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

(Showcase Text to Accompany Documents)

Terence Gower





Esther McCoy was a Los Angeles-based architecture critic and historian active from the 1950s through the 1970s. She wrote for Arts and Architecture and championed the goals of its Case Study House program in which the magazine commissioned the design and construction of houses to showcase new building technology.


The photographs and booklets I have selected for this exhibition show a variety of spanning systems used in twentieth-century building construction. My interest in these images is both technical and aesthetic: I am captivated by the exquisite patterns and undulating volumes produced by advanced engineering. Architectural photography is the ideal medium to express these beautiful forms, and these superb prints are but a few of the hundreds of images McCoy obtained for her writing projects, and later gave to the Archives of American Art.


The archival photographs in this site-specific exhibition show the principal highlights in the evolution of a spanning technology that starts with the groin vault ceiling of this gallery and ends with Norman Foster’s glass canopy over the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard (visible through the windows). To add another layer to these histories, I have made a drawing with adhesive vinyl that projects a complex structural web (from Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazetto dello Sport in Rome) onto the gallery’s vaults.



Esther McCoy (1904–1989)


I have selected the photographs and documents in this exhibition from the papers of Esther McCoy at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The theme I’m exploring, spanning technology, was treated explicitly in just a few of McCoy’s essays. She published texts on Félix Candela’s shell structures and on Buckminster Fuller’s domes, and two of these essays are on display here. But McCoy left such a vast body of writing and research material (42 linear feet!) that curators can use her collection to tell a number of different in-depth stories from architectural history. This exhibition on spanning technologies is one example. The newspaper article about McCoy is a good introduction to the life and work of the woman behind this remarkable collection of documents.



Félix Candela (1910–1997)


Esther McCoy wrote several pieces about the work of the Spanish-Mexican architect and engineer Félix Candela. This diagram shows the structural system for one of Candela’s simplest spanning projects, the Mexico City Stock Exchange, shown under construction in the adjacent photograph. Candela’s hyperbolic paraboloid shells can be as thin as 5/8”, and were made by skilled concrete workers using forms built with straight lumber.

This pink booklet is the catalog for Esther McCoy’s exhibition “Felix Candella Shell Forms,” at the University of Southern California in 1959. The cover shows Candela’s study for a potentially larger structure using the same forms as those in the Stock Exchange. Candela was constantly reconfiguring and modifying his spanning systems.

Like Buckminster Fuller, Félix Candela was generous with his ideas, spreading the thin-shell gospel, so to speak, in articles and booklets like this one. Candela’s best-known thin-shell projects are shown here, the Los Manantiales Restaurant (with Joaquín Álvarez Ordóñez) in Xochimilco, Mexico City, and the Cosmic Ray Pavilion at University City in Mexico City.



Frei Otto (b. 1925)


Frei Otto’s specialty was a tent-like structure supported by nets of cables suspended from masts. Gravity, pushing down on the tent material, contributes the tension and structural rigidity necessary to span huge areas. Otto’s design for the canopy of the German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal was the first successful large-scale application of his spanning system.  Many consider his sweeping canopy roof for the 1972 Munich Olympic Stadium his masterpiece. While he used PVC-coated polyester for the German Pavilion, his canopy for the Munich Olympic Stadium was made of clear acrylic panels stabilized by steel cables.  The lattice-dome structure he built inside the Montreal pavilion—seen in the construction photograph here—is a precursor to the glass canopy over the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, visible through the windows of this gallery.



Pier Luigi Nervi (1891–1979)


Esther McCoy gathered these photographs—which include Pier Luigi Nervi’s best-known lattice spans—for her exhibition Ten Italian Architects, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967. Nervi was the grandfather of thin-shell construction, a pioneer among the architects represented in this exhibition. He graduated from engineering school in Bologna in 1913 and received his first important commissions (for airplane hangars) in the early 1920s. Early in his career, Nervi’s study of gothic cathedrals inspired him to develop his trademark webs of reinforced concrete beams emulating the amazing lightness (and beauty) of gothic columns and ribbed vaults.


Nervi was fascinated by the aesthetic results of good engineering. He was interested in the kind of beauty that can spring from the efficient functional resolution of structural problems. I have used the pattern of ceiling beams in Nervi’s 1956 Palazetto dello Sport in Rome as a model for my drawing on the ceiling of this room. For this work I have appropriated the beautiful pattern of the Palazetto’s ceiling, peeling the design away from its structural function. I have put Nervi’s ceiling on display like an artifact in a museum, with its documentation intact, but far from its original context.



Oscar Niemeyer (b. 1907) and Brasilia


Esther McCoy wrote about the inauguration of Brasilia, Brazil’s new capital city, for the Los Angeles Times in 1960. These photographs and the booklet Brasília are some of the documents McCoy used for her article. McCoy’s papers also contain notes from her interview with Brasilia’s principal architect, Oscar Niemeyer, in which they discuss the planning and construction of the new city.


Brasilia was built with such speed and in such a remote location that construction materials had to be flown to the site. Due to this restriction, according to Niemeyer, the two most striking structures of the city—the dome and the bowl-shaped meeting chambers of the new National Congress—used thin-shell concrete technology primarily to economize on materials. As can be seen in these photographs, the formal result—likely more intended than Niemeyer admits—was one of the most stunning architectural compositions of the twentieth century.



Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983)


The geodesic dome is an ingenious spanning system developed by Buckminster Fuller in the late 1940s. Fuller’s domes derive their rigidity from interlocking triangles, which are the most stable geometric forms. These photographs illustrated Esther McCoy’s review of the XI Triennale, an international design exhibition held in Milan in 1958.  At that exhibition, the United States pavilion was a geodesic dome designed by Fuller. He was frequently asked to design domes for American exhibitions abroad, the two best-known being the American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959) and the United States Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal.


While Fuller is widely credited as the inventor of the geodesic dome, other architects experimented with the form. This photograph from McCoy’s research files on architects shows a children’s theater designed by Jeffrey Lindsay for a park in San Diego. Lindsay added faceting to the dome’s triangles, strengthening the structure and evoking the pleasing geometry of a turtle shell.



Inflatable Architecture


Today the most visible application of inflatable building technology is the tennis court bubble. But in the 1960s many designers thought these systems would change the world. Many architects in Europe believed inflatable architecture could provide inexpensive shelter for housing, or could be used to create vast exhibition spaces, as demonstrated in the model shown here, a proposal for a canopy over the entire 1970 Osaka World’s Fair.


Esther McCoy acquired these photographs while on a research trip to Italy in the late 1960s. The built (or rather, inflated) projects shown here are exhibition pavilions for the 1969 Eurodomus exhibition in Milan.



Norman Foster (b. 1935)


The photographs displayed in this exhibition give you an idea of some of the unique technologies developed in the twentieth century to span space. A recent and spectacular example of this kind of span is Norman Foster’s glass lattice canopy you see before you. The undulating canopy is made of complex curves that strengthen the lattice structure. It is governed by the same principle as the parabolic curve of the egg shell, which can withstand a surprising amount of pressure even though it has a thin membrane.