Light. Shape. Color. Are you in a cathedral? A womb? Some kind of combination of both?

And one of the most unique things about an environment that feels so awe-inspiring and incredible is that in just a few short days, it’ll be gone, leaving you with the wonder of witnessing the experience and the memories you made. The Architects of Air have been building and touring their luminaria for close to 30 years and there is no sign of stopping.

Founder, designer and artistic director Alan Parkinson created these cathedrals of light and color to “share his sense of wonder of the phenomenon of light.” However, his journey to exhibiting these structures over 500 times in more than 40 countries started in a much more unusual place.

“I had this job driving a minibus for criminal offenders doing community service orders. And one of their orders was to set up a bouncy inflatable air bed that they built for disadvantaged kids and children with special needs in the community,” Alan said.

After transporting the offenders and air bed around for some time, Alan discovered that the original design of the air bed had some structural problems that were causing it to break. He started to perform maintenance on it for a while, but eventually, he scrapped it in lieu of a design of his own making. This initial design, The Windbag Inflatable Project, started Alan on the path of skillfully creating and executing large-scale plastic inflatables.

During this time Alan developed not just proficiency at working with vinyl and plastic, but also an aesthetic and artistic vision that went beyond small community projects. So, he started creating a larger scale of structures. But initially, the projects weren’t getting the reception that Alan was expecting.

“I was a bit frustrated how people were actually using the structures,” Alan said of that time period. Indeed, children and parents alike thought these structures were more akin to bouncy castles, not a place to witness how light interacted with different environments.But with some trial and error, Alan was able to create the atmosphere he envisioned. “We started doing collaborations with theatre companies and dance companies to kind of frame the experience in a different way and that worked really well,” Alan said.

By joining with these creators, Alan was able to convey that the luminaria was more for artistic appreciation than a playground. It was the framing he needed to convey what he envisioned for the space. In 1990, Alan launched his organization, Architects of Air, with the luminarium Eggopolis. Eggopolis was an early turning point for Alan, giving him some key lessons in design and implementation of the luminarium.

Since that point, Architects of Air has built over 20 unique structures in the span of 27 years after finding a core audience and following.

“I was looking for an audience who did not necessarily have expectations, but who would be open and receptive to having an encounter with the phenomenon of light,” Alan said.

“I was looking for an audience who did not necessarily have expectations, but who would be open and receptive to having an encounter with the phenomenon of light.”

Alan ParkinsonFounder and Artistic Director

One of the most beautiful aspects of the light in any of the luminaria is the specially developed type of plastic used in the structures’ construction. The plastic is sturdy but thin enough to allow light to pour through the exhibit in different hues and tones. Changes in weather mean you never have the same experience inside the luminaria twice.

Another facet of the luminaria is the ambiguity between light and surface and the confusion of the two. It feels like you’re inside a living kaleidoscope, one that pulses and breathes with shifts in wind and air pressure.

Also, Alan tries to have the ambiguity of expectations, never sharing what he thinks a visitor should experience when entering the luminaria. Christopher Wangro, a presenter of a luminaria for his organization in Boston, said, “It really is something; a journey down the rabbit hole, a step into an alternate time/space, a place woven from the fabric of the unexpected.”

So what is it that keeps drawing people back inside luminaria? For adults, it can be the opportunity to enjoy a rebirth of childlike wonder. Most of the structures are meant to disorient the visitor in order for participants to go from looking to truly seeing, as if witnessing color and shape for the very first time.

But one thing’s for sure, these structures are designed with great care and with inclusivity in mind. The luminaria are wheelchair friendly and have been used as a tool in working with children with special needs.

Teacher Jonathan Gray said, “It was so easy to lose track of time and all other cares inside the structure and just observe the way in which the students (all of whom present with severe and profound learning difficulties) were engaging with this unique environment.”

Another draw to the luminaria is the opportunity to be out of your normal environment, to have a chance to reflect and just exist. Many people who enter the structures find it to be an extremely consoling, even perhaps spiritual, space.

“About 25 years ago, I met a man who had just come from the cemetery after burying his wife. And he had come out feeling very touched and even consoled,” Alan said.

“About 25 years ago, I met a man who had just come from the cemetery after burying his wife. And he had come out feeling very touched and even consoled.”

Alan ParkinsonFounder and Artistic Director

Awash in light and color, experiencing almost a colorful sensory deprivation, it’s challenging to describe what participants will feel when they travel through any of the luminaria touring the world.And with up to nine luminaria touring at any given time, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to visit one in a community near you.

That’s one of the unique powers of these environments Architects of Air have built. There’s no “right way” to engage with the space, just bringing yourself and coming to the structures as you are is enough.

Header image © John Owens of Exxpolis of for Architects of Air, second image © Luc Lodder of Katena for Architects of Air, third image © John Owens of Katena for Architects of Air, fourth image © John Owens of Katena for Architects of Air.

Abygail Thompson

Author Abygail Thompson

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