Last week, articles in The Daily Mail and Gizmodo concerned that most improbable of objects: an Airbus A380 jumbo jet outfitted with custom luxury interiors. As an airborne palace to be built to the tune of $485 million for Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the Airbus is proof that even a seemingly limitless budget can transcend the limits of conspicuous consumption. It is not uncommon to hear about palatial homes and even cities created for personal use. Such spending and extravagance boggle the mind. Yet one would be hard pressed to find an object that demonstrates ostentation like a private airplane.
Drawings for Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud's Airbus A380 (Source)
The various graphics shown in the Daily Mail and Gizmodo also suggest that the Airbus is architecture. The use of sections and sectional perspectives highlight some familiar architectural conventions. We see, for example, floorplates, walls, skins, envelopes. In short, the Airbus is a programmed space. With this in mind, is it possible to think of an architectural geneaology of the airplane cabin?
There is no doubt that the airplane is an object freighted with architectural significance. Some could even link Al-Saud’s Airbus as the logical outgrowth of architectural modernism’s fascination with aircraft. An obvious starting point would be to look at Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture (1923), Precisions (1930), and Aircraft (1935), his own treatise on aviation, as evidence of how the airplane not only exemplified his eponymous "machine for living" in, but also afforded the totalizing vision of the city indispensable to modern urban planning. It would be a position that would be digested, elaborated, regurgitated by successive critics and thinkers like Moholy, Reyner Banham, Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, and others.
(Top) Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972), Interior for Lockheed Super Constellation (1954); (Bottom) Teague, Interior of Boeing 377 (1949)
It is also possible to consider the innovations of Al-Saud’s Airbus cabin design as part of a much more recent history of design. This history may take on Aaron Betsky’s observation that the aircraft interior is “a bounded space with private and public zones that creates a relationship between ourselves, the world around others, and us. It is a structure and spatial envelope” [*]. The Saudi A380 thus exemplifies design historian Barabara Fitton Hauß’s observation how “the aircraft cabin eventually emancipated itself from spatial solutions presented by land and water-bound modes of passenger transportation and engendered interior designs reflective of and specific to travel by air." The Saudi A380’s posh staterooms, garages, screening rooms, and sauna would therefore belong to a narrative that includes for example, Henry Dreyfuss’ and Walter Dorwin Teague’s cabin designs for Douglas and Boeing, as well as Braniff Airlines’ collaborations with Alexander Calder, Alexander Girard, and Emilio Pucci for passenger cabin designs and crew uniforms.
Top to Bottom: Farman brochure owned by Le Corbusier; Interior of Farman Goliath (from Vers Une Architecture, 1923); Airplane harware (from Aircraft, 1935); Profile of Farman Goliath (from Vers une Architecture, 1923)
But is an airplane’s interior cabin architecture? Le Corbusier, the most outspoken enthusiast for the architectural significance of the airplane, practically ignores its interiors. Whereas the only image of an aircraft interior in Vers une Architecture features the bland, wicker surfaces of a Farman Goliath bomber retrofitted for passenger use, Aircraft favors images of an airplane’s hardware: engines, wings, ailerons, wheels, empennages, and cockpit. Claiming that the aircraft interior is of architectural significance requires locating the Saudi A380’s cabin within another of modernism’s narratives.
Such a narrative begins with Sigfried Giedion’s analysis of “Railroads and Patent Furniture” from his 1948 book Mechanization Takes Command. In his brief historical survey of the design and development of railroad sleeper cars and their furniture, Giedion tells us how “The problem of the sleeping car is foreshadowed by the ship’s cabin. As conveyances, both ship and train command a very restricted space. Yet railroad cars must be even more parsimonious with their space than must the larger ships. This immediately poses the problem overshadowing all others: economy of space, how to secure adequate comfort for the traveler without pre-empting extra space.” But for George M. Pullman, the pioneer of the modern sleeper car, the goal was to secure such comfort at an exemplary level of luxury. The architectural significance of Pullman’s designs is not lost on Giedion. For example, he remarks how homeowners wanted to replicate the luxury of a Pullman parlour car in the comfort of their own homes. In another instance, Giedion equates the comfort of a 1939 Pullman convertible car with that of a “two-room apartment.”
The Pullman car represented another development in the “anonymous” history of patent furniture. Giedion notes how comfort in rail travel requires “the mechanization of furniture … furniture which is adjustable to posture by virtue of its mobility and to multiple function by its powers of mechanical metamorphosis.” Mechanization Takes Command features many patent drawings of railroad furniture distinguished by their ability to rotate and recline. These drawings show how the designer was able to express a chair’s possible range of motion into isolated, yet constituent parts.
(Top) Adjustable Railway Passenger Seats and (Bottom) Adjustable Folding Chair for DC-3 Airliner, both from Mechanization Takes Command (1948)
But such designs were of contemporary significance for Giedion. The very last (and undiscussed) image in this chapter of Mechanization Takes Command is an “adjustable folding chair” for the passenger compartment of a Douglas DC-3 airliner. The inclusion of this image suggests a historical continuity between the design of sleeper and convertible cars in the 19th century and airplane interiors in the 20th and 21st centuries. Giedion even states how this passenger chair “perpetuates the showiness of nineteenth-century ruling taste.” An airplane's passenger cabin therefore has the potential to replicats the interiors of a luxurious, yet domestic place.
(Top) Hans Luckhardt, for Thonet Paris, Prototype for Steel Frame Airplane Seat (1935); (Bottom) Luckhardt, for Thonet Paris, Magnesium Tube Frame Seat for Air France (1938)
But the importance of mechanized furniture to aircraft interiors deserves additional consideration. Even before Douglas Aircraft installed reclining and rotating seats into their aircraft passenger compartments, the Thonet company hired German architect Hans Luckhardt to design tubular steel and magnesium chairs for the interiors of Lufthansa and KLM aircraft. As with wicker seat designs for passenger cabins from a couple of years earlier, airlines preferred metal tubing for cabin fixtures primarily because of their weight-saving measures. However, there is a more important reason for introducing Thonet and Luckhardt into this narrative. Steel-tubed furniture made its first appearance in airplane cabins as early as 1915. By 1919, corrugated metal seats and cantilevered chairs appeared in the passenger compartments of Junkers airliners. These developments not only anticipate Jean Prouvé’s corrugated metal furniture and Marcel Breuer’s chair designs by almost a decade – they also affirm the aircraft interior’s status as a product of architecture culture and architectural modernism. In other words, though much has been made of architects’ infatuation with aerodynamic form, the aircraft interior is an equally interesting and significant site of architectural production.
Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), Airliner No. 4, Fuselage Side Section and Plan for Deck No. 7, from Horizons (1932) (Source)
A brief consideration of the work of American industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes provides us with a moment in the history of collaborations between architects and aircraft designers. Bel Geddes’ 1932 design manifesto, Horizons, features his Airliner No. 4, a giant, transoceanic passenger plane designed in collaboration with Otto Koller, a German aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. The proofs of Bel Geddes’ image caption state how Airliner No.4 is a “tailless ‘V’ winged monoplane carrying a total of 606 persons – 451 passengers and 155 crew.” Consisting of nine decks, Bel Geddes states how “Interior appointments of the plane are as luxurious as those of a modern ocean liner. The pontoons provide space for fuel, baggage storage, crew’s quarters and kitchens. The wing space is occupied by lounge rooms, dining rooms, recreation deck, gymnasium, shops, beauty parlor and staterooms. There are 18 single staterooms, 81 double staterooms, of which 24 have private baths, 10 suites of three rooms each, and four suites of six rooms each. 119 rooms have outside windows, 60 rooms are inside without windows. The entire ship is closed at all times and is air conditioned.” It is difficult not to see Airliner No. 4 as a hyperbolic response to the needs of air travel. Yet it is a curious specimen as it demonstrates the most extreme condition of the relationship between the objects of architecture and aviation. Here, the aircraft interior is not a house: it is a fully functioning city. It is also a design that foreshadows the Saudi A380.
Bel Geddes, Rendering and Final Design for Interior of Martin M-130 China Clipper for Pan American Airways (1934)
For all of Bel Geddes’ imaginative prowess, he did create interiors for real aircraft. Along with Henry Dreyfuss, Bel Geddes designed passenger cabins and sleeping compartments for the Glenn L. Martin and Douglas aircraft companies. And in looking at the cutaway drawings of their designs, it is difficult not to see a resemblance to the cutaway drawings of railway cars from Mechanization Takes Command. In Bel Geddes’ and Dreyfuss’ designs, we see many of the same ideas that Giedion elaborates upon: domestic luxury and mechanized furniture.
Yet this combination of luxury and mechanization is problematized by dint of the fact that, like many other technologies in the postwar world, luxury and mechanization had a distinct military origin and purpose. Cabin pressurization had a necessary military application in that it allowed aircrews to fly higher and faster, away from potential entanglements with ground fire and enemy. Mechanized furniture allowed a level of comfort previously unknown in military aircraft – aircrews could now fly comfortably and securely for longer periods of time, covering longer and longer distances. The modern airliner, with pressurized cabins and articulated furniture, is a close relative of the nuclear bomber. We are reminded how industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague’s 1949 cabin designs for the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser were part of a project that retrofitted Boeing B-29 and B-50 bombers for civilian use. Teague’s passenger lounge for the Boeing Stratocruiser is even located in the bombbay, thus exemplifying this idea even further. A space once allocated to the storage of high-explosive and nuclear ordnance now becomes a space of modern luxury. The Convair Model 37, featuring cabin designs by Henry Dreyfuss, is a civilian variant of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker, the world’s first intercontinental nuclear bomber.
That Giedion wrote Mechanization Takes Command in 1948 is significant. From 1944 until 1947, the Chicago and Montreal Conventions led to the establishment of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO. The ICAO’s founders considered the air as an extension of the ground (a sentiment that anticipates the A380’s architectural scale). The resultant 1947 ICAO treaty considered the air as a place of limitless expansion and possibility. The treaty thus affirmed, in the words of American ICAO delegate and commentator Adolf Berle, that the air was a “highway given by nature to all men.” Making the connection between this sentiment Al-Saud’s Airbus A380 as a flying palace would not be difficult.
If this airplane represents an aerial intervention at the architectural scale, then it follows that something in the manner of the regional scale is in the offering. In the 1940s and 50s, discourses concerning “airways” and other types of aerial navigation routes introduced regional and infrastructural thinking to aviation. It remains to be seem how such thinking will pan out in the 21st century.
[*] Author's note: For more information on this topic, see Norman Bel Geddes, Horizons (1932); Aaron Betsky, "The Branded Cocoon", in Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Marc Mehta, and Thom Moran, Perspecta 41: Grand Tour (MIT Press, 2008); Jochen Eisenbrand and Alexander von Vegesack, eds. Airworld: Design and Architecture for Air Travel (Vitra Design Museum, 2004).