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« Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014 | Main | John Stezaker on collage »
Friday
Mar282014

Powell & Moya, Skylon, 1951

The Dome Model with Si Sillman (bending), Buckminster Fuller, Elaine de Kooning, Roger Lovelace, and Josef Albers. Photo by Beaumont Newhall. Courtesy of the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate, Scheinbaum and Russek Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico. © Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Estate.
As we have a call for articles out for On Site review 32: weak systems.  I've been thinking of such things: Buckminster Fuller's postwar experiments with geodesics and space frames: how light can structure be – how much material can be removed so that what is left is the stress diagram alone?  Jeffrey Lindsay was one of his young engineers – from Montreal, ex-RCAF WWII pilot. It all coalesced evidently in 1948 at Black Mountain College where a combination of sculptors, Josef Albers, John Cage, Fuller, Merce Cunningham and ex-pilot engineering students who had learned about geodetics as navigational theory (straight lines that describe a sphere) experimented with building domes out of lath.  

Lindsay moved to southern California, but continued to work with both Fuller and other architects: he was the engineer for the vast space frame at Simon Fraser University, 1966.  If you look him up on wikipedia there is a huge image of Fuller's geodesic dome for the US pavilion at Expo 67.  These are dramatic structures: transparent, minimal material with huge impact: architecture no longer a solid against the world, but a structural system that mediates between internal space and the outside – it turns the outside into a romantic vision of otherness, seen through a scrim.


Powell & Moya, Skylon, Festival of Britain, London. 1951.And from a different angle altogether, another example of structural minimalism is Powell & Moya's 1951 Skylon, the overriding symbol of a magical technological future for Britain.  It really was a lovely thing, a javelin balanced on three slack cables strung from three steel posts canted away from the centre to balance the weight of the skylon.  It is stabilised by near-invisible guy wires. How exhilarating it must have been to see, unlike anything that had ever come before.   This was not to be inhabited but to be looked at: straight symbolism, which was also its downfall as it was dismantled and cut up for scrap when the government changed from Labour who used the Festival of Britain as an event to mark the change in Britain's fortunes –away from rationing and bomb sites to a gleaming future; not surprising that it fell given the postwar economic state – to the Conservatives under Churchill, cold warriors who felt Britain should recover its imperial trappings from half a century and two world wars earlier.  

I don't think American structural minimalism ever had this political charge – postwar United States was in its technological ascendency, a consequence of the space race, another cold war contest. The American reaction was to rush toward this conflict, rather than bluster about a glorious past.

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