Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Roman: In 1941, the journalist and screenwriter Leo Rosten wrote, “In Hollywood as in Istanbul or Sioux Falls, the rich hasten to express their wealth and betray their fitful groping for status by erecting homes of unnecessary magnitude and splendor.”
David: The man who built many of Hollywood’s homes of “unnecessary magnitude and splendor” was Wallace Neff. Neff was a “starchitect”.
Roman: I know many people find the term starchitect a pretty contemptable portmanteau, but Neff really was both famous in his own right and an architect to the stars.
David: One of his most famous projects was the renovation of Pickfair, the estate owned by the iconic silent film actress Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks. When the couple moved into Pickfair, the house sat on a nameless street in an empty neighborhood called Beverly Hills. If you are lucky enough to be invited to dinner at Pickfair, you might find yourself seated next to Babe Ruth and the King of Spain or Albert Einstein. Life Magazine called Pickfair “only slightly less important than the White House and much more fun.”
Roman: That’s Los Angeles based reporter David Weinberg.
David: Neff designed estates for Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, and Groucho Marx.
Jeffrey: He designed houses for all three Marx brothers. Madonna has owned a Neff house. Diane Keaton. Who’s the blonde from Legally Blonde?
David: Reese Witherspoon?
Jeffrey: Yes. She actually owns the, and we better fact-check this, the Libbey Ranch in Ojai.
David: Jeffrey Head is an architectural historian and the author of a book on Neff. I checked, and Reese Witherspoon does, in fact, own the Libbey Ranch.
Roman: At the end of his life, Wallace Neff could have lived in a grand estate on the coast or a huge mansion on the Hollywood Hills. But instead, he lived in a 1,000 square foot concrete bubble.
David: And Neff believed that this simple dome was one of his greatest architectural achievements.
David: The story of the bubble house begins one morning when Neff was standing in his bathroom, shaving. It was 1934, so it was probably a straight razor. Neff looked down and noticed a small soap bubble that had formed on the sink. He reached out and touched it. The bubble held firm against his fingertip. That was the moment the idea struck him. He could build with air. He could build bubble houses.
Roman: And Neff wanted to build them by the thousands.
Jeffrey: Near the end of the second World War, architects were anticipating the post-war housing shortage and working on various solutions. Neff had a larger view and wanted to create a solution to meet the demand for housing worldwide.
David: Jeffrey Head’s book about Neff is titled “No Nails, No Lumber” because the bubble houses needed no nails and no lumber. Head says that Neff never saw the bubble houses as a way to make money. He saw them as a social responsibility, a way to provide low-cost housing for people.
Jeffrey: He really didn’t make money from it. In fact, spent a great deal of money from his other architectural practice and put it into the bubble houses.
David: Plus, Neff was already rich. Remember, he was building mansions for the Hollywood elite. And his Grandfather was Andrew McNally, the cartographer who created Rand McNally Publishing.
Roman: Now, Neff’s idea of a dome-shaped dwelling was not entirely new. Indigenous cultures in the Americas had certainly explored that territory.
David: Even during Neff’s lifetime, another guy, Buckminster Fuller, was creating his own circular solution to the housing shortage, the geodesic dome.
Jeffrey: Yes, and I think there’s a misunderstanding. People look at the bubble house and they think, “Oh, this is a variation on Bucky Fuller.” And it’s really not. It’s more of a variation on a form appearing in nature that someone has adopted for human scale or human use.
David: What was original about Neff’s design was the way the bubble houses were built. Neff invented a new method of construction.
Roman: He called it “Airform.” Here is how it worked.
David: First, a big slab of concrete was poured in the shape of a giant coin. Now, picture a giant balloon in the shape of half a grapefruit with the flat side down. This balloon was tied down to the foundation using steel hooks.
Jeffrey: So once the balloon was tied down, it was inflated through an inlet valve. And it took all of five minutes to inflate it.
David: After the balloon was inflated, it was coated in a fine powder.
Jeffrey: And this would happen before the Gunite process.
David: Ah, yes. Gunite.
Roman: Let’s take a minute to talk about the magical substance that is Gunite. Or maybe you prefer the generic term, Shotcrete.
Jeffrey: Yeah. So the Gunite was shot out of a cement gun. And the gun had two hoses that came together at a nozzle.
David: One of the nozzles had water.
Jeffrey: And the other was dry cement mix. And the water and the mix came together under high pressure to form the Gunite.
David: When the Gunite dried, it was more than twice as strong as regular concrete. Neff loved the stuff. Once the balloon was coated in Gunite, a layer of wire mesh was placed over that. Then a second layer of Gunite was sprayed on. And Bam! That’s it. Two men with a balloon and a Gunite machine could turn a bare patch of soil into a bubble house in less than 48 hours. And after the Gunite dried, the balloon was deflated and pulled out to the front door so it could be used again on the next house.
Roman: And Neff claimed that the bubble houses were more fire-proof, more earthquake-proof, and even more bomb-proof than any traditional structure.
David: Neff was so confident in his design that he would often invite people to bash the walls of the bubble with the back side of an axe.
Roman: Why was it the backside? [laughter]
David: For some reason, they use the back side. I don’t know what the reasoning was. But I’ve seen on all the photos, they’re using the back side of an axe.
Roman: What Neff liked best about the bubble houses though was that they were incredibly cheap.
David: After Neff fine-tuned the airform process, he went in search of a client. Someone with money who would hire him to build more bubble houses. And he found one, the federal government.
Jeffrey: The first bubble houses were done during the war to create quick housing for government workers.
David: World War II had escalated. And the US needed homes for military workers. So Neff convinced the government to build an experimental bubble house community in a forest in Falls Church, Virginia.
Roman: In October of 1941, Neff began construction on the 12 bubble houses in Falls Church that would eventually be nicknamed “Igloo Village.”
Kathy: There was no lighting of any kind on the street. And we arrived in the daytime, but it was still quite dark because there we so many trees.
David: Kathy Miles grew up in one of the Falls Church bubble houses. When she was five years old, her Dad, who worked for the military, drove the family into the forest to show them their new house. He hadn’t told his wife and two daughters that they would be living in a village of bubbles in the woods. It was dark and damp and isolated.
Kathy: And I can remember coming up the street. And there was a cleared area with still many trees and a very little grass if any. And there were flagstones. And there was this house. It didn’t look like a house to me at that time. But there was something rising up from the ground. And it was white and large, and it had two large lamps. And they were held together in the middle with a smokestack. And of course, I was with my parents and I don’t remember what they were telling me but I’m sure it was something that we were going to live in this “new kind of house.”
David: Do you remember what your Mother’s reaction was when she first saw it?
Kathy: Her overt reaction was to stay calm and carry on. I think she was trying to make the best of it and hoping that we wouldn’t live there long. So to come to something that looked like this, I think she was truly horrified.
David: The Falls Church community consisted of 2 single bubble houses and 10 double bubble houses.
Roman: Kathy lived in one of the double bubbles.
David: The double bubbles were made by connecting two smaller bubbles with a rectangular center block structure that housed the kitchen and the bathroom. Kathy says that growing up in Igloo Village was incredibly isolating and a major standout. One time, when she was in first grade.
Kathy: I set out to draw a picture of my house. And of course, we colored it and I couldn’t color it, because I kept insisting there were no white crayons. And so when the teacher looked at it, she kept saying– trying to explain to me that I was supposed to draw the house I lived in. And I kept saying, “I do live in this house.” So finally, I felt that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to. And she clearly had no idea what I was doing. And of course, when we passed all the houses around to our friends to look at the pictures, the other children laughed and made fun of it. And so it was pretty daunting as an introduction to first grade for me.
David: And sometimes, Kathy would be made to feel like an outsider in her own neighborhood. People were constantly driving into Igloo Village to gawk at the weird families who lived deep in the woods, inside strange hobbit dwellings.
Kathy: One of the things that all of us, children in the early days, were uncomfortable with I think was that when we were outside playing in the yards, people would drive up the street. And they– again, it was a dark street because of the trees. And they would drive up very slowly. And even in the summer as they would come up the street, they would roll the windows of the car up. And they would all be pressed against the glass, and you would see them pointing. It was very much a zoo-like feeling. And I can even remember when I went to the zoo one time as a child, I remember thinking about how I felt when people were watching me. And I thought about how the animals were feeling with us watching them. So it had that much of an effect that I was able to make that transference.
David: Life in the bubble house was especially hard on Kathy’s Mom. Because there were no straight walls, she couldn’t hang pictures or family photos. And the circular rooms were difficult to furnish. But living in a bubble wasn’t all bad for Kathy. She discovered that she could easily climb up the side of the bubble onto the roof.
Kathy: I was always a climber. In those days, you called it a tomboy.
David: But on the whole, these houses were really weird.
Kathy: Really, I believe in this area and that time, this place. It was kind of doomed to failure.
David: Even though Igloo Village in Falls Church, Virginia did not flourish, Neff was still able to land a few more clients. In 1942, the Southwest Cotton Company hired him to build a desert colony of bubbles in Litchfield Park, Arizona. The Southwest Cotton Company provided the cotton that Goodyear used to make Neff’s giant half-grapefruit balloons. Neff also got a contract to build a bubble house dormitory for Loyola University in Los Angeles. And in 1944, the Pacific Linen Supply Company hired Neff to design the largest airform ever built. It was 100 feet in diameter and 32 feet high. Neff thought that the Pacific Linen bubble with its grandeur and prime location downtown would finally convince the world that airform construction had arrived. Not just because bubbles were practical but because they were beautiful.
Roman: But still, people just did not want to live in bubbles.
David: Eventually, everyone in America moved out of their bubbles. And they were all demolished. All of them except for one which happens to be in Pasadena, about 10 miles from my apartment. It was dark when I arrived at the bubble house. It’s in a neighborhood of unremarkable suburban houses from the 1930s. When I got to the front yard, the side of it stopped me in my tracks. A smooth, dark mound against the night sky. It was a little spooky but breathtaking. Standing there looking at it, I immediately thought of a passage I had read in Jeffrey Head’s book. The passage was about this very house.
Jeffrey: “One turns on to a small residential street. And is confronted with a house that looks nothing like a house. The fact that it has a front door and a few visible windows only adds to it’s incongruous presence. Looking at the house which resembles a smooth mound of earth, it feels as if some ancient space station has suddenly fallen from the sky. And upon landing, it has mysteriously embedded itself into the wrong context. It’s presence so strange, it seems to have traveled through both space and time.”
Roman: That passage was written by the artist Steve Roden. Steve knows a lot about the Pasadena bubble house. For the last 15 years, he’s lived in it.
Steve: The only reason why I drove out here to look at the house with my wife was because the price was so cheap, and the image was so strange. And so when we turned the corner and saw this strange brown dome in the middle of an unbelievably conservative neighborhood, it was sort of like, “What the hell is this?”
David: Steve was fascinated by its history and all the surprises that come with living in a bubble like the way that light moves across its curved surfaces.
Steve: What’s really cool in the living room at night is when cars drive by and the lights come in through the window. When it projects on that dome-form, it’s like a crazy– it’s like Laserium or something. It’s really amazing.
David: None of the walls that separate the rooms in the bubble house go all the way to the ceiling. So if Steve’s wife is in the bedroom reading, her fingers cast shadows on the ceiling that he can see from the living room. But perhaps the very most badass thing about living in a bubble is the way sound travels through it.
Roman: It becomes a whispering gallery.
David: When Kathy Miles and her sister were growing up in Igloo Village, they also discovered these parabolic imperfections in the walls. And they used them to send secret messages to each other.
Kathy: I think early on, my sister and I learned that if you stood in certain places, you could hear people whispering. And if you stood in other places, you couldn’t. And I remember conducting experiments to see where we could best hear and best not hear. Just depending on whether we wanted our parents to hear us, or we didn’t want to be heard.
David: Steve loves his bubble house. He doesn’t have the same problems that plagued the Falls Church houses. He has custom furniture designed for a circular room. And he’s an artist. He likes standing out.
Roman: Given how much Steve loves his bubble, one can argue that perhaps the bubble houses might have endured a different fate if they were piloted here in California rather than Northern Virginia.
David: But there are plenty of people who aren’t sad that the bubble house has died out. Like this guy.
Stefanos: I think it was a bad idea.
David: Stefanos Polyzoides is an architect who’s quite happy living in a world without bubble houses.
Stefanos: It was a good idea when it came to some industrial uses. But it was a very poor idea when it came to housing and how it may be a very uncomfortable dwelling and the light air assembly into neighborhoods and so on. It did not vary in form by region or by culture or by climate or any other way.
David: For Stefanos, architecture works best when it takes into account the context of its environment and responds accordingly. Bubble houses, they’re uniform. You can spray Gunite onto a grapefruit balloon in Virginia or California or anywhere else and it’s going to look and function exactly the same.
Stefanos: One of the shortcomings of this house is that it’s really mostly focused on the method of its construction.
David: Stefanos took me on a tour of his office, a Spanish colonial building, but he says is an example of great architecture. He showed me a balcony on the second floor where he and his partner sometimes do work.
Stefanos: And it’s a favorite place of ours in that we are also urbanists. And we dedicate our entire life fighting sprawl and trying to reorganize world properly. And we have nothing in front of us here but the magnificent view of sprawl. This is our frame into the world. It’s like a panoramic view of what the rest of the lives how to fix all these mess.
David: Imagine if the view from this balcony was a sea of bubble houses. Nothing but thousands of identical, industrialized domes stretching into infinity. It would be a dystopian nightmare for Stefanos. And even though he lives in a world of sprawl, he has his office to take refuge in.
Stefanos: This building is magnificent with very thick walls. So it’s a perfect building for a hot dry climate, because when it’s 80 degrees outside or 90 or 100, you keep the building tight closed, then at 6 in the afternoon, you open all doors and windows and it vents down in no time.
David: Stefanos explained how the arrangement of the windows provide balanced, natural light throughout the entire day. The design was based on the combination of Mediterranean and Spanish styles. Because Southern California has a Mediterranean climate with Spanish roots. These are the things the bubble house can’t do: Be culturally relevant and adapt to the environment around it. This office was designed by an architect who spent his entire life designing buildings that did adapt to their environment and were culturally relevant to the surroundings.
Roman: This building was designed by Wallace Neff.
Stefanos: A classic Wallace Neff porch, this chair is actually a reconstruction of Neff. This is a Neff design.
Roman: It was his office before it belonged to Stefanos.
David: I asked Stefanos why he thinks Neff did this complete 180 when he created the bubble house? Why he made something that was so antithetical to the rest of his work. Stefanos thinks that had something to do with the birth of modernism. You see, Neff was known for his Spanish colonial houses – white, thick walls with red tile roofs, and elaborate wrought iron window coverings. They’re really popular in California. They’re everywhere.
Roman: But there was this new movement happening all around Neff.
David: Architects like Neutra, Schindler, and Frank Lloyd Wright were making simple boxes of concrete with clean lines and lots of glass. They looked nothing like Neff’s elaborate mansions.
Stefanos: People were beginning to look at younger architects. Maybe with wilder ideas and more relevance maybe to daily life and so on.
David: You think it was sort of like a mid-life crisis kind of thing?
Stefanos: Of sorts. I mean, I think great architects continue to think their entire life. And there comes a moment in which you look at the movement taking the world over. It’s like a wildfire. So you have to ask yourself, “Am I the wood that doesn’t burn?” Or, “Shall I become part of the wind?”
David: But the modernists were not impressed with Neff’s bubble houses. Steve Roden, the guy who lives in the Pasadena bubble house told me almost the same thing.
Steve: Young architects who are trying to bring modernism forward, they thought he was like a dilettante or something. And I think he was an outsider probably because he was hobnobbing with movie stars. I mean, imagine if Barry Manilow started a metal band. It’s not like anyone would take that seriously, right? No matter how great it was. I mean, I’m not talking about ironically great. But you know like, “What if it was great?” None of us would buy into it. And I think that was part of his situation. He wasn’t like a hipster. He wasn’t an unknown crazy dude. He was a guy with a very strong practice who made giant houses for rich people.
David: And yet, Neff never stopped believing in the bubble house. He continued to make variations on it, designing bubbles with straighter sides and flatter roofs, ones with big holes cut out of the side. Even at the end of his life, long after it was clear that the bubble house had no future, he saw it as one of this greatest architectural achievements. He believed in it so strongly that he spent the end of his life living in a bubble house. In fact, he lived in the same house Steve Roden now lives in.
David: Now, I don’t want to play the bubble house off as just some failed idea. I think it should be a symbol of a design inspired by the highest ideals, beauty, efficiency, affordable housing, a willingness to take risks on crazy ideas, to experiment with making the world a better place. Maybe the structure itself, the concrete shell that housed the idea was flawed. Maybe people don’t want to live in bubbles. But their legacy deserves reflection. And so does Neff. The guy invented a way to build houses out of air! That’s [beep] awesome! And hardly anyone knows about them. And all the remains of his idea is this one last bubble house in Pasadena. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It’s the last bubble house in the United States.
Roman: There were bubbles in Pakistan, Egypt, Liberia, India, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, South Africa, the Virgin Islands, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba. There was an airform gas station in Brazil.
David: But the largest colony of bubble houses.
Roman: 1,200 bubbles in one community.
David: Was built in Dakar, Senegal. Some of them are still standing in all their dome glory.
Juliana: As-Salaam-Alaikum. As-Salaam-Alaikum. [foreign words]
Roman: Senegal based producer Juliana Friend have found the Dakar bubbles.
David: Juliana said that there’s actually a sense of pride among some of the bubble dwellers. In comparison to other buildings in the area, the bubbles are pretty old. They were built before Senegalese independence. A guy who owns one of the bubbles told Juliana that, “Yes. They’re hot and uncomfortable and they’re kind of annoying. But it’s part of our heritage. So I’ll never knock it down.”
Male: [foreign words]
David: So it turns out that it’s just Americans who don’t want to live in bubbles.
Roman: Or at least Americans are the ones who can afford to have the choice.
David: Because bubble houses were cheap and required so little material, they were way more practical in the developing world. So in a sense, Neff actually got what he wanted.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by David Weinberg, Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. An earlier version of this story was produced as part of KCRWs Independent Producer Project. This episode is part of the Stem Story Project made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. We are project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.