Up, Up, and Away! It’s a bird, it's a plane - IT’S CONCRETE?


There’s concrete that floats—“aerocrete”—and boats have been built of concrete. Now they’re seriously testing the material for the construction of submarines.

Photo: Wilfried Ellmer

Photo: Wilfried Ellmer

But can it also be used for flying?


For a long time, the phase “like a concrete balloon” has been used to denote an extremely unworkable or unpopular idea. Yet the idea that concrete may have a place in the air has left traces through history. The Ilyushin II-2, the prolifically produced Soviet fighter aircraft of WWII, had many nicknames, and German pilots sometimes called it “Betonflugzeug” (concrete plane)—presumably for its toughness.

But has concrete ever actually been used in aeronautics (other than its widespread use for runways)?

It’s not for lack of trying. David Haberman and Tyler Pojanowski, a couple of clever students from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, built a remotely-controlled model aircraft which successfully flies and lands - and its 18 pounds include 40” wings, tail, and body - made of made of concrete!

Photo: Debra Cleghorn

Photo: Debra Cleghorn

Beyond that, the pickings are slim—and we may have to look in other directions.


There are flying structures which have been made to look like buildings, like this flying cathedral:


And the late publisher & collector Malcom Forbes was famous for his unique set of joyously diverse balloons, one of which was designed to look like one of his own homes, a chateau on France:


And then there are buildings which are not literally flying—but which look like they could. In that category, there are numerous examples to choose from—like this one, which looks like it just landed (but from what planet?): the Buzludzha Monument, built in Bulgaria and opened in 1981:

Photo: Mark Ahsmann via Wikipedia

Photo: Mark Ahsmann via Wikipedia

And there’s Will Alsop’s OCAD college building in Ontario, which looks like it would float off, were it not tethered to the ground:

Credit: Photograph by  Taxiarchos228 , with technical assistance by  Niabot

Credit: Photograph by Taxiarchos228, with technical assistance by Niabot


And that brings us to a last category: buildings made for flight - that is to say, to serve the world of aviation. Buildings in this category would include hangars - a fascinating building type in its own right. Some of the most amazing were made to store and protect large dirigibles and airships - and the structures had to be correspondingly huge, with substantial clear spans.

A famous example is Hangar One at Moffet Field in California - one of he world’s largest freestanding structures:

The USS Macon inside  Hangar One at Moffett Field  on October 15, 1933 — following a transcontinental flight from Lakehurst, New Jersey. Photo:  Moffett Field Historical Society

The USS Macon inside Hangar One at Moffett Field on October 15, 1933 — following a transcontinental flight from Lakehurst, New Jersey. Photo: Moffett Field Historical Society

Much more familiar to us are the airline terminals themselves—after all, most of us are more likely to use and experience them, rather than any other kind of airport building. Some architects have certainly tried to instill a sense of the spirit of aviation in their buildings—and a fine example is by Hellmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber (a predecessor of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum). Their Lambert-St. Louis airport in St. Louis, 1951-1956:

Photo: Art Grossman

Photo: Art Grossman

And this really brings us to the ultimate expression of flight, via concrete: Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center, at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Saarinen (1910-1961) was, like Paul Rudolph, considered a “formgiver” architect. What they meant by that term can be discerned from what architectural critic Paul Goldberger wrote of Saarinen’s work: 

“Buildings like Saarinen's TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport or his Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. … were of interest to architectural cognoscenti and laymen alike. Their swooping forms and sense of adventure excited everyone….”

Rudolph, Saarinen, Johansen, Yamasaki (as in the air terminal noted above), Belluschi, Le Corbusier - in his later phases - and others brought an exciting bravado to the forms they produced.

Even Wright’s Guggenheim Museum could be seen to be part of that set of boldly shaped buildings - and not only did it have a readily identifiable shape, it also had a sense of movement. Ditto for Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street Garage in Boston - an exceptionally fine part of his oeuvre - and one that celebrated automotive movement through the buildings dramatically sculpted curves.

Photo: New Haven Preservation Trust Archives

Photo: New Haven Preservation Trust Archives

But of all the works designed during that period, Saarinen’s TWA must be placed at the top of the pantheon of buildings dedicated to the constituent spirits of aviation: swiftness, arising, loftiness, adventure, transcendence, and grace. While often likened to a giant concrete bird, Saarinen said it was not meant to look or symbolize an avian, but rather to convey the spirit of flight itself. If concrete could ever be said to take flight, it was here!


First image: 

Credit:  Roland Arhelger
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress

Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress

Credit:  pheezy

Credit: pheezy

Eero Saarinen received the commission from TWA in 1955, and the building had a long, fascinating development and seems to have been very successful—all of which is delightfully recorded in a monograph devoted to it. The great architectural photographer, Ezra Stoller, made the canonical photos of it, and they too were collected into a volume. It opened in 1962—the year after the architects sad, sudden, and early passing—buy in the wake of TWA’s financial troubles, operations at the terminal ended in late 2001. 

But that was not the end. Numerous proposals for the buildings use have been offered—like it becoming a conference center or museum—and the building was to be part of Jet Blue’s operations at Kennedy Airport. Yet the building has been largely empty for nearly 2 decades, and nothing ever seemed to fully develop to the point of construction.

Until now.

MCR Development is the 6th largest hotel owner-operator in the US. One project of theirs, of especially architectural interest, is in a mid-1800’s building: they’ve transformed a portion of the Union Theological Seminary, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, into a stylish hotel. And MCR is now moving ahead with the transformation of the TWA terminal into a luxury hotel.

Image: MCR Development

Image: MCR Development

Groundbreaking was in December, 2018, and some time in 2019 they expect that you can come to Saarinen’s masterpiece to stay the night, dine, wed, confer, swim—and enjoy this superb work of Modernism.

Can concrete fly?

Yes, the way that Saarinen did it at Kennedy Airport—and TWA’s great building flies again!

Image: Time Out New York

Image: Time Out New York