of the West Mall created an invitation to gather and experience the location from a fresh vantage point.
Social Helium, was featured in CURTAINS, a multi-site installation, exhibition, and publication event sponsored by the Center for American Architecture and Design at the University of Texas at Austin, from October 14–18, 2013. During its existence, it was visited day and night by hundreds of students, faculty, administrators, and local residents.