A.C. Martin’s Aerospace Modernism

Stuart Leslie, one of the leading historians of Cold War science and technology, has always had something of a sideline examining the architecture within which industrial and scientific research and development took place.

Among the areas he’s examined is the aerospace industry surrounding Los Angeles, writing about the corporate offices William Pereira and Charles Luckman built for aerospace companies in the Los Angeles area. He followed that up with an article for History and Technology on A.C. Martin, Jr. and his contribution to the architecture of the industry’s corporate offices. Martin, the son of an LA architect, is probably best known for his Department of Water and Power Building, whose combination of extensive glass windows and cantilevered concrete floor slabs has similarities with his aerospace work, and especially his campuses for Thompson-Ramo-Wooldrige (TRW). Martin built four campuses for TRW or its non-profit spin-off, the Aerospace Corporation, though only the last – the Space Park in Redondo Beach – makes it onto AC Martin’s and the LA Conservancy’s websites.

TRW began life in 1953 as Ramo-Woolridge, a small company founded by two former Hughes Aircraft engineers (Simon Ramo and Dean Woolridge) to build military electronics. Ramo-Wooldridge (it became Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge via merger in 1958) got its big break when it was selected to manage the systems integration on the United States’ first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas ICBM. TRW’s work on Atlas pioneered the practice of systems engineering and launched the company itself into a major expansion. One of the results of which was the need for a new corporate headquarters: the Space Technology Laboratories in El Segundo, Los Angeles County.

The Space Technology Laboratories (STL) were A.C. Martin’s first major aerospace project. Unlike Pereira, who tended to combine multiple buildings into a single integrated complex, Martin designed a compact, seven-building campus featuring a six-story administrative building and two-story research laboratories. Glass curtain walls gave the office spaces along the exterior walls an open feeling, while cast concrete sunscreens (Leslie calls them “eyelids”) hung down outside to cut the southern California glare.

When TRW expanded into the hardware business, the Air Force systems integration business became a conflict of interest and was spun-off to become the non-profit Aerospace Corporation. Selling the Space Technology Laboratories to the Air Force, Aerospace Corporate moved across the street. Once again, Martin got the commission to create a campus. Once again, there was a six-story administrative building and several lower research buildings, featuring the same trademark concrete “eyelids.” This time there was also a freestanding library and a putting green.

In the meantime, TRW expanded its business and commissioned a new campus at Canoga Park. Covering 90 acres, the new campus was far less compact than what Martin had designed downtown. T-shaped laboratory buildings replaced the L-shaped ones at STL, maximizing the number of exterior offices compared to windowless lab spaces. The concrete “eye-lids” that had shaded the glass walls at STL and Aerospace were replaced by a perforated aluminum grille, which served a similar purpose.

When TRW consolidated its ballistic missile, space, and electronics divisions in a new Space Park at Redondo Beach, Martin once again provided the design. On 110 acres Martin repeated the “ledge and ‘eye-lid’ scheme” from STL and Aerospace, this time with darkened glass. As Martin’s son David explains in this video, the dark glass eye-lids helped cut glare and manage energy costs, while giving the complex a dynamic appearance. A slightly later building, the E2 administrative building, switched back – one again – to a perforated screen as sunshade, this time made of concrete. The campus was sufficiently futuristic to be used in both an Outer Limits episode featuring William Shatner and one of the episodes of Star Trek’s original series.

In addition to pointing out aerospace modernism’s space age approach to openness and cutting-edge design, Leslie notes a few other interesting trends in the designs.

One is that A.C. Martin’s corporate campuses were built to maximize the efficiency and creativity of their engineering workforces. At STL, Martin and TRW’s corporate planner, Melville Branch, ensured each engineer or scientist had a private or semi-private room with a window. Full-story windows at the end of each corridor were to provide “enticing spots for serendipitous encounters, casual conversation or just quiet introspection” (in Leslie’s words).

The other is that, despite all those windows looking out onto the world, the campuses were built to ensure the secrecy of the technology they were pioneering. The Aerospace Corporation had a fiber-optic telephone connection to the adjacent Air Force facility, years before its time, to foil wire taps. A Faraday Cage the size of a bank vault blocked electronic eavesdropping on the sensitive data inside. TRW’s Space Park went a step further. The glass curtain walls of its buildings were constructed with special glass and frames to prevent anyone outside picking up on the voice vibrations from within.

Compared to the corporate campuses Eero Saarinen built for companies such as General Motors, IBM, Bell Telephone, John Deere, and CBS; SOM built for General Mills; and Edward Durrell Stone built for PepsiCo, the West Coast aerospace campuses haven’t gotten much attention. I’m not sure why this is, though Leslie does observe that the era of opulent modern design for these companies was relatively short. By the 1970s, the aerospace industry had retired to less distinctive sites, more basic vernacular architecture than high-tech, avant-garde design. Perhaps the companies were simply no longer the face of the future, just another element of defense industry, and one that no longer demanded an exciting public image.

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