Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1140:
TWENTIETH-CENTURY TENTS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1140.

Today, a new architecture -- the tent! The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Tents may be the oldest human architecture. So how do I get off calling them new? We find evidence of tents made from mammoth bones and hides 40,000 years ago in the Ukraine. The nomadic Old Testament patriarchs wrote, "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob ..."

And tents endure. When I was 13, I rose at 4:00 AM one day to help elephants and roustabouts put up a great circus tent -- 2½ acres of canvas. I slept in a tent during part of basic training. When I lectured in Tunisia we drove off into the Sahara and passed those large flat tents the Bedouins call home.

Now avant-garde architects introduce membrane construction. You can hold membranes of Fiberglas and Teflon in place by slightly pressurizing them inside. Or you can stretch them over frames like tents. Either way, these new tents are meant to be permanent.

I'm just back from New Mexico where gambling is legal on Indian reservations. Many Pueblos run casinos that are huge membrane structures. The Sandia Pueblo Casino, for example, is an inflated building. It looks like a big quilted pillow.

The great champion of membrane construction, Horst Berger, began in the 1960s and has created forty permanent buildings. His Hajj Terminal, built in 1981 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, serves 100,000 Moslem pilgrims at a time, as they make their hajj to Mecca. This half-million-square-yard roof structure is the largest in the world. Its vast swooping surface is a dazzling sight.

Berger repeated that trick on a smaller scale when he built the roof for the Denver airport. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Denver has to cope with snow loading! Yet the roof can hold 40 to 50 pounds of snow per square foot. Teflon and Fiberglas roofs also have superb insulating properties. They filter infrared and ultraviolet radiation from the sun and admit visible light. Think of the savings in lighting costs! The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Performing Arts, just north of Houston, has a membrane roof that's also been shaped for optimal acoustics.

Berger's structures form much of the really stunning late-20th-century architecture: The San Diego Convention Center, The Munich Olympic Stadium, the huge Tokyo Dome arena, Italy's M & G Research Laboratory, the Folkestone Chunnel Terminal.

Of the two membrane types, the inflatable ones have given some trouble. Several such roofs have collapsed fairly harmlessly under snow loads. Those problems are being solved.

Meanwhile, the new tents tell us how the old orders of architecture have been limited by the range of natural materials. Now, as we learn to synthesize strong and durable new materials, a huge range of architectural possibility emerges. And it emerges from a technology that'd seemed almost as primitive as cave dwelling.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Robbin, R., Engineering a New Architecture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

For an excellent look at the Jeddah airport, see: Jahn, H., Airports. Basel: Birkhauser Verlag, 1991, pp.168-173.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for suggesting the topic and providing a copy of Robbin's book.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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