Architecture: Historic hangars bigger than liners

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The Independent Culture
THE TWO airship hangars at Cardington are among the largest and most striking buildings in the world. At approximately 812ft (248m) long, 275ft (84m) wide and 180ft (55m) high, they are larger than the greatest transatlantic liners. They continue to excite the imaginations of architects and engineers throughout the world.

The hangar now in the hands of the Building Research Establishment was built in 1917 by A J Main & Co (London and Glasgow) for the Admiralty's airship division. When Ramsey MacDonald's Labour government commissioned the R101 airship from Short Brothers in 1924, the hangar was extended so that the great sky-liner could be built and housed inside. Its sibling hangar, almost identical, was originally at Pulham, Norfolk; it was dismantled and transferred to Cardington in 1928.

Largely untested, the R101 crashed on its first overseas voyage en route to India, killing, among 42 others, Lord Thompson of Cardington, the Secretary of State for Air responsible for its construction. The gas cells, made from the linings of cows' stomachs, that held the great steel-framed balloon aloft leaked hydrogen which exploded. A privately-funded sister ship, the R100 (designed for Vickers by a team led by Barnes Wallis of the Dambusters' 'bouncing bomb' fame, and assisted by the future novelist Nevil Shute), was, despite a successful voyage to Montreal and back, taken out of service; it was sold for scrap for pounds 457.

The RAF took over the hangars in 1936 and were used to train pilots to fly reconnaissance balloons during the Second World War. By 1989 the hangers belonged the Department of the Environment. The BRE moved in that year. A solitary, rather small balloon belonging to the Meteorological Office is still housed there.

In the Eighties part of the hangar was rented by Airship Industries, a British company that tried to revive the airship for commercial and military purposes. The later building is currently being used by Ford to prepare its new Mondeo saloons for bulk buyers.

Both these imposing steel-framed, corrugated-clad buildings are listed Grade II by the Department of the Environment. The BRE is undertaking the restoration of its latest home; the second hangar is available to rent.

(Photograph omitted)