Rocket Architecture

The ensemble of structures illustrated here could easily be mistaken for recent work by a number of contemporary architects, were it situated in the vicinity of Los Angeles or Berlin instead of Churchill, Manitoba on the shore of Hudson’s Bay. But the Fort Churchill Rocket Range was built in 1957 by scientists and engineers of the International Geophysical Year and the US Military, who were interested in using rockets to study the aurora borealis.

The site plan of the rocket range is as inexplicable and elusive as the plan of Hadrian’s Villa, but one would presume that it represents a logical arrangement of spaces for the preparation and launching of unmanned rockets in this cold and hostile environment. Buildings such as the Blockhouse (control centre), the Hazardous Assembly Building and the Aerobee and Nike Launcher Buildings–the roofs and walls of which slide open to release rockets and pressure from thrust–are linked by long enclosed passageways and gravel roads that meander the site. The Operations Building housed staff, offices, laboratories and a radar and weather station, and is the only structure still in use: it is now the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a hostel frequented mostly by eco-tourists and wildlife biologists.

The remarkable thing about these idiosyncratic structures is that they were designed without any architectural pretension whatsoever. Their forms are a straightforward result of functional and practical concerns, not the product of deconstructionist posturing. Here, form simply follows rocket science, not postmodern theory. Yet seen today, these architecturally “nave” buildings nevertheless strike a chord–they are, after all, avant la lettre by nearly half a century.

The fascination for architecture-without-architects is nothing new, especially in this country. From the Port of Montreal’s grain terminal, which was celebrated by Le Corbusier in Vers une Architecture, to the prairie grain elevators to which the late Aldo Rossi is indebted, Canada’s industrial-agricultural vernacular has long been considered among its most impressive architecture. Could it be that there is something truthful–dare one say authentic–about such structures?

Rafael Gmez-Moriana is an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa.