The Space Age in Construction

Presented at the Mid-Century Modern Structures: Materials and Preservation Symposium
April 14-16, 2015 in St. Louis, Missouri

Justine P. Bello, Caroline Guay, Tom McDowell,
Mark Rabinowitz, Joseph Sembrat

While the influence of the machine age on architecture and design is well known, seen in the streamlining of the Art Deco and Modernist styles, the “space age” is more a cliché as a period than a true architectural influence. Design anomalies like the Sheets-Goldstein House by John Lautner exist, but they were far less ubiquitous than the esthetic of sleekness and speed that permeated many aspects of the early modern age, from railroads and aircraft to skyscrapers. Originating in Southern California in the late 1940s, Googie architecture, a form of futuristic architecture influenced by the space and atomic age, was popular into the 1960s. There was a design progression from the streamlined electric locomotives of the 1930’s, the Avanti automobile of the 1960’s, to the Space Station of the 1970’s (all designed by Raymond Loewy), but the urge to create buildings that reflected the speed of the modern age could not be sustained. The design impulse petered out after the height of the space age and we didn’t end up living in houses that looked like rocket ships.

Instead, a stronger influence on building history can be found in the transfer of materials developed for space flight into use in construction. NASA and DARPA explicitly encouraged the development of commercial uses of materials first developed for space exploration and advanced weaponry of the Atomic Age. Commonly used materials include urethane foam, honeycomb panel construction, various lightweight/high strength aluminum alloys, nickel alloys, beryllium, MylarTM, TedlarTM, RTV silicone, PlexiglasTM, and various resins. Although not visually consistent, there is a direct relationship between the research and development of titanium plates for aircraft skins used for Kelly Johnson’s A-12 and SR-71 supersonic spy planes to Frank Gehry’s titanium-covered Guggenheim Bilbao.

Just as the space-age was responsible for the creation of many modern materials that are currently in use in the building industry today, the authors are employing knowledge obtained from the treatment of mid-century modern artifacts to the conservation of mid-century building materials. A thorough understanding of these materials is critical as many have unique requirements for preservation; titanium can shatter when worked on with conventional cadmium-plated tools and the material is highly susceptible to chlorinated water or cleaning materials.
The authors have unique experience assessing, studying, testing, researching and conserving several significant Space Age artifacts including Space Shuttles, Saturn V Rockets, Skylab, a titanium A-12 spy plane, and a Corona spy satellite. Through this they have gained knowledge on the preservation of these exotic materials that can influence the treatment of these materials in an architectural setting. This paper will present examples of this research and use case studies to illustrate their findings.