The Impact of Middlebrow Architecture

From The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006:

The most conspicuous example of the early 1960s effort to make Dahlgren look more like a modern science installation rather than a gun range was the construction of the Computation and Analysis Building (Building 1200). ‘K’ Laboratory had been in need of office space for some time … Consequently, [Ralph A.] Niemann and [Charles J.] Cohen, with the early support of [Naval Weapons Laboratory] commander Captain Manley H. Simons Jr., began lobbying for a new office building at Dahlgren, using POLARIS, Naval Space Surveillance Command, and TRANSIT as justification for the additional work space … Designed by Dahlgren engineer Robert Ryland, the Computation and Analysis Building was (and remains) situated near the station’s front gate, well away from the Potomac and the gun range. There was no mistaking it for a testing shed. It really looked like a science building with its graceful lines and large windows, standing in sharp contract to the rest of NWL’s research plant. It was no mistake that the building was at the front gate, as it was intended to instill visitors coming to Dahlgren with a sense of scientific enterprise. The strategem worked. ‘One the building was constructed,’ said Niemann, ‘then the issue about closing Dahlgren sort of went away because when people would come down, they’d see a new building. They’d figure things were going good, and maybe Dahlgren shouldn’t be closed.'”

The photograph of the Computation and Analysis Building in The Sound of Freedom shows a pleasant but unremarkable low-rise office building.

James P. Rife and Rodney P. Carlisle, The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006, p. B-3

From James P. Rife and Rodney P. Carlisle, The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006, p. B-3

The previous decade had saw the appearance of a swathe of new corporate research and development centers with innovative architecture, often designed both to streamline the collaborative research process and to put an impressive, even futuristic, face on corporate America. The Eero Saarinen-designed GM Technical Center is the most famous of these, but many of the research campuses were built by companies in the aerospace and defense sectors. In 1957, TRW’s Space Technology Laboratories (architect, A.C. Martin) opened in Los Angeles; the next year Convair Astronautics built a new headquarters designed by Pereira and Luckman just outside San Diego.

The NWL Computation and Analysis Building was a far more modest building. Instead of glass curtain walls, it had ribbon windows. Instead of a landscaped campus, it had a lawn. Its designer, Robert Ryland, was an electrical engineer who had held series of management roles in the various NWL labs. According to his obituary in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, Ryland graduated from MIT in 1951 and and headed the Electronics Systems, Strategic Systems, Protection Systems, and Personnel departments at Dahlgren before retiring as head of the Engineering and Information Systems Department in 1992.

There’s no real comparison between the Computation and Analysis Building and the big private research campuses, but there’s a entertaining overlap of eras and impact. Clearly, if Ralph A. Niemann is to be believed, you didn’t need a star architect or an expensive and expansive campus to make an impression if you were working in government.

Source: James P. Rife and Rodney P. Carlisle, The Sound of Freedom: Naval Weapons Technology at Dahlgren, Virginia, 1918-2006 [GPO, 2006] p. 119-120)

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