In the 1950s, the U.S. was building a transcontinental network to surveil the perceived Soviet threat. Across the Arctic, radar domes were popping up like mushrooms—and one aerospace engineer was responsible for the design of these so-called radomes. Only a decade or two later, he would be collaborating with world-famous architects.
His name was Walter Bird, and today, the company he founded has worked to build tensile structures all over the world, from the Denver Airport to London‘s Millennium Dome to new World Cup stadiums in Brazil and South Africa. But decades before Bird commercialized tensile architecture, he was contracted by the U.S. government to design a lightweight structure that could protect the fragile radar equipment the military was installing across the continent to monitor potential Soviet missile strikes. “If any enemy should send his jet bombers against us, these radar stations would play a vital role in our air defense network by detecting and warning of the attack,” Bird wrote in 1955.
Tensile and pneumatic architecture is imprinted with the counterculture vibes of the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to its light environmental footprint and its unconventional forms. But in reality, it emerged in tandem with the geopolitical forces that shaped that era—including the Cold War and the Space Race. […]