July 19, 2018

Sculpture on a Grand Scale

John V. “Jack” Christiansen (1927-2017) was a prolific, American designer of thin shell concrete structures. A recipient of the 2016 Eduardo Torroja Medal from the IASS, Christiansen built largely within the United States in the latter half of the 20th century – making him distinct among the global pantheon of concrete shell designers. Through the use of innovative, reusable formwork systems, Christiansen proved the viability of shell construction in the Pacific Northwest, and became a significant creative contributor to the mid-century modern architecture of the region. Christiansen pushed his shell structures to unprecedented spans, culminating in the design of the Seattle Kingdome – an essential part of Seattle’s professional sports culture and the largest concrete dome in the world in its time.

Christiansen was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1927 and earned a degree in Architectural Engineering from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana in 1949. Following a Masters degree from Northwestern University in 1950, Christiansen first worked as a structural engineer in the offices of Perkins and Will in Chicago. In 1952, Christiansen moved to Seattle, joining the W. H. Witt Company – a firm that would become Skilling Helle Christiansen Robertson in 1967, and continues today as Magnusson Klemencic Associates.

Assistant Prof. Tyler Sprague shared the news of a Jack Christiansen exhibit, “Sculpture on a Grand Scale,” currently on display at IASS2018: Creativity in Structural Design.  This exhibit samples Christiansen’s significant work in thin shell concrete through different eras, charting his design trajectory from the 1950s through the 1990s. Construction photos, drawings and original calculations show how Christiansen remained dedicated to thin shell concrete throughout his career. Exhibiting Christiansen’s creativity in structural design exposes how structural engineers can impact the built environment, and provides valuable lessons for practicing engineers, engineering students, and the general public. A giant of the structural engineering community of Seattle, Christiansen’s work created a legacy that continues to surround life in the Northwest.

With the help of M.Arch student Chris vander Haak, Tyler created several boards of Christiansen’s signature projects – 3’x7’ tall.  With the help of M.Arch student Veronica Leanos, he digitally modeled some of Christiansen’s shell structures and 3D printed them for display.  Jack Hunter (M. Arch ’10, Fabrication Lab assistant and part-time lecturer) created the mirrored model stand tops, and the stands were fabricated in Cambridge at the MIT shop.

The exhibit is up all this week at the conference, and will be coming back to the Gould Hall Gallery in summer 2019 – aligning with a book publication by the UW Press.