French architect Gilles Ebersolt reveals all behind his pioneering plastic structures.
Either floating along the forest canopies of the sub-tropics, or precipitously poised above large mountain fissures, French architect Gilles Ebersolt's groundbreaking structures lift science to unimaginable heights. Seduced by the poetic, precarious fragility of plastic in the 1960s, he began experimenting with inflatable designs at age 16 by crafting a life-size bubble out of industrial plastic and tape in his parent's basement.
Ebersolt, an indefatigable dreamer, put his whimsical inventions to practical use in the early 1980s with the 'Radeau des Cimes.' An inflatable web-like raft, the revolutionary structure sails along the surface of the trees, providing unprecedented access, shelter and mobility to scientists in their study of the natural world. With eight major treetop expeditions to his name, as well as countless disciplinary missions, installations and private commissions, Ebersolt's structures elegantly underline the experiential, migrant possibilities of architecture, as well as its defining role in the quest for discovery.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is that which is not indispensable for all, but vital for oneself.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
On a sailboat at 20 knots with calm open seas and lots of sun.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
To listen to "I'm your man" by Leonard Cohen in a hammock attached to a Gaboon 35 meters above the ground.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A flask, the ultimate travel companion.
What triggered your fascination for inflatable structures?
When I was around seven years old my grandfather gave me a blue inflatable elephant that I became mesmerized with. Then something incredible happened in the late 60s. I met a furniture designer named Quasar Khanh who was rather popular at the time for his inflatable designs. His studio was in the basement of my building so I'd pass in front everyday to and from school. We eventually became friends and he gave me one of his inflatable chairs. It was a bit of a poisoned gift, however, since it constantly deflated. So at once I became conscious of the incredibly possibilities of air-filled designs, and the precarious, fragile nature of plastic. One of the particularities of inflatable structures is that they deflate, so in my work I've struggled to make sure that they don't.
What was your first inflatable design?
When I was in high school everyone in my class was obsessed with stereos. I wasn't at all interested in stereos; instead I invested my money and time developing a life-size balloon with my friend Robert Monier. It wasn't all useful, but it was big enough to enter. I had found a hippy magazine at the time that demonstrated ways of creating inflatable things with recycled industrial plastic and tape, so that's how I created my first balloon in the basement of my parent's house.
How did you first begin creating structures for scientific research?
My final project at architectural school was to design a treetop platform. I had no direct practical or technical application for it in mind. I was more focused on the idea of poetry, discovery and exploration. One lucky day many years later I met three people who were looking for ways of working on forest canopies: Francis Halli, a professor of botany in Montpellier; Dany Cleyet-Marrel, an aeronautic designer; and Patrick Blanc, a botanical researcher at the CNRS. So I told them that I had designed and tested a treetop raft that would suit their needs, which gave way to the first 'Radeau des Cimes' project. We got along very well because we shared similar interests yet each brought unique, complementary areas of expertise to the expedition. Since then we have worked on eight operations together in sub-tropical forest canopies in West Africa and South and Central America.
Were you the one who came up with the concept of the 'radeau des cines?'
I was the one who came up with its design, but I had no idea how to get it on top of the trees and give it mobility once there. Its overall performance required the expert input from all involved.
Not only are your designs effective research tools but poetic, sensorial structures that blend elegantly into their environment. How does this reflect your philosophy concerning architecture and the appreciation and study of the natural world?
It's important that the researchers feel as if they've embarked on an adventure that has a defined beginning and end. It's a bit like the large multi-disciplinary expeditions of the 17th and 18th century, in which doctors, botanists, painters, etc, were sent off together on a collaborative quest, be it medical, cultural or natural. We often think of scientists as people who sit quietly in a laboratory with their heads fixed to a microscope. The stereotype has its truths, but they're also human beings with needs just like anyone else. If we're capable of providing them with normal amenities in environments that are anything but - such as the forest canopy - then they are very happy. Scientists aspire to one thing... not just to observe nature, but also to develop a symbiotic relationship with the environment they're studying.
Which projects have meant the most to you personally?
From the outside, certain projects appear more spectacular or creative, but all of them require the same personal investment.
If you could create a structure anywhere in the world, what and where would it be?
An incredibly comfortable tent for two in a remote garden located in the shadows of the mountains on the Italian island of Ischia.
What inspires your designs?
There's no one domain that inspires me. I'm interested in all forms of natures, accumulations and mechanical devices.
What are you currently working on?
I'm working on an interesting project in Russia around 60km south of Moscow called the Novinski Leisure Hamlet that includes the landscape and structural development of over 170 hectares of land. The person who commissioned me for the project is a pioneer who is hoping to introduce the concept of eco-leisure - a strong trend in Europe, but virtually unknown in Russia - into the culture by creating a vacation destination that's respectful, and attentive to the preservation of the environment.