Sublime Architecture Put to Good Use: Kesselring's Giant Sphere

The French neoclassical architect Étienne-Louis Boullée is known today as much for his unbuilt projects as those he actually saw built and completed. Boullée worked at a time when science and engineering were quickly changing how mankind saw the world and when architecture was looking not only to traditional, classical, influences but towards outward expressions of math and science as part of its grand sense of aesthetics. Boullée designed a massive tomb for Sir Issac Newton which incorporated both clear references to Newton's work in physics and astronomy and also a sense of immense scale—larger than life, larger than humanity. While never built, this Cénotaphe à Newton (1784, drawing) was one of the first early modern European monuments of epic scale not to religion nor a king, but to a humanistic scholar and scientist. Most importantly though, Boullée's design incorporated a giant sphere—a shape and application in architectural engineering that would enchant generations of architects yet to come. Indeed, the design for the Cénotaphe à Newton is still taught in architectural history courses for architecture students today. 

Boullée's engraving for his design for the Cénotaphe à Newton. 

Boullée's design was not built due to cost and other factors, but moreover, its sphere served no purpose beyond the aesthetic and symbolic. However, moving into the twentieth century, interest ramped up on the part of architects and engineers in how spheres and domes could be applied to actual technical challenges presented by modern architecture. Nearly all architects and most civil engineers knew of Boullée's concepts and other applications of domes in earlier architecture. The core difference however between the type of dome used in a church or civic building and a full sphere was that the sphere more or less became the primary core structure instead of simply capping a rotunda off; the sphere also could provide unique dynamics to solve engineering problems versus only providing a landmark visage to call attention to an important structure. 

How does this relate to anything nuclear? Well, one innovative use of a full-sphere in architecture happened at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory's Kesselring Site, (Milton, NY) where in 1954 a massive 225-foot in diameter steel and concrete sphere—a giant ball, in essence, anchored in a concrete base poured ever-so-gingerly around it—was built to enclose the prototype reactor it contained. This reactor—one of several at Kesselring—served the dual purpose of allowing Knolls and Naval Reactors engineers to try experiments and test new equipment to be added to actual naval reactors in submarines and also to give US Navy officer and enlisted students of reactor engineering hands-on experience with the same type of reactor they would oversee while embarked on an actual submarine. After students learned their classroom lessons at training centers in Orlando, Florida or Charleston, South Carolina (now the only site as Orlando's site was closed in 1999), they would come to Kesselring for real-world experience with the prototype reactors there. Meanwhile, at the nearby Knolls Lab, new approaches to naval reactor technology was developed and the applied testing would be carried out with the prototypes. All of this put together—scientists, engineers, other staff and the Navy students—amounted to the largest cohesive workforce in Saratoga County and a vital part of the regional economy, as well as a core training and development function for Naval Reactors. 

Photo-diagram from the United Press (and located here at Will Davis' blog on nuclear power) of the Kesselring sphere.

Admiral Hyman Rickover saw Naval Reactors as, by necessary mission in the Cold War, a vast program but more crucial yet to the Admiral was that it was a precise program where every single man involved was the best he could be and every day he did the best he could offer. The newest—but more importantly, the best-suited—technological approaches would be applied to solutions in the mission of Naval Reactors and Rickover oversaw nearly every aspect of the program himself—and did so for a longer tour of duty than any other flag officer, or indeed any other officer, period, in the history of the Navy to date. The sphere at Kesselring was a perfect example of how the brightest science-proven concept, developed out of longstanding visionary innovation, was commissioned and applied in the most technologically-sound of approaches, and provided a never-before-seen solution that cut a striking figure while doing its primary job to its utmost capacity. 

The sphere was notable not only for its immense size and a variety of architectural engineering innovations undertaken to make the blasted thing work and remain anchored with the amount of weight and stress placed upon it, but also because it was an early effort at solving the question of how to best isolate and insulate a reactor. Containing, shielding, the reactor was approached here as a visual, physical, task manifest in an obvious, powerful, and grand manner. Beyond that, the sphere was a remarkable structure in the midst of rather mundane, typical, industrial buildings. It defined the site and, in a very appropriate way, enclosed the landlocked naval reactor, placing it in a separate world–in its own little globe which might as well be off at sea. Spheres like this were highly symbolic of the future from the 1950s onward, as was atomic power. So a lot of optimistic, forward-looking symbolism rests in that sphere. 

Will Davis has a lot more on Kesselring and the sphere at his own blog—which is one of my favorites on all things nuclear—located here:

Boullée envisioned his globe to serve as a massive monument for a towering figure in science and to apply scientific concepts to illustrate how science and engineering are vital to the progress of civil society. At Kesselring, we see the giant orb applied as a pragmatic solution to real-world engineering concerns, but also something more: it is the triumph of a yearning long-present, at least from Boullée's time if not long before, in architecture to use engineered, geometric, concepts in making architecture more scientific, more sound, and more futuristic. Thus, the sphere is a very astute aesthetic and symbolic solution as well as a wise technological one in this application. 

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