Sunday, January 24, 2010

Architecture Against the System (1): Electric Lightning

Still/title card from "Streaked Lightning" (Central Office of Information Film, 1962)
In “Streaked Lightning”, a 1962 film produced by Central Office of Information Film for Britain’s Air Ministry, a pristine English Electric Lightning carves graceful arcs against a clear, blue sky. Off screen, amidst an upbeat bop soundtrack, a narrator calmly, yet enthusiastically asks the viewer, “Want to fly a Lightning, want to occupy the single seat in the single fighter, all weather, night and day, highflying supersonic, supernormal Lightning?”[1] The star of this brief film was the Lightning itself, a very successful aircraft that had a troubled start.
English Electric (BAC) Lightning
The Lightning (above) was one of the few aircraft that survived the Ministry of Defence’s 1957 Defence White Paper. Authored by Defence Minister Duncan Sandys, the White Paper was a document that prognosticated the future of the British armed forces in light of current events. Current developments in nuclear warfare and aviation technology inspired critics and military planners to rethink the role of aerial warfare in the late 20th century and beyond. In matters of defense, the question was one of whether Britain would be better served through a fleet of bombers or through an arsenal of ballistic missiles. The corollary to this issue was whether to deploy aircraft or missiles at the onset of a Soviet nuclear attack. The 1957 white paper advocated that a fully automated missile defense system would replace manned aerial operations. A 1959 summary of the white paper concurred:
There is a growing lack of kiloton bombs and production of megaton weapons proceeds steadily. The last series of British tests and valuable exchange of information with the United States have enabled technical advances in the design of nuclear warheads to be made which will significantly increase the rate of production. The development of propelled stand-off bombs continues to progress satisfactorily.

The Lightning supersonic fighter will come into service in 1960, equipped initially with Firestreak [missiles], later with a more advanced weapon. Defence of the deterrent bases will be increasingly performed by ground-to-air missiles. Bloodhound[2]
is beginning to be deployed operationally. A more advanced ground-to-air weapon is being developed.[3]
The Electric Lightning was conceived as an interim solution. Although some viewed the single-seat interceptor as an outmoded weapon, designers and planners nevertheless outfitted the aircraft with the most advanced avionics and weapons of its day. The narrator in “Streaked Lightning” even pointed out to this combination of old-fashioned piloting and newly-fangled jet technology when he claimed, “Want to be the intelligence behind the radar, that feeds the brain, that guides the missile?”[4]

Reyner Banham, ed. “1960”, Architecture Review (March 1960)
The narrator’s comment also demonstrated how the Electric Lightning was an exemplar of systemic thinking. One reason for this was that the Electric Lightning captured the attention of technology enthusiasts. Architecture audiences also expressed interest in the aircraft. The Electric Lightning was featured in a series of articles curated by historian of art (and aviation enthusiast) Reyner Banham for a March 1960 issue of The Architectural Review. Called “1960”, these articles showed Banham as that most interesting of a historians, one with a foot moored in the past, but with a demanding, discerning gaze towards the future. The March 1960 article, called “The Science Side”, consisted of three brief pieces, each commented on by Banham. The first was by A.C. Brothers, a designer for the English aerospace firm English Electric. The second was by M.E. Drummond, from IBM-UK. The last was by R. Llewelyn Davies, of the Nuffield Foundation. Brothers’ piece, “Weapons Systems”, concerned the futility of military aviation at the onset of advancements in rocketry and ballistic missile technology. Says Banham of Brothers’ contribution: “rocketry – because of its relative lack of financial restraints – has gone further into the fields of total planning and teamwork than architects have yet dared to dream.”[5] Asking why architects have failed to recognize this, Banham continued his invective: “Throughout the present century architects have made fetishes of technological and scientific concepts out of context and been disappointed by them when they developed according to the processes of technical development, not according to the hopes of architects.”[6] But the salient question is: why the English Electric Lightning? Why a weapons system?
We can begin to answer this question by considering historian Sean Keller’s idea of systems aesthetics. Says Keller of the systems aesthetic: “the systems aesthetic is thoroughly syntactic, anti-semantic, and iconoclastic. Ideally, for the systems aesthetic, there are no architectural figures, objects, meanings – only relationships and forms.”[7] Here, I will show how Brothers’ invocation of the Electric Lightning in the context of Banham’s article was totally apposite. This fighter jet exemplifies Keller’s idea of a “systems aesthetic”, but only to a certain extent. The Electric Lighting is about relationships and forms, but it wasn’t until the development of a later jet, British Aerospace’s TSR2, that offered the fullest expression of the airplane as a systematized object.

English Electric Lightning F.1, from A.C. Brothers,“Weapons Systems”, in Reyner Banham, ed. “1960”, Architecture Review (Mar., 1960)

The image of the Electric Lightning from the pages of The Architectural Review presented an introductory and compelling look into the idea of weapons systems. In plan, the image revealed a single-seat fighter with swept-back wings to facilitate supersonic as well as transonic speeds.[8] The different numbers all corresponded to a different function of the aircraft. But this image suggested that these functions work in concert. In other words, this was a diagram of a weapons system. It was an image that not only confirmed the systemic nature of this jet, but also alluded to the systemic nature of the means of production that led to the creation of this aircraft.
The institutional background surrounding the Lightning’s development helps place the aircraft in a more historical context. The years 1954 to 1958 – years that coincided with the design and development of the Electric Lightning – marked a high point in British “Big Science.” Indeed, as Keller and others indicate, the British military industry was still working on projects that had been initiated during the Second World War. The Ministry of Supply issued the original requirements leading to the first prototype version of the Electric Lightning, the P.1, in early 1945.[9] Like many other similar projects in the 1950s, the Lightning project required the collaboration of various British military contractors. Big Science was the primary domain of such contractors. The Electric Lightning was an assemblage of several British Big Science projects: the aircraft’s airframe, armaments and avionics were developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment; its electronic sensing and radar scanning equipment at the Royal Radar Establishment.
Though Banham and Brothers considered the Electric Lightning an exemplary weapons system, the aircraft was famous for its various failures. There is no doubt that it was a successful aircraft: it was, as mentioned earlier, Britain’s first supersonic jet interceptor capable of countering the potential Soviet Bomber threat. But as a weapons system, it was less than stellar. Advances in guided missile technology meant that the Electric Lightning had to be used for a role it had not been designed for: a head-on attack. Although the aircraft brandished state-of-the-art avionics and sensors, the introduction of new guided missile technologies created an additional set of physical and aerodynamic demands that pushed the Lightning’s operational capabilities beyond its limits. A MP with contacts to the Ministry of Supply in England described the problem as such:

The present lead sulphite cell in Blue Jay Mk. I[10] has to rely on most of its radiation [on] the hot exhaust pipes ... Before firing such weapons the fighter must often come close to short range behind the target and within narrow range behind the target and within a narrow cone around the axis of its jet exhausts ... Improved guidance range can result from the introduction of lead telluride cells in Blue Jay Mk.II in place of the lead sulphite cells in Mk. I which will allow lock-on to the jet plumes. Unlike the jet pipe emission on which Blue Jay Mk. I depends these plumes cannot be shielded or cooled as a countermeasure to attacks from the side. Moreover, the jet plumes are visible over a wide range of directions round from the side towards the front, provided the fighter attacks from below the bomber.[11]
As an aircraft designed to attack from the rear, the new requirement that pilots engage in head-on attacks undermined the Electric Lightning’s systemic rationales. The MP remarked on this problem:

The promised integration of the computational aids and electronics -- the aircraft radar, navigation system and attack sight -- never reached the level of contemporary US semi-automatic systems. Interception was, a pilot recalled, 'a real one-armed paper-hanging' operation imposing an extremely high workload. This deficiency was spotted early on by the RAE, and it is noteworthy that, during the programme, the instrument experts at Farnborough reflected that the electronics industry was overloaded and that the effects of lagging equipment development are becoming very apparent in current fighter development.[12]
Despite the Lightning’s lackluster performance in terms of range, radar, avionics, range, and weapons, it did set speed and altitude records. The aircraft stayed at the forefront of Royal Air Force operations into the mid-1980s.
A discussion about a relationship between architecture discourse and the systemic underpinnings of the Electric Lightning calls for revisiting Banham’s “1960” articles for The Architecture Review. Here, architecture presents a professional barrier to systemic thinking. Banham wrote his 1960 articles only a year after C.P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture at Cambridge called “The Two Cultures.” The two deployed similar language for their arguments: whereas Snow distinguished the ideological divides between “scientific” and “literary” cultures[13], Banham identified a similar divide between “tradition” and “technology” in architecture culture.[14] Both thinkers also thought of these divides in historical terms. Snow, for example, made a revisionist argument and identified a gulf between a scientific and traditional culture in the 19th century.[15] In his historical analysis, however, Banham saw the gulf as one stemming from the limits of professional practice. This gulf created a divergent view of architecture. Where architecture, “as a professional activity” could “only be defined in terms of its professional history”, technology required looking at architecture “as the provision of fit environments for human activities.”[16] If the goal of architecture was to effectuate a holistic conception of creating human settlements, Banham then questioned if the architecture profession had really used all its technological acumen for this goal. Using Konrad Wachsmann’s universal jig as an example, he pointed out how architects drew attention to the way the jig operated within a space frame, yet ignored how it performed within the more modest General Panel Housing system.[17] Using housing as an example, Banham therefore suggested that architecture’s rather myopic view of technology operates as an impediment.

Advertisement for the Electric Lightning (1965)
Despite his belief that architects had much to learn about technology, in “The Science Side”, Banham kept the line between tradition and technology intact. This stood in stark contradiction to Snow, who remarked in his 1959 lecture that “[c]losing the gap” between scientific and literary culture was “a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical.”[18] But Banham went a step further. Following the comparison between the architecture profession and rocketry, he asked whether the latter “called in question any other dreams entertained about the technological world by architects?”[19] Banham continued, “The answer appears to be that ‘components off the peg’ – a concept enjoying the reflected glamour of the mystique of standardization in architectural circles – is an obstruction to total functional planning at the practical as well as the theoretical level.”[20] This was the context in which A.C. Brother’s piece on the Electric Lighting appeared. The “Streaked Lightning” was therefore the very example of a system free from architectural constraints. It is, perhaps, in this sense that the Lightning was "incomparable."



[1] Central Office of Information Film, “Streaked Lightning” (1962)
[2] The Bristol Bloodhound missile was Britain’s main defensive ground-to-air weapon. Designed to attack incoming fleets of bombers, the missile enjoyed a relatively long operational life, from 1958 to 1991. The success of this weapon reflected the Ministry of Defence’s defense-based priorities. For example, Britain’s first ballistic missile program, the De Havilland Blue Streak, was cancelled in 1960 in favor of smaller, defensive weapons.
[3] The Defence White Paper, “Progress of the Five-Year British Defence Plan (1957-1962)”, Survival Vol. 1, No. 1 (1959), p. 19.
[4] “Streaked Lightning.”
[5] Reyner Banham, “The Science Side”, The Architectural Review, Vol. 127, No. 757 (Mar., 1960), p. 188.
[6] Ibid., p. 189.
[7] Sean Blair Keller, Systems Aesthetics: Architectural Theory at the University of Cambridge, 1960-75 (Unpublished Ph.D dissertation, Harvard University, 2005), p. iii.
[8] “The Science Side”, 189.
[9] Andrew Nahum, “The Royal Aircraft Establishment from 1945 to Concorde,” in Robert Bud and Philip Gummett, eds., Cold War, Hot Science: Applied Research in Britain’s Defence Laboratories 1945-1990 (London: NMSI Trading Ltd, 2003), p. 35.
[10] The Blue Jay was an air-to-air missile specially designed to be carried aboard the Lightning.
[11] Ibid., p. 42.
[12] Ibid.
[13] C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and A Second Look: An Expanded Version of the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 [1959]), pp. 10-22.
[14] Banham, “1960: Stocktaking”, The Architectural Review, Vol. 127, No. 756 (Feb., 1960), p. 93.
[15] “The Two Cultures,” 23.
[16] “1960: Stocktaking”, 93.
[17] Ibid.
, p. 94-95.
[18] The Two Cultures
, 50.
The Science Side”, 188-89.
[20] Ibid.

No comments: