Of the Container and the Contained

Through its constitutive interest in engineering and structure, aviation developed from its origins in close collaboration with tectonic and architectural considerations. The mechanics of aeronautic engineering and the mechanics of architecture bear a long tradition of affiliation, and the engineering aspects in both disciplines have constantly influenced each other and propelled their technologies. Especially the architects’ fascination with the machine and technological objects like the automobile or the ocean liner has enlightened the discourse of both disciplines. Their aspects of mobility and style had repercussions on architecture. Were the relations of automobiles, ocean liners and the architecture they inspired mostly subtle delineations and were used more as elegant allegories, the shelter of airships and aircrafts called for a very direct, utilitarian translation into architecture and engineering. “In the construction of aircraft hangars, the volume of the building largely depends on technical requirements, and with the choice of the load-bearing structure, the structural elements are already predetermined in broad outline.” (1) The delicate and fragile apparatus of airplanes and airships, once taken out of their natural habitat and fixed to the ground, bears an inherent need for shelter. Hangars (2), originating from farmhouses and barns, constitute the appropriate hull to provide protection and storage. Since the beginnings of airships in the 1850s (3) and the first airplanes of the 1880s, there has been a constant effort in architecture and engineering to accommodate the ever-increasing size of Fluggeräte (4) (flying machines). In the same manner the increasing size of the Fluggeräte posted technological difficulties to be overcome by its designers, it was a challenge for architects and engineers to provide constructions that could shelter their enormous size. Of special interest for this paper are technological advances in the aviation industry that represented jumps in scale and had correlating repercussions on building demands and construction technologies in architecture and engineering.

Three epochs have specific significance in this respect. The first period denominates the end of the airship era in the 1930s, the second the introduction of the widebody jet in the late 1960s. The third period presents a contemporary attempt to rejuvenate the concept of dirigibles. Representative for the three phases, this paper discusses three particular Fluggeräte: The “Hindenburg” of the German airship pioneer Ferdinand Count von Zeppelin, the “Boeing 747” of the Boeing Company (colloquially referred to as Jumbo Jet), and the plans for the so-called “CargoLifter,” a contemporary concept for a heavy load dirigible.

Ephemeral Lightness

Count Zeppelin was studying airship construction since the 1870s and started his own company a year before his experimental LZ 1, a 128m (419ft) long, aluminum-framed airship took flight in 1900 (5). The “Hindenburg,” constructed in Nazi-Germany in 1936 as LZ 129 and named after Paul von Beneckendorff and Hindenburg – general in WWI and Reichs-Chancellor in the Weimar Republic – was the last airship in Count Zeppelin’s series of 129 dirigibles. With a length of 245m (804ft), a maximal circumference of 41m (135ft) and a volume of 200,000m3, it remained the largest airship ever constructed. The Hindenburg was next to the smaller “Graf Zeppelin” (LZ 127) the flagship of the German dirigible fleet and played an important role in the propaganda apparatus of the Third Reich. In 1936, it joined the regular passenger transatlantic service that the Graf Zeppelin started seven years earlier. The explosion of the Hindenburg after having crossed the Atlantic shortly before docking at the mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6th, 1937, and other major disasters with airships that were mostly due to the use of the highly flammable hydrogen as buoyancy-gas, brought the airship developments to an end in the late 1930s. However, dirigibles had a great impact on aviation architecture and their enormous size tested the limits of engineering.

The hangars oriented themselves often at the engineering principles of the airship. Thus there are parallels in method of construction for airship and its hangar. The first hangars were made out of wood assemblages, as were the first airships. Despite the span limitations of wood in comparison to steel or aluminum, in the 1930s and 1940s, large airship hangars were produced with wood as the primary load-bearing structure. Hangar construction in wood reached its apotheosis in the United States with the East-West airship hangars in Tustin, Arizona. Built in 1942 in less than a year, the two hangars are the world’s biggest wood structures (305m [1001ft] long, 91m wide [299ft], and 37m [121ft) high]. The vaults are supported by bolted wood trusses with metal siding and closed off with reinforced concrete doors. Whereas dirigibles switched to aluminum as construction material before the turn of the 20th century, wood remained in use for hangar constructions, especially during the years of WWII, when steel was not available because of wartime shortages.

Assimilation: the interior belly of the hangar looks like a colossal structural framework of the airships it inhabits (East West Airship Hangar)

Next to wood and steel constructions also concrete was used for hangars. Eugène Freyssinet hangars at Orly from 1923 (demolished in 1942) serve as the most distinguished examples of reinforced, pre-stressed concrete shells and serve the diametrical opposition of ephemeral lightness of the airship and the passive massiveness of its shelter. Here the technological advances lay in the mastering of the thin concrete slab.

In Germany, traditionally lightweight steel-frame buildings were used to copy the aluminum-framed zeppelins. The precision of the aeronautical construction was inspiration for the aluminum/steel work of the hangars. Documentation about these German hangars is rare and all of the classic models have been demolished. However, one hangar built for the transatlantic passages of the Hindenburg, still exists in Recife, Brazil, today. Complementing the zeppelin hangar of 1938 at Frankfurt Airport, the pendant is one of the few remaining hangars of the Nazi-era.

For the Hindenburg this huge steel-framed hangar was built at Löwenthal near Friedrichshafen in 1931 (demolished in 1978)

Independent from the use of materials, sheltering airships was primarily concerned with providing a mere utilitarian hull for another hull (or a container for the contained), so that the “most dominant characteristic of the airship shed is an absolute sense of function.” (6) Although reduced to its functional characteristics, the shelter is in its vastness logically as much a product of megalomaniac aspirations as the airship itself. While the striving for Größe was a ubiquitous and internationally ever-present phenomenon during the high times of the airship in the early 1930s that went along well with the ideological imagination of the Nazis, it was always the airship itself, but never its hangar that was propagandized, although architecture was a central feature and vehicle in demonstrating the predominance of Nazi-ideology. Reasons for the disregard of hangar constructions were the proclaimed technophobia in architecture of the Third Reich, its emphasis on traditional building methods and representational architecture, and the voluntarily obscuration of industrial architecture and engineering. The highly engineered hangars thus could not find a place in the architectural aspirations of the Third Reich. The airship itself was also easier to promote than its container: connecting different continents and countries before the age of mass-mobilization, the mobile zeppelin with its immediate visibility hovering over cities was naturally much more representational and more spectacular than the technological potential of its refined, but earthbound container.

Interestingly, only one kind of meeting between dirigible and architecture – that of airship and high-rise – was envisioned as the ultimate ratio of megalomaniac ambitions. This meeting was epitomized by the ultimate, much anticipated encounter of the two tectonic incarnations of Größe in the 1930s, the Empire State Building and the Hindenburg. Although equipped with a mooring mast, no airship ever docked at the then world’s tallest skyscraper (7). All depictions of this urban happening were composites.

Empire State Building and zeppelin: a metropolitan mating that never came to be

A Leap Jump in Scale

What the Hindenburg represent for dirigibles, the Boeing 747 symbolizes for civil aircrafts. It must be understood as a product of the wide range of new technological developments on unprecedented levels of scale during the technology race between the USA and the USSR in the late 1960s. The mindset of “thinking big” that became evident in the United States with Nasa’s Apollo program or high-rise developments like the Sears Tower and the World Trade Center – projects never surpassed in their scope – found its aeronautical counterpart in the Boeing 747. The Jumbo Jet “embodied a significant leap in terms of scale, which represented a major challenge for aviation industry, since never before had a civil airplane as complex and immense been conceived and constructed.” (8) Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented size (9) of the airplane had immediate repercussions on airport architecture and also on the hangar constructions that had to accommodate them.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s airports around the world had to make arrangements for the new airplane and built hangars that belonged to the biggest ones ever constructed. “The huge aircrafts need such large hangars for maintenance purposes that engineers had to make special constructions to solve the problems of extensive column-free spaces, lightweight roofs, extremely wide doors and other necessities.” (10) Because of the airplane’s size, the Jumbo Jet became the determining factor for the dimension of hangars that were basically designed according to the measurements of the 747.

Two halls serve as examples for the customization of hangars for the Jumbo Jet specifications. The first one, completed at Fiumicino International Airport near Rom in 1970 by Riccardo Morandi, clearly displays a custom design that is “characterized by the fact that their shape fits that of the aircraft they are designed to house. (11) For this reason, the Jumbo Jet’s nose is located in a small appendix of the hangar, while the hangar’s roof with its huge truss system increases in height to allow for the roughly 20m (66ft) high tail unit of the aircraft.

Morandi’s hangar was literally tailored around the 747

The Lufthansa Maintenance Hall V at Frankfurt International Airport, conceived by Becker&Beckert architects and completed in 1972, is another example for a symbiosis between airplane and its shelter. While Morandi’s hangar is considerably modest in size and relies on standardized building components, the Frankfurt example is vaster in scale and structurally more ambitious. Accommodating up to six Jumbo Jets, and spanning 270m (886ft) by 100m (328ft) column free with a clear height of 25m (82ft), it is the world’s largest hangar. “It is so large that almost the entire reception building and the forecourt of the Central Station in Frankfurt could find a place there, or the whole Eiffel Tower if laid on its side.” (12)

Fluggerät 747 and its destiny, Hall V of Frankfurt/Main Airport

Structurally, Hall V uses a suspended roof of pre-stressed and reinforced concrete. The tensile forces of the thin concrete shell that proofs well as structural system for such spans are absorbed on the sides by big concrete blocks that are anchored in the ground via pressure supports. Although the construction remains a very efficient one, the application of concrete as structural material is unusual for roof constructions this size. While the bulk of hangars is built with steel or aluminum skeletons or space-frame structures, the engineering of Hall V subconsciously shows an interest in expanding the German tradition of building in concrete into typologies that are generally unfamiliar with it. The sophisticated use of concrete can also be seen as an attempt to renew the discourse about hangar construction and revitalize an area of engineering that has generally been treated with notorious neglect.

A lot of refined engineering was necessary to enable the enormous spans of Hall V

Nostalgian Utopia

Another example for a revitalizing and stimulating approach is the hangar that was recently built for the CargoLifter. A good 60 years after the Hindenburg, the concept for the CargoLifter resembles a rejuvenated, high-tech version of dirigibles. Conceived as an airship for heavy and bulky loads (up to 160 tons) that could deliver cargo independent from infrastructural and geographical limitations on the ground, it was supposed to enter production in 2005. After an initial euphoria over the new technology at the turn of the millennium, however, the project was stopped well under way, mostly because of the formerly underestimated influence of heavy winds that would constrain the overall performance of the airship and thus its economic feasibility. Although plans to construct the lifter were stopped in 2002, the hangar for its final assemblage had already been erected in Brand, 60km south of Berlin. The world’s biggest airship was logically supposed to be housed in the worlds’ largest single span structure, designed by SIAT architects and engineered by Ove Arup. The semi-cylindrical steel-tube system of the roof is covered by a PVC-membrane taking motives from the airships structure it was supposed to accommodate. Built on a former East German military base, it today remains as a witness of a disrespected technology.

The hangar for an airship that never took flight, ends as a technological dinosaur in the landscape of rural Brandenburg

As especially evident in the CargoLifter example, hangars are inherent characterized by their involuntarily Größe. Given a colossal appearance in their sheer size along, hangars can be understood as “automonuments” (13); a characterization also valid for the airplanes and -ships they serve. In their techno-rational function without any context to their environment they remain as denaturized, pure pieces of architecture and engineering. The roof is their distinguished feature and its large span is the most important engineering component. As the examples show, it logically becomes the iconographic element of the typology. Whereas many of the early hangars identify roof and wall as separate elements, more recent examples understand them as a unified structural element that can serve as the conveyor of the building’s structural significance (as can be seen at Hall V or in the hangar for the CargoLifter).

With a length of 363m, a width of 225m, and a height of 107m, the assemblage hall is even bigger than the Goodyear airdock in Akron, Ohio, which held the world record since 1929 (350m x 99m x 34m)

Normally, enormous scales in technological developments always maintain a political connotation. Interestingly, it was never the container (the hangar), however, that was ideologically instrumentalized, but what it contains (the Fluggerät): The Hindenburg as an allegory of the seemingly technological supremacy of Hitler-Germany representing the Third Reich on different continents; the Jumbo-Jet as a display of technological Größe in the United States, reassuring what hi-tech deeds the nation – shaken by the difficulties of the Vietnam war – could achieve; and the CargoLifter as a symbol of an energy-efficient, green and sustainable revisit of old aviation ideas. The utilitarian architecture behind these technological feats, however, has not been given much consideration. Next to the dominance of and general focus on what the container contained, another reason might be that the creation of space (the void for the contained) was always more important in a utilitarian sense than the structure of the container itself. Hangars thus remain mute buildings, removed from the general public, being machines for machines. Their megalomaniac appearance on the one hand, and their modesty and political insignificance on the other, is the inbuilt juxtaposition of the typology. Their grand scale cannot be politicized as a function of competition between rivaling political systems or made spectacular for the discipline of architecture and engineering itself.

The CargoLifter hangar in comparison to icons of architecture and engineering: Hangars as monuments without political implications

The juxtaposition between the refined art of engineering that hangars display and their lack of appreciation is also visible in the most recent example. Although the proclaimed renaissance for dirigibles and the structural closeness of Fluggerät and hangar show an earnest endeavor to break with the status quo of understanding hangars as mere utilitarian containers, the gigantic hall for the CargoLifter is not able to renew or stimulate particular interest in the field of engineering. With their professional disregard or under-appreciation, hangar engineering seems to have the same fate as train-shed constructions of railway stations around the turn of the 19th century. As in all aspects of engineering, the stretching of technological limits as represented in the hangar for the CargoLifter has to go hand in hand with a more reflected and sound approach, since the dirigible itself turned out to be a highly sophisticated instrument of a technological possible, but operational not feasible fancy: While the container functions, the contained did not. The question of if we can entertain what our society can technically produce in its seemingly technological limitlessness, should be the basic consideration for the structures we build.

The container and its ill-fated content

Despite setbacks, aeronautical technology will continue to inspire architecture and engineering in its endless cycle of mutual influence. The new threshold of scale that the Airbus A-380,14 Europe’s belated answer to the American Jumbo-Jet, represents in the world of aviation will be a new technological challenge for airplane hangars a good thirty years after the Boeing 747.

Please find the original article with the original layout here:


1. P. Huber, “Swiss Airport Hangars,” in: Build International, July/August 1971, 207

2. Properly the term “hangar” should only be used for airplane shel­ters, whereas shelter for airships should be called “airship shed.” To simplify and generalize the word, this paper uses the word “hangar” interchangeably

3. The French Henry Giffard constructed the first successful, operable airship in 1852. It was comprised of a bag 44m (144 feet) long, filled with hydrogen that was able to carry a 160-kilogram steam engine with three horsepower

4. Since the English language does not have a generic term depicting all “flying machines” (Fluggeräte) in general, I use the German word

5. Compare to F.A. Brockhaus: Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, Volume 13 (Mannheim: Bibliographisches Institut & F.A. Brockhaus AG, 1990), 593

6. Christopher Dean: Housing the Airship (London: The Associa­tion, 1989)

7. Docking was prevented by high and unpredictable winds

8. Daniel Kraffczyk, “Jet Propulsion; or: The Urban Logic of the Jumbo Jet”, academic paper for Sanford Kwinterʼs seminar “Problems in Knowledge and Design,” Harvard Design School, spring 2003

9. The comparison of the dimensions of the Boeing 747 and the former biggest jetliner, the Boeing 707 (from 1957) displays the Jumbo Jetʼs leap jump in scale: 707-320: span 44.42m, length 46.60m, height 12.90m, max. weight 150 tons | 747-200: span 59.64m, length 70.51m, height 19.35m, max. weight 377 tons

10. V.I Trofimov: “How to Build Hangars for Jumbo Jets” in: Build International, July/August 1971, 198

11. Renato Pedio: “Aviorimesse Alitalia per Boeing 747 a Fiumicino, Roma,” in: LʼArchitettura: Cronache e Storia, XVI, v. 16, 356

12. G. Werkman: Build International, July/August 1971, 208

13. Definition of automonument: “Beyond a certain critical mass each structure becomes a monument, or at least raises that expectation through its size alone, even if the sum or the nature of the individual activities it accommodates does not deserve a monumental expres­sion.” (Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (New York: Monacelli Press, 1978), 100



F.A. Brockhaus: Brockhaus Enzyklopädie (Mannheim: Bibliographisches Institut & F.A. Brockhaus AG, 1990)

Christopher Dean (ed.): Housing the Airship (London: The Association, 1989)

Guillaume de Syon: Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939 (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)

Rick Archbold: Hindenburg: an Illustrated Histo­ry (Toronto: Viking, 1994)

Mike Flynn: Hindenburg: the Story of Airships from Zeppelins to the Cargo Carriers of the New Millennium (London: Carlton, 1999)

Gerhard Lang: Verkehrsflugzeuge (Munich: GeraMond Verlag, 2000)


Bodo-Michael Baumunk: “Fliegen und Bauen,” in: Bauwelt 1991, Jan. 11, 12-33, 44-53

Renato Pedio: “Aviorimesse Alitalia per Boeing 747 a Fiumicino, Roma,” in: L’Architettura: Cro­nache e Storia 1970 Oct., 356-365

Donald Albrecht, Joel Davidson: “World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Build­ing Changed a Nation,” in: Blueprints, Vol. XII, Spring 1994, 16-17

Catherine Slessor: “Super Blimb,” in: Architec­tural Review, Aug. 2002, v.212, 58-59

V.I Trofimov: “How to Build Hangars for Jumbo Jets” in: Build International, July/Aug. 1971, 198-202

P. Huber: “Swiss Airport Hangars,” in: Build International, July/Aug., 1971, 205-207

G. Werkman: “Rhein-Main, Biggest Hangar in the World,” in: Build International, July/Aug., 1971, 208-211

Robert Elwall: “Steel Zeppelin,” in: RIBA Jour­nal, Oct. 2002, v.109, 126


Encyclopedia Britannia Online


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