RAF Menwith Hill, Disney, the avant-garde and the architect’s role

In the BLDGBLOG Book, Geoff Manaugh makes this reflection while interviewing Peter Cook:

“Architecture schools and publications today seem almost desperate for a new avant-garde –even for a “new Archigram”– but they seem only to be looking within the field of architecture to find it. For the sake of argument, let’s say that BP, with its offshore oil rigs, or the U.S. military, with its rapidly deployed instant cities, or private space tourism firms are the new Archigram. They, too, are experimenting with spatial technologies and structures. Is it possible that the “new Archigram” won’t involve architects at all –but will be, say, rogue engineers from the construction wing of an international oil-services firm?”

Cape Kennedy [or Cape Canaveral], for example, was built in 1962 and part of the design was the Vehicle Assembly Building, that is located at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and it is the fourth largest building in the world by volume. The building is capable of carrying 5440 tons; a movable service structure and a control center. It is possible that these kind of “movable structures” had influenced projects like the Walking City or the Air Hab Nomad by Archigram?


Cape Canaveral Air Force Station


Instant City by Archigram


The crawler-transporters [a pair of tracked vehicles used to transport spacecraft from NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building]

Going on with this reflection, can we use the RAF Menwith Hill, that is a Royal Air Force station near Harrogate, North Yorkshire which provides communications and intelligence support services as an example of “architecture”?.

It was built in 1954, so we can not talk about the “new avant-garde” in these sites but we can think about its influence in the avant-garde designs from the 60s and 70s. The site contains an extensive satellite ground station and is a communications intercept and missile warning site and has been described as the largest electronic monitoring station in the world. The avant-garde inspiration from technology was a primary statement in the 60s, so why not think that a site that acted as a ground station for a number of satellites with antennae contained in a large number of highly distinctive white radomes, was some kind of influence for the Brithish group and others?


RAF Menwith Hill

The RAF Menwith Hill comprises family housing, community facilities and high-technology installations and structures set on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales, common characteristics of urban design at the time, even related with EPCOT’s [Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow] design statements: “Epcot, a one of kind project composed of several elements: a prototype community, an industrial park, an airport of the future and much much more… All these elements were imagined by Walt Disney and his staff with new and advanced designs and technologies.”


EPCOT, design from 1978


Menwith Hill from the air

“EPCOT… will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry.” Technologies? From RAF Menwhit Hill site: “The high capacity link with Hunters Stones was employed in 1975 when satellite interception began. BT state that the cables were connected directly to the US via undersea cable, and did not link to other parts of the British system.”

We just want to speculate a bit about the architect’s role. The most questioned issue in the past five years… but as we can see, it isn’t something new. Now we may think that poetry, fiction, activism, spatial practices, urban design and even mythology are “architecture”, and with these examples quoted above [RAF Menwith Hill, EPCOT and unbuilt avant-garde designs], some of them designed by architects and some other designed by bussines men, engineers and politicians, we can conclude using Hans Hollein words “ALLES IST ARCHITEKTUR”—“Everything is Architecture.”:

“[A] true architecture of our time, then, is emerging, and is both redefining itself as a medium and expanding its field. Many fields beyond traditional building are taking over ‘architecture,’ just as architecture and ‘architects’ are moving into fields that were once remote. Everyone is an architect. Everything is architecture.”

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