The Space Needle, the Jetsons, and what today’s futurists see for tomorrow
It looks like a flying saucer, perched atop spindly, upward-swooping legs. It’s as if a UFO and its exhaust trail were frozen mid-takeoff. Like something out of a sci-fi movie. And that’s the point.
In case you missed it, the Seattle Space Needle recently turned 55—old enough to get the senior discount at Old Country Buffet. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Space Needle was built for a World’s Fair; attracted its share of criticism; and is now a landmark that defines its city’s skyline. And while this Space Age artifact may seem a tad dated now, its influence has rippled across the decades and perhaps—if a company called Arconic fulfills its vision—will continue to alter skylines in 2062.
Speedy in Seattle
The Space Needle was conceived as the centerpiece of Seattle’s Century 21 World’s Fair, a showcase of tomorrow’s technology. It was vintage midcentury: can-do optimism, tinged with Cold War urgency. The Soviet Union had shocked Americans when it sent the first satellite into orbit in 1957, kicking off the international space race. But in the JFK era, with federal dollars flowing to scientific research, and finned automobiles speeding down superhighways, anything seemed possible.
Rising 605 feet high—then the tallest structure west of the Mississippi—the Needle was built in just 400 days, at a cost of $4.5 million. The foundation, which was 30 feet deep and 120 feet across, took 467 cement trucks about twelve hours to fill. It was the longest continuous concrete pour attempted in the West at that time.
Including 250 tons of rebar, the foundation weighs 5,850 tons; the Needle structure itself weighs 3,700 tons. This means its center of gravity is just five feet above the earth’s surface. The Needle is fastened to the foundation with 72 thirty-foot bolts.
Not only can the Needle survive earthquakes (e.g., one in 2001 that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale), but it was designed to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour—double the code requirements in 1962.
But what struck most was the daring design of the tower and its bulbous top house. The spacecraft look was deliberate. Initially, the building was painted with colors “Astronaut White,” “Orbital Olive,” “Re-entry Red,” and “Galaxy Gold.” As the building seemed to reach for the stars, it signaled a nation’s upward progress.
Construction was completed in December 1961. The Needle’s signature rotating restaurant held an opening gala on March 24, 1962. The Century 21 World’s Fair officially opened on April 21.
Unlike other architectural relics of the period—e.g., unloved Brutalist exemplars such as Boston’s City Hall and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California—the Space Needle appears on T-shirts and postcards, earned official Seattle landmark status at age 37 (in 1999), and remains one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. While many Sixties buildings raised eyebrows, the Needle prompts smiles as well. It may be that, along with its aspirational spirit, the tower’s very cartoonishness is what makes it so endearing—and enduring.
The Jetsons connection
That drawn quality quickly translated into actual cartoon form when The Jetsons debuted on TV in September 1962. The series imagined a family in 2062. The Jetsons and their contemporaries drove flying cars, employed robot maids—and lived in high-rises that looked a lot like the Space Needle. In case you were deprived of re-runs as a child, here’s the program’s opening:
The resemblance of the Jetsons’ home to the Space Needle was no accident, animator Iwao Takamoto told the New York Times in 2005. The “skypad” on stilts took direct inspiration from the Seattle tower.
Art imitates life, and vice versa. A new engineering company called Arconic—spun off the aluminum giant Alcoa—has taken inspiration from The Jetsons to reimagine the world of 2062. Arconic’s updated Jetsons drive flying cars and live in skypads that make use of technologies currently in development or, in some cases, available already. The company hired filmmaker Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) to illustrate their vision with this video:
Arconic’s futurists predict that three-mile-high skyscrapers will be built using 3D printing. The technology will allow for more organic, nature-inspired shapes. “I think you will see less of the square, boxy shape of current skyscrapers,” Arconic’s Don Larsen says in another promo video.
Furthermore, Arconic hopes those skyscrapers will employ their products such as Bloomframe. This is a motorized window that transforms into a balcony in less than 60 seconds.
Moreover, those windows would clean themselves—and the environment—if coated with EcoClean, an Arconic product already on the market. This titanium dioxide coating absorbs light and water vapor, activating free radicals (the atom-sized variety), which suck up and eliminate dirt as well as pollutants in the air around a building.
Will Arconic’s vision come to pass by 2062? Nobody can answer that. But the company is making a big bet on it, investing millions in advanced materials and technologies. At a time when much of the talk nationally is about fear of the future and a return to the past, Arconic’s embrace of a bright tomorrow is refreshing. So it’s no surprise we can trace the roots of this campaign to the audacious tower that rose over Seattle to celebrate and imagine the 21st century, back in 1962.
This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.