Hyperbolic Parabolid roofs and buildings.

A short history of construction and background including ‘Poetic  buildings’ and the engineer/architect:

‘Architecture Takes Flight’…

Between 1957 and 1962 New Zealand like other parts of the world was to witness yet another step in the evolution of modern architecture. Appearing like some sort of giant wing sitting above buildings outer walls, the Hyperbolic Paraboloid roof structure was a startling and exciting addition to the town and cityscape of the late 1950’s. Its origins are somewhat mixed but stem from what was called the “poetic building” – essentially a construction which is ‘unique’, a never to be repeated moment, often designed in an attempt to embody an idea or abstract thought.

Antoni Gaudi’s ‘Sagrada’ Cathedral would perhaps fall into the poetic, as would Mendelsohn’s ‘Einstein’ tower and Le Corbusier’s Church of Notre Dame in Ronchamp. These are almost legendary buildings of a sort seldom seen in the ‘modern world’ of the 1950’s and indeed are rightfully heralded as unique. Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum and these other buildings were the antithesis and reaction to a world of Mies van der Rohe copyist architecture, a panacea to international style foisted as saviour and nursemaid for a modern society.

The interest in what Robin Boyd called “the Engineering of Excitement” (Architectural Review, Nov 1958) was not just that it was ‘new’ but it was also innovation and technology, and obviously so. Felix Candela’s shell like concrete buildings barely millimetres thick in parts were astounding not only for their beauty but the actuality of their construction. People reacted to this ‘new’ seemingly organic form in a completely different way to the aesthetic of a glass box. It excited the imagination and stood out as something different “daddyo”. This ‘shattering of the glass curtain-wall’ was felt across the world in what seemed like a matter of months, but it was over years before it would land in the Antipodes (in fact Auckland’s first glass curtain-wall building, the AMP had only just been constructed, designed by Jack Manning of Thorpe, Cutter, Pickmere, Douglas and Partners.! )

In America Eero Saarinen’s Yale Hockey Rink (1958) had demonstrated the possibilities of paraboloids on a large scale, and this was followed by the astounding and iconic ‘birdlike’ TWA building at Idlewild, New York in the late 1950’s (1956 – 61.) Jorn Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera house from 1956 was to be another iconic “poetic” building even though construction didn’t begin until 1959 and the design issues for the gigantic paraboloid ‘shells’ wasn’t fully resolved until 1963. Noticeably missing from the “Engineering of Excitement” text is mention of Buckmaster Fuller’s geodesic dome structures and any influence these might have played in relation to the rise of the architect/engineer and evolution of ‘shape buildings’ in western architecture. First built in the early 1950’s the Dome was a worldwide sensation. New Zealand architecture graduate and Fullbright scholar Maurice K Smith was one of the students involved with the erection of Fullers first public Dome at Woods Hole in 1952 and subsequently was called upon to design a geodesic dome for the Auckland City Council’s Carnival at Western Springs in 1955, such was the interest in the new forms.

Our first hyperbolic paraboloid roof would be a subtle domestic design by Paul Pascoe in Christchurch for a house in New Brighton. The Graham house, promptly appeared in ‘Home & Building’ (Feb 1959) and was followed in the May issue by Michael Brett’s massively visible Elsmore Supermarket next to  the Pakuranga highway. Not so visible in the media (or at least ‘Home & Building’) was Christchurch architect Peter Beaven’s earlier design for the Brevet Club at Wigram Aerodrome in 1958, a building directly referencing flight. The last major public building to appear using what became called a “saddle roof” (which was much easier to say) was to be the Mount Albert War Memorial Hall by the practice of Wilson Moodie & Gillespie in 1961- this gained substantial publicity in the architectural and local media of the time.

The Hyperbolic Parabolic roof’s main advantages are twofold, in that the roof because of its tensioned and curved structure requires no internal supports and only minimal contact with exterior walls and the anchoring concrete buttresses, making them an ideal (and expressive) structure for clients requiring an open, light and economic building.

Sadly, not long after the Mt Albert Hall was constructed, Michael Brett’s  building for the nascent Mayor of Manukau, Lloyd Elsmore, which had brought many to shop in the newly developing area on the cities suburban fringe, was sold to Fletcher’s and the area was developed into what was to become one of the countries first suburban shopping centres. (Fletchers and various partners would then go on to develop up to 1100 housing sites, including the highly publicised ‘Sunnyhills Estate’)

Of the other buildings mentioned, only the Graham house in Christchurch (now conventionally re-roofed) and the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall are still in existence; as the Brevet Club was also demolished – leaving the Wilson Moodie and Gillespie design the surviving reference to an era when architecture took flight.