Aerospace Modernism: Military-Industrial-Office Complexes

The 1950s was a golden age for corporate branding. Few had more comprehensive identities than General Dynamics, and few needed them more. GD was a massive conglomerate with a finger in almost every military-industrial pie from submarines and aircraft to nuclear reactors. Starting in 1955, Erik Nitsche created a smooth modern image for the company that linked its disparate divisions together. But branding was about more than just graphic design, and it was architect William Pereira who gave GD corporate campuses to match its atomic age aspirations.

A Chicago architect who spent the war as an art director at Paramount studios and then taught at USC, Pereira founded his own firm in 1951 with former Lever Brothers president Charles Luckman. Convair turned to Pereira and Luckman when it became the main developer of the Atlas ICBM, a massive missile project. Built on 250 acres of Kearney Mesa, outside San Diego, the new Convair Astronautics headquarters was an integrated laboratory-factory-office complex. Almost half of the complex’s 1.2 million square feet was for missile manufacturing, and most of the rest was lab space in a series of low, interconnected buildings nicknamed “the waffle.” But the most impressive part of the campus was the glass reception area linking the two six-story administrative buildings. Surrounded by an artificial reflecting pool, the lobby was all glass and steel. Rising out of a central pond was a spiral aluminum ramp that hung from the ceiling on stainless steel rods.

While the Convair Astronautics lobby was impressive, Pereira had something even more stunning in mind for his next General Dynamics commission. As GD’s nuclear power division, General Atomics was even more of a start-up than Convair’s missile program. It needed not just high-tech labs to attract top engineering talent, but a whole research university. With the help of Roger Revelle of the Scripps oceanography institute and an intense lobbying campaign, GD convinced the University of California system to open a campus in San Diego. University of California, San Diego was established in La Jolla, with former Lawrence Livermore lab director and nuclear physicist Herbert York as the first chancellor. General Atomics built its campus next to university, in Torrey Pines.

Edward Creutz, one of General Atomics’s new leaders, though that cutting-edge research required interdisciplinary collaboration, so Pereira gave the campus a circular design. In the center was a common building with the library, cafeteria, and executive dining room, elevated above the ground on pylons and with a marble-paved central courtyard. Encircling it was a laboratory ring (or, to be precise, an arc, since only two-thirds was completed). Each department was connected to the others along the arc, and the central common space encouraged mixing between them. Beyond the ring was landscaping, including a meandering watercourse, and administrative buildings.

Pereira captured a similar aesthetic for other companies, like Ford Aeronutronic at Newport Beach (another glass box lobby in the middle of a pool) and Lockheed for it’s Rye Canyon Research and Development Centre (reflecting pools and open-air courtyards, and a laboratory “waffle” off of a service spine). His aerospace campuses captured the mix of steel, glass, and greenery that exemplified California modernism. They were buildings that sent a message to both workers and outsiders that they were cutting-edge spaces where the future was being built, whatever the price might be.

(This post is indebted to Stuart Leslie’s essay in Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California, which discusses Pereira’s work on these buildings in detail, as well as explaining where they fall in the history of Southern California’s aerospace industry. The book was published in 2012, but conveniently Air and Space Magazine has just released a brief article by Leslie on Pereira and his contemporary Albert C. Martin, Jr., which includes pictures of the Convair and Aeronutronic buildings).


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