Spans: Photographs from the Esther McCoy Papers at the Archives of American Art

Terence Gower


Esther McCoy was an architecture critic and historian active in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. She is best known as a writer at Arts and Architecture magazine in Los Angeles and for her role in the Case Study House program in which the magazine commissioned the construction of houses to showcase new building technology. But she was equally important to the international architecture scene: she traveled widely and kept up professional contact with architects around the world. Her 1960s research on the Mexican architect Francisco Artigas formed the basis for my 2008 Archives of American Art Journal project (Volume 46).


For this present exhibition I have revisited the Esther McCoy papers and assembled a collection of photographs that show a variety of twentieth century spatial spanning technologies. Part of my selection criteria was undeniably aesthetic, drawn in by the exquisite patterns and undulating volumes of the works of architecture and engineering displayed in these photographs. But I was also attracted by the beauty of the medium of architectural photography, which had reached its expressive and technical high-point  in these prints, all produced in the mid-twentieth century. These beautiful tonal studies bring to mind the Bauhaus photographer Walther Peterhans’ definition of black and white photography as “sculpting in half-tones”.


The visual pleasure offered by these photographs is described by Pier Luigi Nervi (who is represented in these photographs) in his book Aesthetics and Technology in Building (Harvard, Cambridge, 1965). The Italian architect describes the correlation between aesthetic appreciation of architectural form and a sound economy of means underlying its production. It is Nervi’s concept of “Maximum results with minimum means” that unites the projects shown in these cases, from Felix Candela and Oscar Niemeyers’ thin concrete shells to the fine floating membranes of the inflatable architecture movement.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my archive project is site specific. For the photographs displayed here show the principal highlights in the evolution of a building technology that starts with the vaults you see above your head and ends with the lattice canopy you can see through the windows to your right. My ceiling drawing, executed in adhesive vinyl, is based on a Nervi project in Rome. It puts his aesthetic statements to the test, by retracing his elegant structural web as a decorative pattern.


The building you are standing in was built to house the US Patent Office in 1842. When it was gutted by fire in 1877, the timber post-and-lintel spanning system that made up the floors and ceilings of the original building was replaced by a system of shallow groin-vaults built from fire-proof brick. A clear line can be drawn between the spanning system you see used in this room and those you see represented in these showcases. The groin-vault above you is a close cousin of the boveda catelana, a spatial spanning system from Spain that was the basis for Candela and Niemeyers’ self-supporting parabolic shells. Nervi supported his own thin shell spans with fine structural lattices inspired by the ribbing in gothic churches. The drive for even lighter supports and building skins led to the tensile and lattice spanning systems of Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller and finally to the ribless, air-filled pneumatic structures of the 1960s and 70s.


The glass and steel lattice canopy over the Kogol Courtyard, designed by Norman Foster and visible through the windows of this gallery, is instantly recognizable as part of the legacy of these architects. The story of the development of this spanning technology is a long and complex narrative, told partly by the images on display here. I’ve tried to enrich this narrative, where possible, with excerpts from Esther McCoy’s articles and texts of the period. She was a critic and historian whose research and writing have had a lasting impact on our built environment.