Air & Space and Architecture

​As those of us in the Nation’s Capital prepare for the arrival of the jawa sandcrawler – excuse me, the National Museum of African American History and Culture – another hideous building located just a bit further away on the national front yard may be facing the wrecking ball. The National Air & Space Museum, the most popular tourist attraction on The Mall, is falling apart. Its repairs will prove so expensive, that there are calls to demolish the 40-year old structure and start over.

Excuses made for the failure of the building include the rush to complete it in time for the country’s bicentennial, as well as years of deferred maintenance, but truthfully the Air & Space is just another example of the poor quality of most public buildings built after World War II. The museum’s original architect, Gyo Obata, has built numerous awful buildings, such as the giant stacked coffee filters collectively known as the priory church for St. Louis Abbey in St. Louis, Missouri, or the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a complex whose central building the Air & Space somewhat resembles. There seems to be little love for the current museum building itself, although truthfully there are so many ugly museums on The Mall already, that at this point one more or less really will not make much of a difference.

In thinking about the Air & Space of course, one can’t help but think about architecture and air travel. We don’t have spaceports just yet, but for many decades airports have featured innovative, futuristic designs that give us a bit of a preview of what those may eventually look like. This is partly because commercial air travel is a comparatively new concept for architects to try and tackle, there are few if any historical constraints imposed upon the renderings of such structures. The notion of building an airport that resembles a Gothic guildhall, for example, would strike us as silly.

Given its rejection of earlier architectural styles, airports have had both notable successes and catastrophic failures when it comes to their design. The old TWA terminal at JFK, designed by Eero Saarinen, is a personal favorite; I was fortunate enough to actually fly out of there on several occasions, when it was still a functioning terminal. Meanwhile the blocky Dallas Fort Worth International Airport designed by the aforementioned Mr. Obata is routinely rated as one of the worst in the country. New airports continue to present passengers and armchair architecture critics with mixed results.

Take for example the concept art shown below for the new Kannur International Airport in southwestern India, which is currently under construction. The design features glass curtain walls at either end, which look out onto a broad strip of landscaping dotted with tall palm trees. The building has a gently sloping canopy to cover the roadway where passengers will be picked up or dropped off, while the opposite wall is clear of obstructions, so that passengers can look out to the runway as airplanes take off or land. It is not a large airport, but it seems like it would be a very pleasant one.

By contrast, the new Mexico City International Airport proposed by starchitects Norman Foster and Fernando Romero seems designed to fail. The design, which looks somewhat incongruously like a giant Nazca petroglyph of a spider, features the expansive canopies of glass which have become a trademark of Lord Foster’s style (see, e.g. the courtyards of both the British Museum and the American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery.) While the project’s designers claim that the structure will be efficient at cooling the space, one cannot help but think that all of that glass in a subtropical climate is going to bake the waiting passengers during sunny weather. One can also imagine it leaking or even cracking under pressure from the heavy tropical storms and hail of the rainy season that plagues this part of the North American continent.    

If there is to be a new building for the Air & Space Museum, it would be nice to see proposals that both reflect the monumentality of its surroundings, while at the same time provide something of the innovative yet functional design elements which well-designed airports provide to their passengers. No one expects a museum about air travel and space exploration to look like a Greek temple, but the heavy, uninspiring block of the museum’s present incarnation is a strangely grounded one, for an institution that is supposed to celebrate the story of human flight. This celebration of man’s perennial desire to soar into the skies deserves a better form of architectural expression.

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