The architecture of wind tunnels

A wind tunnel is a research tool used in aerodynamic research. It is used to study the effects of air moving past solid objects. History takes us to the early 1700s, when English military engineer and mathematician Benjamin Robins invented a whirling arm apparatus to determine drag and did some of the first experiments in aviation theory, he proved in 1746 that air resistance was a critical factor in the flight of projectiles. After that, in the early 19th Century, Sir George Cayley also used a whirling arm to measure the drag and lift of various airfoils. But these experiments wasn’t enough, the whirling arm had limitations, it was imprecise so the results it produced were also imprecise. Francis Herbert Wenham addressed these issues by inventing, designing and operating the first enclosed wind tunnel in 1871. Finally, the first wind tunnel was built at Langley Laboratory in 1920.


An aerial view of the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California. 1947

We can read at the NASA Archives:

Smith J. de France, a NACA engineer, was in charge of the design team for the new tunnel. Planning involved the construction of a 1/5 scale model of the tunnel. In 1929, the NACA received congresional approval and two year appropriation of $900,000 for construction. The framework is solid steel. Like many early wind tunnels, the 30 x 60 foot tunnel featured “inside- out” construction, with structual supports on the outside. The circular frames indicate where the two 35 foot propellers are located today. Built to test full-scale models or actual aircraft, the 30 x 60 foot tunnel was an innovative concept in wind tunnel design. The 30 x 60 remained as one of NASA’s largest wind tunnels until its closing in September 1995. In 1985 the 30 x 60 foot wind tunnel was designated a National Historic Landmark.


The NACA’s Airplane Engine Research Laboratory (AERL) Icing Research Tunnel 1944.


NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California. The large flaired rectangular structure in the center of the photo is the 80 x 120 Foot Full Scale Wind Tunnel. 1948

Can we talk about architecture or is just an architectural tool? As a tool, now we know that wind tunnel modeling is accepted as a method for aiding in Green building design. For instance, the use of boundary layer wind tunnel modeling can be used as a credit for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification through the U.S. Green Building Council. They help to understand the impact of wind on high-rise buildings, factories, bridges, etc. can help building designers construct a structure that stands up to wind effects in the most efficient manner possible.

As architecture, can we talk about them as “accidental architectural masterpieces“? Are they the great megastructures in a science-fiction architectural story? Some of these projects has the size and type of some 60s megastructures [where a city could be encased in a single building, or a relatively small number of buildings interconnected] but, at the same time, we can try to discover in them the hidden poetics of Virilio’s bunkers.

The construction of the first wind tunnels was contemporary to the attitudes, themes, and forms described at Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, which were characteristic of artists and architects working primarily in Europe between 1900 and 1930 under the compulsion of new technological developments in the first machine age.


Construction of a wind tunnel in 1940.


Ames Aernautical Laboratory aerial view; wind tunnels from 1941.


NASA Langley Subsonic Wind Tunnel

Doesn’t it looks like The McCormick Tribune Campus Center, built by OMA in 2003, that we can see here and there? It’s just interesting to think where is the borderline in between architecture, science and science-fiction… or it’s even most interesting to think that’s simply there’s no borderline at all.

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