Going Geodesic

Going Geodesic

Surprising as it may seem, I watch a lot of films in my job, and I get a lot of my ideas for blog posts from finding something I’ve never seen before and then getting the research bug. This article is no exception. I can’t even remember what possessed me to watch a film about ‘Huck Fasteners’ in the first place, but it has taken me on – to quote the narrator from one of these films – “an Architectural Adventure” – on a budget…

Click on the pic to watch the film

Firstly, “what is a Huck fastener?” you so rightly ask. Developed in America in the 1950s, it’s a very strong and light weight replacement for the nut and bolt, or rivet fasteners, used to attach metal or wood. An alternative to welding, if you will!  Film 15440 details exactly how they work. The particular section of the film that interested me was the construction of the Hawaiian Village Hotel in 1957 – a self-supporting geodesic dome made entirely out of aluminium panels bolted together using Huck fasteners. I felt inspired to explore the Huntley Film Archives collection to see if we had more footage of similarly extraordinary Space Age structures being built. (More on things geodesic later…)

Focusing in particular on 1950s Britain and America, where the films in my selection are predominantly from, it’s no surprise to know that both of these countries were by no means free of the shadow cast by warfare after 1945. However, the images that spring to mind of these two countries in the 1950s are very different; the colourful sweetshop of ‘Americana’ synonymous with excess in a country positively embracing the possibilities of nuclear/atomic, power, doesn’t seem to inhabit the same world as the British, still ‘making-do’ and tiptoeing around the bombsites of a scarred landscape.  

In the films that I’ve found, several factors spring out as contributing to the new architectural forms appearing in the 1950s. They also demonstrate that the drive to streamline at every stage of production was essential for post-war economic success. These factors are: The progress of prefabrication in the 1940s; the honing of lighter and stronger building materials such as aluminium, steel; and faster fastening methods. And, let’s not forget, a little imagination and the influence of the Space Race! Cried over Silent Running? Well, the biodome dream began here…


Prefabrication

Click on the pic to watch the film

Prefabrication. The lessons learned about ‘making-do,’ maximum utilisation and mass production at speed stood the Brit’s in good stead after the war. (You may recall a film in my ‘Recycling On Our Reels’ post which dealt with the production of prefabricated houses using recycled metal from old planes). Film 16716 goes into much more detail about the delicate navigation of post war attitudes and practicalities involved in reconstruction. Understandably there was a huge demand for new housing after the war, and not a lot of funds or time to do it, so the development of prefabricated housing did spring from the need to utilise supplies, skills and facilities originally forged for war work. The film elaborates on these motivations behind assembling houses in factories instead of the traditional bricks and mortar construction on location. Creating multiple identical parts that could be made in one location then easily transported and assembled in another at speed has played a key part in the way future structures have been devised. Film 97124 is a lovely example of the construction of a prefabricated house in the 1940s – perhaps a demonstration home.

As was made quite clear in film 16716, some were keen to use the opportunity to completely pull down the back-to-back formula of Victorian construction and think anew – not wanting to simply reconstruct what was there before, along with their inherent problems. The architecture and designed products that were appearing, especially evident at the World Fairs and Expositions, were light, innovative and ambitious. And I don’t just mean big, I mean ambitious in terms of structural engineering to create extraordinary load baring shapes. The era’s aesthetic influences are clearly seated in a world increasingly focused on atomic science and space exploration – themes that would (in theory) carry the people out of the grime of coal dust and into the future. Enter the Skylon:

Click on the pic to watch the film

Austerity was still a primary factor in British people’s lives, so in a country that hadn’t even escaped the confines of rationing, the 1951 Festival of Britain may have seemed like a shining beacon of modernity on a horizon otherwise obscured by rubble. At its centre, suspended in a cradle of steel cables and legs – the Skylon – suspended like a leaf in mid-air. Three prefabricated steel legs from Hereford. A 12-sided central feature made of rectangular frames. Illuminated with 500 bulbs of varying wattage placed at equal intervals up the central core. Then prefabricated aluminium reflectors assembled onsite and put on the frame using power spanners attached from the inside. They reflected the light inside and illuminated the whole structure. Unlike the Huck Faster advert, film 44261 is simply documenting the processes involved in the creation of the Skylon, and it has some useful animations to educate the viewer on how exactly the engineering below ground worked in order to stabilise the structure above. In that respect, the two films do have something in common; they both highlight an integral part of the structure that is, perhaps, not ordinarily considered or even visible to a passer-by.


Materials

Tighter budgets and production line economy to produce more product with less labour power forms the focus of many a 1940s and ‘50s film in our archive. Time and motion studies, films detailing the processes happening in factories and mechanical innovation look in depth at industrial activity to encourage economising effort and space used in the workplace and in the home. Illustrated no more so than in our Huck Fastening epic, film 15440. The shining material of the future seemed to lay in the silvery tones of aluminium and steel, which were light weight, could be re-used, prefabricated on a mass scale and transported easily. Click on the picture above to view some wonderful colour films documenting the mass production of aluminium sheets in the U.S.A.

Film 7492 – I like this film about the modern (c. 1950) architecture of this Detroit car manufacturing company because it promotes the idea of open space and creating somewhere to inspire those who work within. The film constantly highlights the use of glass, concrete and aluminium in creating the clean lines of the period. Note the General Motor’s dome which is the auditorium of the technical centre. I particularly like the lenticular water tower which, when reflected in a nearby building, looks like an invading spaceship with legs forming beams projecting down to earth.


Imagination and the Geodesic Dome

So far the factors I have outlined as contributing to a new form of architecture have been economic circumstances which necessitated the development of cheaper materials and faster production. However, the fun bit of this investigation is seeing when necessity turned into playtime, with buildings and structures produced from these more accessible processes being used to illustrate further reaching creative ideas and dynamic forms that challenged what went before. Enter the geodesic dome.

Geodesic domes are based on the geodesic polyhedron – triangular panels connected together to create a very strong structure because they distribute weight stress throughout the whole building. Their beauty lies in the fact that they can withstand heavy loads without the need for any supporting columns beneath. Developed from an earlier geodesic design patented by Dr. Walther Bauersfeld, American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller continued its possibilities in the late 1940s. The geodesic dome fulfils all the requirements of a more affordable post war production process – they economise on materials, time and effort, whilst maximising space for work and living.

You’re probably more familiar with the modern examples based on the geodesic principal – such as Grimshaw Architects’ biodomes at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Or Foster and Partners’ roof over the Great Court at the British Museum in London. The geodesic roof I’m interested in dates back to 1957 – the Hawaiian Village Hotel auditorium, Waikiki. Henry J. Kaiser (of Kaiser aluminium fame) commissioned the dome from Buckminster Fuller, and unsurprisingly, it was made of aluminium! Material of the moment.

Looking back at the film 15440 about Huck bolt fasteners and how they helped build the Hawaiian Village Hotel, clearly this is an advert for the wide variety of applications of the Huck fastener but, regardless of the film’s motive, it’s an informative look at what made this innovatively designed structure work well. Compared to the faff of spot welding illustrated in film 6866, the benefits of the Huck fastener, which can fasten prefabricated pieces of aluminium together with ease on the building site, seems preferable for the Hawaiian Hotel’s particular needs. Watch from 5:13 minutes in and 8:40 – the proof was in the pudding – it only took 20 hours to erect the structure covering 16,500 square feet.

Unfortunately the Hawaiian Hotel auditorium wasn’t to last; it was dismantled 42 years later in 1999.


Montreal Expo 67

Click on the pic to watch the film

Let’s jump ahead ten years to the Montreal Expo 67 and the United States dome pavilion. Also designed by Buckminster Fuller, the massive structure can be glimpsed from afar in several shots in this amateur film of the event (Film 18022) from 1:55 onwards the footage of President Lyndon B. Johnson is shot inside the dome, and as he ascends an escalator with his entourage at 2:16 minutes in, you can see the sides of the dome come into view above them. Unlike my other examples, the dome still exists – it was repurposed in the 1990s and the ‘Montreal Biosphere’, as it is now known, houses the environment museum in Quebec (owned by Environment and Climate Change Canada).

This use of a biosphere to educate people about their natural environment seems a very fitting way for one of Fuller’s geodesic domes to end up. Despite his intentions being rooted in an awareness of the responsible use of materials and how we live, he was working in a culture increasingly obsessed with nuclear power and consumption. With the Montreal Biosphere in mind, the Eden Project and, yes, the geodesic greenhouses in the 1972 film Silent Running, it’s pleasing to know that the geodesic biodome has actually become somewhat of an icon of environmentalism.

Written by TC Summerford


Learn more:

https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Geodesic_dome

http://www.morleymarkson.com/morleymarkson_website/Kaiser_Aluminum_Dome.html

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140613-spaceship-earth-a-game-of-domes

https://about.kaiserpermanente.org/our-story/our-history/henry-j-kaiser-geodesic-dome-pioneer

https://archive.org/details/TheKaiserAluminumDomeGeneralInformation_196/page/n1 (you can see on pages 34 and 35 reference to the costs of the Huck guns and bolts which were rented from the subcontractor)

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