A Building of the Week with a difference: Multidisciplinary designer and plane spotter Adrian Peach assesses the architectural merits of an enormous eighties airplane, the Russian Antonov An-124, shot by the fine art photographer Jonty Wilde.
Superpower rivalry does not just manifest itself in tense naval stand-offs at the Bay of Pigs and in the blasting of dogs into space; it is also about heavy air-haulage. To their fleet of Skymasters, Globemasters and Starlifters, the US military added the enormous Lockheed C5 Galaxy in 1969. An airborne equivalent of the 'convoi exceptionnel', its vast belly permitted the transfer of oversize military ordnance and the secret movement of top-secret aircraft. Meanwhile Boeing’s failed contender for the role was remodeled as a civil airliner to become the iconic 747 Jumbo Jet.
To this challenge the Soviet Union responded with measured calm, and for the next 13 years lagged behind the US military in the field of long-range heavy lift support. Design work on a rival craft began in 1971, and two separate manufacturing plants in Russia and Ukraine were engaged for production. After a maiden flight in 1982, the Antonov An-124 Ruslan was revealed at the 1985 Paris Air Show, where previously the Tupelev Tu-144 supersonic airliner, itself a rival to the Anglo-French Concorde, had crashed before the eyes of the world in 1973.
The new Antonov An-124 was in many ways superior to the C5 Galaxy, with 20% more cargo space, and a 25 per cent heavier payload at 150 tonnes. As if this gravity defying statistic were not enough, in May 1987 the An-124 also set a distance record, covering 20,151km without refueling. This colossus of an aircraft is now only superseded in size and weight by the Boeing 747 8F (launched 2010) and the An-225 (a one-off six engine variant) built specifically in 1989 to piggy-back the Soviet Buran space shuttle.
Seeing her squatting on the tarmac with front and rear cargo doors gaping open, it is hard to imagine such a beast could fly. The swept wings and four jet engines, slung awkwardly over the two lane drive-in fuselage featuring its own 30 tonne internal crane, do nothing to convey a sense of airworthiness. The cavernous padded ribcage of the interior brings the story of Jonah and the whale to mind, and looks like a cross between a subterranean factory and a villain's sci-fi space silo from a Bond movie. This visual analogy persists on the flight deck, a separate pressurised entity perched high above the great belly, that resembles the sort of escape pod James Bond would reach just in time – blasting off to safety as the mothership implodes around its frustrated commander. There is even a twin-bedroom for him and the girl, complete with bedside telephone.
Whatever comparisons spring to mind, the An-124 is an apt reminder of the symbiotic relationship between airframe construction and building construction. What began as inspiration – those who built the ‘flying buttress’ could only dream of flying – became a veritable exchange of techniques in the 20th century. Architect (and aviator) Norman Foster writes thus: “Aviation started off as an offspring of the engineering that makes a work of architecture possible, borrowing freely at the time from the established disciplines. In a remarkably short period it has grown up to be bigger and faster, generating technology and a body of knowledge which are now invaluable to the parent.” (On Foster...Foster On, D. Jenkins ed., Munich, 2000)
The great modernist pioneer Le Corbusier was a contemporary of aviation pioneers and made enthusiastic, if naïve parallels of his own. In Vers une architecture (1925) he dedicates an entire section to aviation. The architectural poise of Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino system, which became the blueprint for the cast concrete construction methods of the International Style, is juxtaposed with the spectacularly perpendicular Caproni 60 ‘Triple Hydroplane’ whose imposing multi-storey architecture barely permitted lift-off before plunging the craft straight back into Lake Maggiore on her maiden flight in 1921. So much for airworthy architecture…
Today, the enduring career of the An-124 is proof that buildings of a certain type can indeed fly and perform well. It is still in production, and currently some 30 new aircraft are on order to join around 40 in mainly civilian service around the world. Payloads include excavators, yachts, elephants, whales, railway locomotives and mini-production facilities. They shuttle hardware for the oil, gas and aerospace sectors, and supply the space stations of Japan, the US and Europe.
In an ironic post-cold war twist, NATO now leases a number of An 124-100s from Antonov Airlines and Volga-Dnepr Airlines for the transport of military personnel, equipment and arms. They have played a significant (and controversial) role in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, earning considerable profit for their operators (at roughly $33,000 USD per flying hour, a single An-124 mission to Afghanistan costs NATO around 250,000 US dollars).
A number of new variants of the aircraft are planned, with increased payloads and a richer mix of components and avionics from diverse nations, setting the An-124 on course to become an enduring international heavyweight champion of the skies.
– Adrian Peach is a Berlin-based designer, lecturer and strategic consultant
– Photos courtesy of Jonty Wilde