The architect has adorned buildings with representations of the natural world from the beginning. And technology has further given us the ability to make architecture take on organic form. Frank Lloyd Wright made columns look like lily pads and a gallery look like a shell. Le Corbusier made concrete buildings that use organic form to create seemingly impossible compositions. Oscar Niemeyer went to the future with curvilinear structures that look less like buildings and more like something that landed there. Eero Saarinen created dynamic expressive structures that evoke thoughts of wings or flight. Calatrava has taken all that came before him to soaring new levels. And Zaha Hadid’s office has repeatedly been ahead of its time with energetic, curvilinear structures that always surprise.
Our built environment looks and functions the way it does because people push limits. Over 30,000 died from disease and accidents building the Panama Canal. Almost one hundred died making the Hoover Dam. Five workers died building the Empire State Building and a talented engineer named John Augustus Roebling died during the construction of his Brooklyn Bridge.
The arch first appeared in Mesopotamia but the Romans made it famous. The arch is used to span a particular distance while providing an opening plus load-bearing capacity. Trabeated construction does the same and likely came first, but the arch does a few things better. A beam is weakest at the middle, but no point of the arch is weaker than any other. The arch can also span wider distances than a beam and potentially creates larger, more dramatic space below. But this comes at a price. It takes time to build an arch and it’s expensive to build large ones. Arches come in a wide variety of shapes and have been employed through history to create endless variations on form and space. The Romans used the arch for aqueducts and architecture. And we use it for much the same. Whether it was H.H. Richardson in Boston, Eero Saarinen in St. Louis or Calatrava in Spain.
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