In the 1950s, the U.S. was building a transcontinental network to surveil the perceived Soviet threat. Across the Arctic, radar domes were popping up like mushrooms—and one aerospace engineer was responsible for the design of these so-called radomes. Only a decade or two later, he would be collaborating with world-famous architects.
His name was Walter Bird, and today, the company he founded has worked to build tensile structures all over the world, from the Denver Airport to London’s Millennium Dome to new World Cup stadiums in Brazil and South Africa. But decades before Bird commercialized tensile architecture, he was contracted by the U.S. government to design a lightweight structure that could protect the fragile radar equipment the military was installing across the continent to monitor potential Soviet missile strikes. “If any enemy should send his jet bombers against us, these radar stations would play a vital role in our air defense network by detecting and warning of the attack,” Bird wrote in 1955.
Tensile and pneumatic architecture is imprinted with the counterculture vibes of the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to its light environmental footprint and its unconventional forms. But in reality, it emerged in tandem with the geopolitical forces that shaped that era—including the Cold War and the Space Race.
Radomes needed to be strong to withstand the brutal climate, but crucially, they also couldn’t hamper the operation of the radar inside with metal structure. Bird, who actually started out as an engineer designing railroad cars for Pullman after graduating from MIT, was working at Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory when he was commissioned to come up with a design in the 1940s. He envisioned a fiberglass fabric that would be pressurized to support its own weight—a totally new type of structure. Soon, they were popping up all over the continent, and in Asia, Europe, and Australia. Today, they’re still some of the most iconic symbols of Cold War history.
But Bird envisioned bigger things. In 1956, he struck out on his own to build a company, Birdair, that would bring air-supported and tensile structures to the world of architecture. It didn’t take long for the design world to see the potential, as historian Annette LeCuyer writes. In 1957, Life magazine featured Bird’s own backyard pool, insulated by a pressurized dome of his own design, on its cover. Two years later, Architectural Forum called Bird’s work “[an historic event] to the building industry” and “the most exciting idea to come of age in building since Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.”
He went on to collaborate with a long list of architects, showing how tensile structures could add to their work. In the late 1970s, he worked with the legendary Fazlur Rahman Khan and Gordon Bunshaft to build the Hajj Terminal at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz International Airport. At the time, the first supercomputers were making it possible to carry out unthinkably complex calculations, making radical structural engineering ideas plausible. According to Khan’s daughter, the engineer Yasmin Sabina Khan, the engineering team used a Cray supercomputer to carry out analysis of the complex tensile roof, made up of more than 210 membraned modules supported by steel columns.
It led the way for other Birdair structures, from the Denver Airport to Cowboy Stadium in Dallas to Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center in Berlin and Richard Rogers’s Millennium Dome in London.
As the company’s list of built work grew, other technological breakthroughs started to shape Bird’s work. As Birdair’s Michele Roth told me, in the the late 1960s Bird learned about a new material being used by NASA for the Apollo mission space suits–a fiberglass fabric coated in Teflon (or PTFE) developed by Owens Corning and DuPont.
Originally known as “beta cloth,” the textile was actually a response to the Apollo 1 tragedy, in which three astronauts died in a launch fire in 1967, when NASA set out design a fireproof spacesuit. But given its incredible durability—it’s stronger than steel—the super-light fabric quickly made its way into the world at large. Soon, Birdair adopted a version of the membrane as a super-strong, super-light material for its roof structures. In fact, Roth says, the company is still using the stuff today, and has developed a version that’s insulated with aerogel.
So while the ethos of tensile architecture might seem like it’s at odds with the industry from which it emerged, it actually developed in tandem alongside both the space program and the Cold War. Without those seemingly opposed forces, we might not have some of the most iconic buildings of the last century.
All Photos: courtesy Birdair Inc.