(above) Felix Candela’s innovative hyberbolic-parabaloid, thin-shell, reinforced concrete ‘umbrella.’ Mexico, 1950s.

Roofs are such a basic element of architecture—giving shelter from rain, snow, cold, heat and extremes of light—we often take them for granted. True, modernist architecture, a la Rietveld, Mies, Corbusier, and others who followed them, reduced roofs to just another bounding plane in the architectural vocabulary: flat and dull. So be it. However, when it comes to roofing large, open interior spaces, even modernist architects have had to go beyond simplistic abstraction and invent structural systems that can span sometimes great distances without disrupting the spaces beneath them with columns, walls, and other structural supports. Most of the spaces sheltered by big roofs serve straightforwardly pragmatic purposes: warehouses, airplane hangars, markets, sports stadia, pavilions—hardly exalted in the cultural canon Still, they are necessary in some sense that is more than the merely useful.

 Following are works of five of the architects/engineers who innovated structural systems, but also methods of analysis, materials, and methods of construction in the design of what some simply call ‘long span’ structures. They brought something poetic to the task, something that brings their work into the realm of architecture.

(below) Felix Candela, warehouse, Mexico, late-1950s. Candela used his hyperbolic-parabaloid geometries and thin-shell, reinforced concrete constructions in a variety of uses, from the profane to the sacred.

(below) Konrad Wachsmann, airplane hangar, United States, early-1950s. Wachsmann invented the steel space-frame, including the complex joints making it feasible.

(below) Eduardo Torroja, Zarzuela Hippodrome, Spain, mid-1930s.Torroja was one of the earliest pioneers of  thin-shell, reinforced concrete design, and pushed it to its limits. 

(beloe) Pier Luigi Nervi, airplane hangar, Italy, 1950s. Nervi virtually invented the two-way, reinforced concrete space frame, constructed with his patented material ‘ferrocemento,’ which used high-strength cement and only fine aggregates, achieving unprecedented thinness and lightness.

(below) Frei Otto’s Olympic Stadium, Germany, early-1970s. Otto was the pioneer of tensile, tent-like structures, which have had limited application up to now, but may have a much bigger future in a world that values lightness, transparency, and transience.


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