To streamline refers to a process that uses the principles of aerodynamics in order to reduce air or water resistance, while streamliners describes the trains, automobiles, and other vehicles that resulted from this approach. Norman Foster has expressed a personal fascination with the so-called 'Streamline Age,' an era which he is largely connected to through his mentor Buckminster Fuller.
· Dymaxion Car #1, Buckminster Fuller, 1934
Model of Dymaxion Car #1, Designed by Buckminster Fuller
Model of the Wichita House, Designed by Buckminster Fuller
Corporations and designers of the 1930s eventually lifted the form and aesthetics of functionally streamlined vehicles in order to create a seductive modern style associated with Art Deco. In contrast, the work of Fuller, and by that of extension Foster, demonstrate an engagement with the functional possibilities of streamlining as a process with which to create innovative architecture by reducing material waste, introducing natural ventilation, and utilising lightweight, flexible, kits of parts.
Fuller directly participated in the Streamline era through his Dymaxion series beginning in 1927. The teardrop shape of the Dymaxion car models, for instance, immediately suggest the aerodynamic principles behind the project; with regard to streamlined materiality, the car's ash and plywood inner frame reflected the influence of Fuller's collaborator, William Sterling Burgess, a prominent American car and racing yacht designer, while its aluminium outer cladding mirrors the exteriors of airplanes and streamlined locomotives of the time.
The later Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, or Wichita House, grew from direct links between the world of aviation and architecture. Collaborating with the Beech Aircraft Company, Fuller developed the Wichita House based on the concept of utilising wartime airplane components to create a revolutionary, affordable post-war housing prototype. The aluminium alloy cladding represented by the Wichita House model suggests these direct material connections with aircrafts, while the distinctive fin atop the house was intended to direct natural airflow into the house for climatic comfort. Translating the need for lightweight components for streamlined vehicles to the realm of architecture, the Wichita House's individual prefabricated pieces weighed no more than 4.5 kilograms each, revolutionising the process of its on-site delivery and construction.
Many projects from Norman Foster continue the Dymaxion series' exploration of the functional possibilities of streamline design. 30 St. Mary's Axe undertakes the streamlining of the conventional rectilinear skyscraper; its process drawings attest to the way in which the building's signature conical shape was formed based on reducing wind resistance. This reduction of air resistance combined with a diagrid skin not only offers opportunities to optimise and reduce the raw materials needed for structure, but also introduces natural ventilation into the building and thereby significantly reduces energy consumption. Most recently, the elevations of the Bloomberg Headquarters show its bronze 'air fin' cladding system. These fins, recalling the Dymaxion House, provide both shading and direct airflow into the building for natural ventilation.
Utilising prefabricated production processes and kits of parts represents another principle from the streamline era which, in the case of the Renault Centre and Hong Kong and Beijing airports, enabled rapid, precise construction. The kit of parts concept further allows for flexible, easy assembly and reconfiguration by its users, as suggested by the interchangeable pressed aluminium panels of the Sainsbury Centre.