Essay: Space Frame Design for a Space Age Look

Space age construction technique provides maximum exhibit space in a small area

by: Bill Young with William Sippel
 NCR Pavilion NCR Pavilion  NCR Pavilion

In 1884 John H. Patterson founded the National Cash Register Company, maker of the first mechanical cash registers. NCR had become a leader in computer technology and automated data processing since those times when mechanical cranks calculated financial transactions. Celebrating their 80th birthday in 1964, and in keeping with the nature of their business, NCR decided that their pavilion at the New York World's Fair should have a "technical look." They selected the Pittsburgh architectural firm of Deeter & Ritchey (now DRS Architects) to design that pavilion. The project was headed by the firm's principle designer, Mr. William Sippel.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Sippel this past summer. He told me some of the details of the design and construction of the NCR Pavilion. The pavilion has always been a personal favorite of mine. The massive, yet graceful towers support an exhibit hall that appears to float in mid-air. Its location on the Court of the Moon with the Lunar Fountain at its entrance adds to the beauty of the building. Unfortunately, very little is known about NCR's pavilion and participation at the Fair; their exhibit being overshadowed by technical rival IBM. Therefore, I am very grateful to Mr. Sippel and Michelle Sokol, Marketing Coordinator for DRS Architects, for taking the time to share these reminiscences and photos of the NCR Pavilion.

Deeter and Ritchey's original proposal for NCR consisted of a number of 70 to 80 foot poles embedded in the ground from which an exhibit hall was to be suspended by cables. Mr. Sippel recalled that NCR rejected this proposal, one executive saying the design looked "too nautical." Going back to the design table, a pavilion of "space frame" design was developed and eventually agreed upon.

In "space frame" design, trusses of steel bars in geometric shapes carry the stress loads of the structure as opposed to traditional designs where steel girders and columns bear the loads. This allows for greater open and unobstructed exhibit space. The NCR pavilion contains two sets of space frames consisting of welded steel pipe and steel balls with the top frame supporting the bottom frame. The top frame becomes the roof of the pavilion while the bottom contained the second floor exhibit hall where the main exhibit was housed. Mr. Sippel remembers that an escalator took visitors from the smaller lower hall to the larger upper exhibit gallery.

Both sets of frame trusses cantilever outward from the center of the building to a span of between 60 to 80 feet. According to Mr. Sippel, the design was very advanced and computers were employed to test the design before construction could begin. The computer models indicated the trusses had to be scaled back several feet in order for the design to work.

Following the Fair, Deeter & Ritchey's chief engineer was invited to a symposium in the Soviet Union to give a presentation on the design of the pavilion. Mr. Sippel also recalled that the American Society of Civil Engineers wished to do load tests on the pavilion to see how much stress it would take to make the building collapse. The information they could gain would tell them a lot about the strength of space frames. The ASCE attempted raise the $25 thousand necessary to do load testing on the pavilion but were unsuccessful. NCR's contract with the Fair called for demolition of their pavilion to be completed by December 31, 1965 and the Society was unable to raise the necessary funds before the pavilion had to be demolished.

NCR Pavilion rises on Flushing Meadows. Extent of space frame floor and ceiling is apparent. Tall steel scaffolding are the three massive towers to which the space frames were connected.
NCR Construction NCR Construction
NCR Construction NCR Construction

Source: Photographs © DRS ARCHITECTS - NO Unauthorized Reproduction is Permitted


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