Making a Mecca for the plane crazy

Sir Norman Foster's air museum will be as aerodynamic as its exhibits. Peter Dormer on the architect's wings of desire
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The Independent Culture
The aeroplane and its component parts have enraptured architects and designers since the Wright brothers first took off in a heavier-than- air machine. Since then, many have tried to incorporate the functional sparseness of wing spars, propellers, engine frames and ailerons into their earth-bound structures.

Le Corbusier, architect of the sublime pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamps with its swooping wing roof, once wrote: "The airplane carries our hearts above mediocre things." The contemporary British architect Sir Norman Foster is equally passionate about aircraft. Next month, construction begins on the architectural love affair of Foster's career, the American Air Museum in Britain at Duxford, Cambridgeshire.

"Twenty years ago, I learnt to fly and I have been fascinated ever since by flight," says Foster. "Like many schoolboys before, I was obsessed by the world of model aircraft, and it can be no accident that the machines which give me the most pleasure to fly are themselves like overgrown models." Foster says that his relationship with the new museum at Duxford is "much closer than the normal ties between an architect and the buildings he designs".

The American museum, which is due to open in spring 1997, will be part of the Imperial War Museum's existing centre of historic aviation at Duxford aerodrome. Here, the tang of grease and aviation fuel, the mumble of Tiger Moths and the melodic growl of a Spitfire announce to the visitor that although this is a museum, Duxford is very much alive and flying. A few hours in the presence of such a variety of beautiful and tempestuous machines can wring unsuspecting visitors of equally unsuspected emotions.

Duxford was the home of one of the first RAF stations, and three of the original timber-trussed hangars here - erected during the First World War - have been listed as buildings of special architectural and historic interest. In the Second World War, Duxford was in the front-line of the Battle of Britain and it was from here that Douglas Bader, the tin-legged hero, flew Hurricanes. In 1943, the airfield was handed over to the United States 78th Fighter Group which stayed here until the end of hostilities.

The new air museum will bring beneath one roof 20 of Duxford's American aircraft stretching from the Second World War to Operation Desert Storm. The centrepiece will be one of the massive, four-storey, B-52 nuclear bombers, co-star (with Peter Sellers) of Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr Strangelove and, in real life, the angels of what was known in TV news reports from Vietnam as "collateral damage" - the carpet bombing of North Vietnam and its people with high explosive and napalm - in the Johnson- Nixon era.

Foster's museum promises to be a near-perfect match of form and content, because it is structurally and metaphorically integrated with the engineering and aesthetics of the aircraft it will house. It will consist of one large domed concrete shell - 70,000 square?CUBIC? feet of column-free space - rising from the ground at one level and opening up into a huge glass front at the other end overlooking the runway. The roof design is derived from the stretched-skin structure often used in aircraft construction. It will appear to float without visible means of support and yet many tons of aircraft will be suspended from it. This is an architectural device designed to reflect the aircraft's ability to break "the surly bounds of earth". The engineers responsible for appearing to defy the laws of gravity at Duxford are Ove Arup and Partners, masters of the apparently impossible building structure.

Visitors will enter the domed gallery at its base, meeting the nose-cone of the B-52 head on. The giant Boeing bomber will be flanked and overhung with other aircraft which can be viewed by walking along a ramp that curves gently around the building.

The museum is a development of ideas Foster explored in another of his East Anglian buildings, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (opened in 1978) at the University of East Anglia, a glamorous aircraft hanger that attracts many visitors on its architectural virtues alone.

Support for the Duxford project has come, as one might expect, from the United States where 50,000 individual subscribers have given money to finance the building and renovate the exhibits. At a time when Britain's "special relationship" with the US has stalled (at government level, if not in popular sentiment), Duxford, under its inspired director, Ted Inman, has been spreading wings quietly but effectively across the ocean.

Duxford is a world centre for aircraft conservation and reconstruction, and all the workshops are open to the public. Four hundred volunteers work here for love alone. For these devoted workers, aircraft are as emotionally satisfying as any historic work of art. Here you will find engineers, mechanics and pilots who will say, almost to a man (and woman) that should Sue Lawley ask them to choose eight gramophone recordings to play on a desert island, they would pick the bass throb of a Rolls-Royce engine at 2,500rpm or the percussion of a Pratt & Whitney radial over Stockhausen and Stravinsky every time.

Military planes offer, too, (forgetting for a moment their darker purpose) a stark lesson to non-military designers. Throughout this century, architects and designers have argued that modern design should be logical, stripped- down and unsentimental, and yet the creed of functionalism that has been taught in architecture and design schools looks soft and flabby when put up against the brute beauty of a B-17.

Of course, we can all recognise that it is the physics and mathematics of flight that dictate, to a large extent, the almost inevitable beauty of line of an aircraft like the B-17. Yet many of these planes were designed to be built in a hurry, and should you look inside, you will see that their interiors appear to make no concessions to the flesh and blood and pysches of air crews. Walking along the cramped fuselage of a B-17, for example, is a treacherous experience at best; there are sudden voids in the floor, lethally sharp spars and precious little space. The cockpit itself is barely bigger than a couple of dustbins, bringing home the uncomfortable thought that the crew of these "flying fortresses" were no more than the software keeping several tons of lethal hardware in the air. The crew were victims not just of brute circumstance, but of brutally functional design.

The most brutal example of this approach to design was the siting of the underbelly gun turret of the B-17. This is housed in a dome beneath the fuselage; crouched like a baby in a womb, a terrified teenage gunner would spend 10 or more hours at a time, isolated and freezing cold, waiting to kill or be killed.

Thank God peace knows such functionalism and that the late-flowering functional school of design as represented byFoster's American Air Force Museum is, though apparently tough, so much softer than that of the planes it is to house.