Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Aerodynamic Lightness of Being

Louis-Pierre Mouillard (1834-1897), Nile Vulture (Otogyps auricularis), from L’Empire de l’air (1881)

The year is 1881. Convalescing in Alexandria, sketching images of Nile Vultures gliding in the sweltering Mediterranean skies, the French ornithologist and engineer Louis-Pierre Mouillard writes of an air teeming with life. Appearing early on in his influential treatise on bird flight, L’Empire de l’Air, Mouillard’s powerful, sublime description of the air casts a prophetic eye to the future: “O! Blind Humanity! open thine eyes and thou shalt see millions of birds and myriads of insects cleaving the atmosphere. All these creatures are whirling through the air without the slightest float; many of them are gliding therein, without losing height, hour after hour, on pulseless wings without fatigue; and after beholding this demonstration given by the source of all knowledge, thou wilt acknowledge that Aviation is the path to be followed.” [1] Here, then, is a plea to view the world differently. It is a new sensibility that does more than call attention to the changing air; it asks us to look at the numerous denizens of the air as something altogether different. This is because for Mouillard, these are not birds or insects. They are airplanes.

In Mouillard’s world, these creatures maneuver easily through the air thanks to their nearly weightless bodies. This was the predominant view for centuries. Even that most dedicated chronicler and student of animal flight, Étienne-Jules Marey acknowledged how those before him thought that insects and birds were able to “float” in the sky because of air-filled sacs that made them no different than balloons. Marey and his contemporaries looked to the flight mechanisms of birds and insects as models for human-powered, heavier-than-air flight. And during its initial moments, heavier-than-air flight was only slightly heavier than air. This was the case with the earliest airplanes: delicate, cumbersome assemblages of cloth, wood, and wire that strained to escape the surface of the earth only to fly slowly, elegantly, and effortlessly on currents of air. This was not a common sentiment, however. Franz Kafka referred to the various machines lined up like flying mantises at the 1909 Brescia Air Show as “suspicious little wooden contraptions.” [2] For the budding modernist, aircraft were no different than Gregor Samsa, the scarab-like tragic figure from The Metamorphosis: insects with uncontrollable appendages that were “continually fluttering about.” [3]

Samsa’s fantastical predicament moored him to some very real concerns. And despite Kafka’s plodding verse, we can think of another modernity that follows Nietzsche’s clarion call to “kill the Spirit of Heaviness.” [4] Here, instances like F.T. Marinetti’s descriptions of pilots, who upon returning to earth, leave their machines “with an elastic ultralight leap,” [5] or Le Corbusier’s observation that airplanes are a “sign of the new times” advancing forward “in a winged flurry,” [6] tell of a modernism imbued with a lightness. It is a physical and metaphysical lightness. An aerodynamic lightness.

As stated by James A.H. Murray in the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1858), “Aerodynamics [is the] branch of pneumatics which treats of air and other gases in motion, and of their mechanical efforts.” [7] Murray’s definition is based on an earlier entry from the Popular Encyclopedia of 1837: “Aerodynamics; a branch of aerology, or the higher mechanics, which treats the powers and motion of elastic fluids.” [8] Though these definitions speak more of laboratories and experimental chambers, consider how Siegfried Giedion, that most stalwart promoter of architectural modernism, puts forward the laboratory as a metaphor for the creation of new architecture. Using ferroconcrete construction as an example, Giedion makes much of how concrete is not only a “laboratory product,” but also made in a laboratory. [9] This language is more than metaphorical, as demonstrated when he places new advances in iron construction on an aerodynamic footing:
Instead of the rigid balance of support and load, iron demands a more complex, more fluid balance of forces. Through the condensation of the material to a few points, a creation of the airspace, des combinations aériennes that Octave Mirabeau recognized already in 1889. This sensation of being enveloped by a floating airspace while walking through tall structures (Eiffel Tower) advanced the concept of flight before it had been realized and stimulated the formation of the new architecture. [10]
Giedion’s reference to Eiffel Tower is not accidental. Since its construction for the 1889 Exposition Universelle and until the early 20th century, Gustave Eiffel’s iconic structure was the ineluctable center of aviation in the world. In 1901, the Brazilian aviator Alberto-Santos Dumont won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize after circling the Eiffel Tower in his No.6 Airship. Similar feats would have more lasting influences on architecture culture. Hence in Aircraft (1935), Le Corbusier writes of his early days as an apprentice in Auguste Perret’s office in 1909, sequestered in a “student’s garret on Quai St. Michel,” and hearing the noise of the Comte de Lambert’s Wright Flyer circle the Eiffel Tower. [11]

Le Corbusier’s life-long romance with flying machines is well known. And not surprisingly, Giedion would describe Le Corbusier’s own architecture in aerodynamic terms. Writing about the Cité Frugès à Pessac in Bordeaux, Giedion describes the building as something not unlike a wind tunnel: “Corbusier’s homes are neither spatial not plastic: air flows through them! Air becomes a constituent factor! Neither space nor plastic form counts, only RELATION and INTERPENETRATION!” [12] This is a description of a new kind of architecture comprised of light structures, many appearing “as thin as paper” that transform buildings into “cubes of air” and make an “immediate transition to the sky.” [13] Architecture, now aloft, seems to have taken on the qualities of the airplane.

André Devambez (1867-1944), Le seul oiseau qui vole au-dessus des nuages (The Only Bird That Flies Above the Clouds), 1910, H. 45; W. 68cm, © ADAGP, Paris-RMN (Musée d'Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski. A reproduction of this painting would appear in L'Illustration (September 17, 1910)
Consider, for example, André Devambez’ painting of an ungainly aircraft grazing the clouds high above Paris for the September 17, 1910 issue of L’Illustration. The machine — an Antoinette V monoplane — was one of the most celebrated aircraft in early twentieth century French aviation. Designed by the engineer and inventor Léon Levavasseur, Antoinette aircraft were lightweight machines that were as pleasing to the eye as they were to fly. One reason for this was that Levavasseur, who began his career as an engine designer for speedboats, created a lightweight, aluminum-cast, gasoline-injection engine with a high power-to-weight ratio for all his aircraft. His engines powered some of the most important aircraft of its day: Farmans, Blériots, Esnault-Pelteries. Not wonder, then, that Devambez portrays the Antoinette as a bold, graceful, dragonfly-like machine, freed from its earthly shackles, hovering lightly above a bank of cumulus clouds. Like others, he would have known that French aviator Hubert Latham prized the machine precisely for these characteristics. A dashing figure known as “The Storm King,” Latham set multiple records in Antoinette aircraft. And despite two failed attempts to cross the English Channel, Latham and his Antoinette were a familiar presence in the skies of cities like Paris and Berlin.

(Top and Bottom) From A. Cléry, “L’Aéroplane ‘Antoinette V’” L’Aerophile: revue technique et pratique des locomotions aériennes (Jan. 1, 1909)

(Top) Wing assembly for Antoinette V, from A. Cléry, “L’Aéroplane ‘Antoinette V’” L’Aerophile: revue technique et pratique des locomotions aériennes (Jan. 1, 1909); (Bottom) Advertisement showing Levavasseur’s lightweight Antoinette engine, from L’Aerophile (Jan. 1, 1909)

In January 1909, the French aviation impresario Georges Besançon published a lengthy article about the Antoinette V in L’Aerophile, the Aéro-Club de France’s monthly journal. The article celebrated many of the airplane’s innovations, and yet focused especially on its construction. Images and drawings from the article show the wings and fuselages before the application of painted and lacquered fabric as skeins of wooden spars joined with aluminum gussets—these give the aircraft a fragile, skeletal appearance. The author, A. Cléry, reminds readers how the Antoinette’s wings and fuselage are made from combinations of triangles and pyramids—a construction technique that not only accommodates traction and compression, but also does so with a minimum amount of materials. This, Cléry observes, is “the same principle of the construction of steel bridges and the Eiffel Tower. Its application to the construction of airplane wings has resulted in an absolute rigidity and strength, combined with the greatest possible lightness.” [14]

(Top) Alexander Graham Bell’s “Siamese Twin” kites, from Alexander Graham Bell, “Aërial Locomotion, With a Few Notes of Progress in the Construction of the Aërodrome,” National Geographic Magazine (Jan., 1907), 1-33; (Bottom)  Bell’s “Cygnet II,” February 25, 1909. Bulletins, from January 4, 1909 to April 12, 1909, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, 1862-1939, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Cléry was not the only one to make a connection between Eiffel and Levavasseur. As one of L’Aerophile’s most avid readers, the American inventor Alexander Graham Bell would take a particular interest in Cléry’s article about the Antoinette V. Since 1899, Bell had been preoccupied with building kites that improved on Lawrence Hargraves’ “box” designs. He settled on kites composed of multiple cells of tetrahedral structures, a design that would increase the amount of surface area with a minimum of materials. His first kites were small, wood-and-cloth pyramids consisting of smaller tetrahedral units. And as he became more ambitious with his designs, he created large, ungainly tetrahedral space frames that had to be towed out into the open water in order to be set aloft. Of these, the largest were the “Cygnet” series, which were gigantic structures comprising of 3,393 tetrahedral cells. Tested out in the waters of Keuka Lake, near Hammondsport, New York from 1907 to 1908, the Cygnets were temperamental things. In the words of their pilot, Thomas Selfridge, the Cygnets “persistently refused to fly.” [15]

(Top and Bottom) Alexander Graham Bell’s Tower, from “Dr. Bell’s Tetrahedral Tower,” National Geographic Magazine (Oct., 1907), 672-675.

Despite the Cygnet’s perceived stubbornness, Bell found solace in Cléry’s emphasis on tetrahedral structures. Later in 1909, Bell noted how the Antoinette “seems to be constructed throughout upon the tetrahedral plan.” [16] The emphasis on “construction” should not be taken lightly, for Bell’s Cygnets were more architectural than aerodynamical. And in a series of spreads for the October 1907 issue of National Geographic Magazine, editor Gilbert M. Grosvenor depicted what would be the fullest architectural expressions of Bell’s aeronautical work. Titled “Dr. Bell’s Tetrahedral Tower,” the piece shows images of an 80-foot observation tower built in 1907 at Bell’s estate in Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia. With legs made of tetrahedral-celled trusses that intersected high above to ground to form a platform, Bell’s structure was touted for its lightness and ease of assembly. Its use of eight-pin joints to hold the frame no doubt foreshadowed similar innovations by Max Mengeringhausen, Konrad Wachsmann, or R. Buckminster Fuller. Bell’s truss system resulted in a kind of building that was light and that, echoing Giedion’s description of the Eiffel Tower, gave one the sensation of being aloft. It was an aerodynamic building in the sense that it could accommodate moving air. But it was also aerodynamic because it was a structure originally designed to fly. When we normally think of flying buildings, we immediately conjure images of architecture outfitted with streamlined forms not unlike those made memorable by Erich Mendelsohn or Norman Bel Geddes. Bell’s tetrahedral tower is radically different from these, however. As an assemblage of pipes joined into lightweight pyramids and tetrahedrons, Bell’s tower nevertheless captivates us because it is one of the few instances where we can talk of a flying machine that has truly evolved into architecture.

(An Italian version of this article appeared in September 2011 in Materia 70. Many thanks to Daria Ricchi for her beautiful translation.)



[1] Louis-Pierre Mouillard, “The Empire of The Air,” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Conditions of the Institution to July, 1892 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1893), 398. This is an abridged translation of Mouillard, L’Empire de l’air: essai d’ornithologie appliquée a l’aviation (Paris: Masson, 1881).
[2] Franz Kafka, “Die Aeroplane in Brescia,” Bohemia (29 September 1909), quoted in Peter Demetz, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 115.
[3] Kafka, "The Metamorphosis," in Joyce Crick, ed. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (London: Oxford University Press, 2009), 82.
[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Of Reading and Writing,” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, R.J, Hollingdale, trans. (New York: Penguin, 2003 [1961]), 68.
[5] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Teoria e invenzione futurista, Luciano de Maria, ed. (Milan: Mondadori, 1968), 116, quoted in Jeffrey T. Schnapp, “Propeller Talk,” Modernism/Modernity Vol 1.3 (1994), 165.
[6] Le Corbusier, Sur les 4 routes (Paris: Gallimard, 1941), 125.
[7] “aerodynamics, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 3d ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 10 June 2011 .
[8] John D. Anderson, Jr., A History of Aerodynamics and its Impact on Flying Machines (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5.
[9] Sigfried Giedion, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete, J. Duncan Berry, trans. (Los Angeles: Getty Center Publications, 1995), 150-151.
[10] Ibid., p. 102.
[11] Le Corbusier, Aircraft (London: The Studio, Ltd., 1935), 6.
[12] Giedion, Building in France, p. 169.
[13] Ibid.
[14] A. Cléry, “L’Aéroplane ‘Antoinette V’” L’Aerophile: revue technique et pratique des locomotions aériennes (Jan. 1, 1909), 7-8.
[15] Report of Flight of Cygnet II, Monday, March 2, 1908. Notes by Thomas E. Selfridge, from September 24, 1907 to July 24, 1908. “Series: Subject File, Folder: Aviation, Aerial Experiment Association vs. Meyers, 1908-1912, undated.” Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, 1862-1939, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
[16] Bell, “The Antoinette V.” Bulletins, from January 4, 1909 to April 12, 1909, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, 1862-1939, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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