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If Buildings Could Walk…

A previous post described “if walls could talk”, but what about if buildings could walk?

It’s not that far fetched an idea. 

Taking cues from the railroad industry, it wasn’t uncommon at the turn of the 20th century to find fixed structures – buildings – with large moving parts. 

Bridges were prime examples. 

It took the use of steel used as structure to give rise to this.  The first structure built of steel was a bridge built in 1775 over the River Severn near Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, in the western midlands of England – the “Iron Bridge” as it’s called today.  Steel was a lighter-weight material that permitted more flexibility in shape than did masonry, with the advantage of superior strength when compared to wood. Moving ahead a century or so, shipping lanes along rivers located on flat plains required a way for bridges – built relatively low to the ground – to be built so as to give way to permit relatively tall shipping traffic to pass. 

Turntable Bridge, Chicago, 1898

Turntable Bridge, Chicago, 1898

Confining this description to bridges found in Chicago: some of the first bridges designed for this were turntable bridges.  There still are a couple of these left in Chicago. They are configured as steel trusses set onto a central pier in the middle of the river.  Train tracks were built inside the truss structure.  When shipping lanes were needed, train traffic would come to a stop, and the entire truss – hundreds of feet or dozens of metres long – would rotate around this pier.

Pennsylvania RR Bridge, Chicago, 1908

Pennsylvania RR Bridge, Chicago, 1908

Turntable bridges had their limitations, not the least of which was the central pier becoming an obstruction in a shipping lane.  Finding ways to raise bridge sections vertically, rather than rotating them horizontally, became the issue at hand.  Those types of bridges appear in all sorts of variants.  Some have a truss spanning between two towers, this central truss raises and lowers between the towers.  Still others rotate truss sections vertically to give clearance along the waterways, the most dramatic examples are those with truss structures raised above, rather than below the track bed.

Western Avenue Pennsylvania RR Bridge, Chicago

Western Avenue Pennsylvania RR Bridge, Chicago, 1907

Beyond bridges, other railway structures rotated (roundhouses with turntables) and lifted materials (coal towers and granaries).

The SS France - a complete floating community of thousands of people
The SS France – a complete floating community of thousands of people

Railways – and shipping lines – gave rise to buildings – entire communities – that were mobile.  It could be possible for one to live their entire life on an ocean liner; all lodging and dietary needs cared for in addition to entertainment, recreation, socializing, even employment and well being.  In a stretch, one may make the same case for a transcontinental train.

The Walking City, Archigram

The Walking City, Archigram

Going back to our history lesson studying some of the early modernist architects: many – like Le Corbusier – had a vision of “buildings as machines”.  Looking to what’s traditionally defined as architecture, this concept taken to mean “buildings that move” really hasn’t come to pass, save for a couple amusement park rides, or visionary works from think tanks like Archigram. 

In a mobile society, having one house that could move with its occupants could be a sustainable concept.  It reinforces the notion of small housing, since that would take less energy to move around.  Part of one’s housing could be detachable and self propelled for personal transportation. Perhaps a workplace concept also becomes something that one takes with them and “plugs in” to a workplace community.  

The ideas are endless, and seemingly appropriate.

Posted in Architecture, Automobile Design, History, Real Estate Development, sustainability, Transit, Urban Planning.