Airships | Architectural thinking or heterotopias?
An airship or dirigible is a “lighter-than-air aircraft” that can be steered and propelled through the air using rudders and propellers or other thrust. According to the wiki, the main types of airship are non-rigid (or blimps), semi-rigid and rigid. Blimps are small airships without internal skeletons. Semi-rigid airships are slightly larger and have some form of internal support such as a fixed keel. Rigid airships with full skeletons, such as the huge Zeppelin transoceanic models, all but disappeared after several high-profile catastrophic accidents during the mid-20th century.
In an older post we talked about the Montgolfière hot air balloon  and its relationship with architectural design. Enrique Ramirez pointed at his blog a456 that “The study of a specific aircraft can be useful in disentangling the problematic relationship between systems thinking and design.” If we write airship instead of aircraft, the meaning of the quote can be the same.
A bit of history:
French naval architect Dupuy de Lome launched a large limited navigable balloon, which was driven by a large propeller and the power of eight people. It was developed during the Franco-Prussian war, as an improvement to the balloons used for communications between Paris and the countryside during the Siege of Paris by German forces, but was completed only after the end of the war. The prospect of airships as bombers had been recognised in Europe well before the airships were up to the task. H. G. Wells’ The War in the Air described already in 1908 the obliteration of entire fleets and cities by airship attack. Airplanes had essentially replaced airships as bombers by the end of the war.
So, can we talk about some kind of architectural thinking in airship designs? Now, we know that some well-known architects had designad ships, like the YachtPlus from Foster and Partners and instead we have no news about architects designing airships in the early 20th Century, it’s just clear the influence that these zepellines had on the architects mind.
It’s not a coincidence that at the same time that airships were most used [after the WW-I], the modernist movement starting to use different kind of aircrafts as part of their drawings and presentations. Again, Ramirez quotes about this topic:
Although there are many other examples, it is worth noting that personal aircraft were an important part of these modernist visions. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings for his Broadacre City project (1932-1958) always feature small, helicopter-like devices [we ask: inspired on airships?] hovering over the landscape. Such a vision suggests how personal aircraft are an important means of conveyance for a low-density urbanism like Broadacre City.
Even if the airships were substituted by aircrafts on those years, there is a poetic view about them that still remains. There are some new projects that are directly inspired on airships, as the Aircruse or even Disney-Pixar’s movie UP.
All these images had captured architects imagination and even if the Hindenburg disaster ended with these era of luxurious, intercontinental airship that travelled more than 70 years ago, we can see that yet classic airships continue to be a nostalgic fixture of science fiction and fantasy books and films.
Foucault’s definition for heterotopia also fits in this nostalgic feeling:
Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias. I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror.
Going throug history back again, we can also read that the advantage of airships over airplanes is that static lift sufficient for flight is generated by the lifting gas and requires no engine power. This was an immense advantage before the middle of World War I and remained an advantage for long distance, or long duration operations until World War II. Modern concepts for high altitude airships include photovoltaic cells to reduce the need to land to refuel, thus they can remain in the air until consumables expire. Thus airships are used where speed is not critical.
Today, airships are used primarily for command, control and as a communication platform; but architects and designers are still dreaming with the airship as some kind of new utopia to conquer the space.