Q&A with Luminarium designer Alan Parkinson

Absolutely Cultured is bringing Luminarium by Architects of Air to Pearson Park from Tuesday 26 to Saturday 30 July. Designer Alan Parkinson sheds some light on what it’s all about.

Image: Chris Martin

Hi, Alan. So, what exactly is a Luminarium?

Like an aquarium immerses a fish in water, a Luminarium immerses a visitor in the phenomenon of light.

How did the project begin?

It grew from a social project that engaged Community Service offenders in bringing inflatable play to under-served communities. Inspired by other makers of walk-in inflatable environments, it created its own equivalents taking a particular architectural angle.

How was Luminarium designed and constructed?

Its design entails a combination of disciplines – art, architecture and engineering. Construction involves gluing the thousands of separate pieces of plastic together. In the workshop we typically have around six makers and the various elements are zipped together onsite. It’s then securely anchored before being inflated.

Luminarium is a very large walk-in structure. How big is it exactly?

When deflated Luminarium has a volume of around 8 cubic metres, but once inflated it expands to around 1,200 cubic metres.

Does the atmosphere inside change according to location?

We have multiple Luminaria and each one tends to create its own world. The experience of the structure may change according to the light – sunlight at different angles, an overcast day, or even night-time with artificial lighting outside.

What perhaps has the most impact on varying the atmosphere in different locations is the behaviour of the visitors who come inside to share the experience. To experience Luminarium is also to experience one’s co-inhabitants and how they act can vary enormously from location to location.

Do you have an intended effect for Luminarium visitors?

The main effect that I want people to have comes through the contact with a very simple experience of light. They become reflective spaces – somehow the phenomenon of light, and immersion in it, has a spiritual quality.

They’re also spaces that bring people together – the sharing of a common and new experience is a great thing to bridge the gaps between people, whether it’s with generations of a family or different sectors of a community.

Adults and children tend to respond differently – children will be excited and adults will be calmed. Often adults will say they feel like a child – usually this means that they enjoy that sense of discovery and freshness of seeing.

What responses have you had from visitors?

It’s particularly nice to talk to people about how they experience the structures. We get some really positive reactions from people who’ve gone in and felt like they’ve experienced nothing like it before. This is most marked in elderly people who are often delighted to encounter something totally new.

Visitors often struggle to find ways to describe their experience and will try to draw on analogies from the body. One of the best descriptions that I heard was from a Czech sculptor who said that “a Luminarium is somewhere between a womb and a cathedral”. I feel that this is the most succinct description I’ve heard.

Image: John Owens

Why are the structures also mazes?

If, on entering, you could read the structure and orientate yourself then the experience would be a whole lot more prosaic. The senses are alert when we’re lost and don’t know the way – we generally don’t sleepwalk if we’re lost – we’re busy looking for clues, trying to make sense of our surroundings, trying to orientate ourselves.

So the structures are designed to be an awakening – Look! This is an environment you don’t see every day. Look! This is light. Light becomes so much a given – sometimes we’ll appreciate it for itself in a beautiful sky, a sunset, a log fire, a candlelit meal, but these can become clichés, unseen and unappreciated.

How many countries has Luminarium visited?

So far we’ve toured to over 40 countries and more than 4 million visitors have experienced our maze of colour and light.

Where are your favourite three places Luminarium has visited so far?

My personal favourites are Okazaki in Japan, Stockton Riverside International Festival and Nottingham Lakeside Arts Centre.

What’s next for Architects of Air?

We’re creating new structures and exhibiting them in places where there is a positive encounter between the Luminaria and the public.

Luminarium visits Pearson Park in Hull from Tuesday 26 to Saturday 30 July. Tickets can be purchased for £3 each at the box office outside Luminarium between 11am and 5pm, with children aged under 5 admitted free of charge.