#6 in the Research & Work Series
MDR/SAH member Tyler Sprague is a doctoral candidate in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. He holds both bachelors and masters degrees in Structural Engineering, as well as professional licensure in California as a professional engineer. His research focuses on the architecture and engineering of post-war modernism around the world – highlighting the intersection between the two disciplines, and the collaboration involved in designing the built environment. His doctoral dissertation examines the work of Matthew Nowicki – a prominent international modernist who designed the first tension-cable roof system for the Dorton Arena in 1949 and the first design for the Indian city of Chandigarh in 1950.
Tyler first introduced the MDR/SAH members to the Hyperbolic Paraboloids of the Northwest during our 2011 Annual Meeting in Boise with his Wendell Lovett Award winning presentation “Hyperbolic Paraboloids in the Northwest: A Module of Post-War Modernism.” Soon he will expand on this work with a preservation survey of the building type, a project that is partially funded by an Elisabeth Walton Potter Research award from our chapter.
Grant County Fairgrounds Grandstand, Moses Lake, Washington. Built 1963, Cowan-Paddock-Hollingberry, architects; Jack Christiansen, engineer. Photo by Tyler Sprague.
Thin-shell concrete construction was a signature of the late modernist movement in architecture. Light and efficient, this construction type was embraced by architects and engineers alike, as a means to minimize construction materials while obtaining a dramatic aesthetic effect. Specifically, the use of the hyperbolic paraboloid – a geometric surface generated from the rotation of straight lines – was widespread and became a defining shape of post-war modernism. Utilized by design professionals around the world, multiple variations emerged – each with their own architectural nuances and engineering challenges.
This type of construction was widely used in the Pacific Northwest for a variety of building types. While relating to the global trends in architecture and engineering, thin-shell construction in the northwest developed its own local characteristics, becoming part of the post-war architectural identity of the region. During his presentation at our annual meeting in Boise (2011), Tyler Sprague briefly surveyed the hyperbolic paraboloids of the region between the years of 1950 and 1973, and then investigated a particular modernist building in detail – the 1959 S&W Properties Office & Laboratory Building (S & W Building) in Seattle. Designed by the architect John Rohrer for the firm Naramore Bain Brady and Johanson (NBBJ), and the engineers Worthington, Skilling, Helle and Jackson (WSHJ), this simple building deploys thin-shell concrete hyperbolic paraboloids in a distinct way, revealing the regional considerations that guided the modernist principles at play. This building is approached as a hybrid work of architecture, engineering and construction practice, focusing on the idea of a module as an organizing element. A module – a scalable, repeatable unit – as a generator of architectural and structural form is revealed in many aspects of the building. From the roof system, to the seismic restraints, to the vertical screens, this building strikes a careful balance between repetition and variation, regularity and diversity, monotony and chaos. The modular mentality of the architects and engineers demonstrates a dedication to the modernist efficiency of material and economy, yet also an intentional response to site-specific concerns.
This construction type, and the use of purely geometric forms, contributed to the region’s emergence on the global modernist scene – establishing local architects and engineers as active members of a larger movement. Yet this specific merge of architecture and engineering also displays the ingenuity and creativity that came to be known as Northwest Modernism.
Many hyperbolic paraboloids, once considered innovative and exciting structures, are now close to fifty years old and are coming under threat of demolition. While the engineering principles behind them remain constant with their form, lack of maintenance, changing economic demands, and evolving construction trends pose threats. Often too young to be deemed historic, the paraboloids’ efficiency of construction (thin shelled concrete or wood) make them easy targets for demolition without regard for their history or uniqueness. While there has been increasing activism regarding the preservation of Mid-Century resources, paraboloids have often been neglected as many lack the cachet of a name-brand architect and were often used in commonplace applications, such as the Grant County Fairgrounds Grandstand, pictured above. The next phase of Tyler Sprague’s project seeks to better understand the architecture and engineering of these structures, document significant works, and raise a preservation-minded awareness of these unique structures and the people responsible for them. In order to achieve this, Tyler plans to visit and photo-document existing paraboloids, noting their design characteristics and condition. A 2005 interview with engineer Jack Christiansen identified over 43 structures that he was associated with. An additional 20 have been found through historical archives of the Seattle Times and the now defunct Pacific Builder and Engineer magazine.
At a pessimistic minimum, Tyler Sprague’s research and work would provide a record of an architectural and historical trend prior to the anticipated demolition of many of these structures. However, by bringing attention to the architectural and engineering complexity presented by “parabs,” by placing them within a larger context of a region-defining trend, and by creating a report that includes examples of renovation and reuse strategies it is hoped that more can be saved than will be lost.
Links for More Information:
Tyler Sprague on Hyperbolic Paraboloids and Northwest Modernism at UW’s ARCH[BE]LOG
Jack Christiansen Biography at DoCoMoMoWeWa
The Thin Concrete Shells of Jack Christiansen by Edward Segal
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