Man of the Century

by Pierluigi Serraino, AIA

“If I had to do it all over again,” says Richard Bradshaw, “I would become an architect.”

These are powerful words coming from the low-key structural engineer who, having worked closely with architectural masters such as Richard Neutra, Carl Maston, Welton Becket, Paul Williams, A. Quincy Jones, and John Lautner over many years, quietly turned 100 last September. He is sitting in the dining room of his art-filled Northridge, California, home, shortly before his birthday, a humble, well-traveled man with silver hair who can still easily recount the course of his long and distinguished career. “I learned an awful lot from architects,” he explains. “My training was entirely engineering, but my attitude toward things was more like an architect. The engineers and I just did not have that much in common. The idea of trying new things, experimenting, having a fresh approach to things, came more from the architects than from the engineers—it is taken for granted in architecture.”

The difference between engineers and architects is an age-old conundrum. Structures alone do not architecture make, yet there is no architecture without structure. And while we know the names of the architects who design the buildings we admire, we are hard-pressed to identify the engineers who helped realize those designs. Frank Gehry, for example, gets all the adulation for the DZ Bank building in Berlin, while Jörg Schlaich, the structural engineer who painstakingly executed his design—and who incidentally worked on the ultra-famous tensile structures envisioned by Frei Otto for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich—hardly gets a mention.

Then there is Richard Bradshaw, whose lifetime of work and professional gravitas as the most sought-after engineer of mid-century modernist architects on the West Coast should have earned him wide, enduring acclaim. Yet his name and reputation remain relatively under the radar, even among the most zealous aficionados of California modernism. His singular touch can be found in the iconicity of the LAX Theme Building by Pereira & Luckman, the Tarzana Ice Rink by Carl Maston, the Los Angeles County Hall of Records by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, the Shorecliff Tower Apartments in Santa Monica by Jones & Emmons, to name a few landmark buildings. But when the Tarzana Ice Rink, for instance, went on to win a Los Angeles Chapter AIA Merit Award after it was built in 1960, jury member A. Quincy Jones told Bradshaw afterwards that the panel knew the rink’s design with its sweeping wide-span, thin-shell arched roof, was essentially his (since he’d pioneered the construction of such structures with Jones’ own King Cole Market design 10 years earlier), but the award had to be given to the architect of record.

However, word got around in architectural circles that Bradshaw was the go-to person for structural designs that were outside the box—literally. From the beginning of his career, he enabled architects to add to the unique structural iconography of Los Angeles. In the late 1940s, he helped Douglas Honnold with the design of Tiny Naylor’s restaurant, which had an aerodynamic roof made of conventional steel beams (FIG1). He was A. Quincy Jones’ exclusive engineer for close to 20 years, calculating the structure for his non-residential buildings, including the University Research Library at UCLA, until a disagreement over the design of a condominium project in San Diego ended their professional alliance. But he remained the engineer of choice for Palmer & Krisel from the time they were working out of a garage with a dirt floor before ever becoming famous for the thousands of tract houses they designed throughout Southern California. For Ladd & Kelsey, Bradshaw calculated the structures for the popular Stuft Shirt restaurant in Newport Beach, built in 1961 featuring a modular design covered with thin concrete shells. And every film lover knows his United Methodist Church in La Verne, seen in the climactic scenes of Mike Nichols’ classic, The Graduate, where a folded concrete roof is featured.

Then there was Robert Des Lauriers’ Carlton Hills Lutheran Church in Santee, California near San Diego, completed in 1959, which demonstrates Bradshaw’s command in calculating a complex hyperbolic paraboloid roof (FIG. 2). And he helped loyal client Welton Becket with Ford Motor Company’s futuristic pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (FIG. 3) as well as the Gulf Tower in Jacksonville, Florida, which was at one time the tallest precast post-tensioned concrete structure ever built.

Despite his often-unsung status, Bradshaw was far more than a consultant to the architect. In several cases he played a decisive role in the final design. In his view, there are various levels of input the structural engineer has on the built outcome: From change in material, to change in shape, to complete conception of the structural design which determines the dominant image of the project. Occasionally his structural ideas constituted the actual architecture. The Radar Towers located in East L.A., formally ascribed to architect Kenneth Neptune, were actually conceived entirely by Bradshaw (FIG. 4). The same is true of the two-inch-thick hyperbolic paraboloid roofs which add unique character to a luncheon pavilion for county employees for the City of Los Angeles (FIG. 5). Of his expertise on these unique geometries, he simply says, “My knowledge of engineering is accurate and complete to the point that I can predict their structural behavior.”

It was his mastery of shell design, however, that gave Bradshaw a real edge over his colleagues. In order to support this odd passion, he admits he had to take on many more conservative jobs. “I did about 100 shells and I lost money on every single one of them. The concept and the understanding of them is time consuming.” Of the flying saucer-like LAX Theme Building, he recalls, “That was all [William] Pereira’s design. Initially it was going to be all shells. They presented it in city hall and it was rejected.” In fact, one city official at the time turned particularly hostile to Bradshaw because his name was associated with projects that were consistently outside the comfort level of the building department. “He threatened to have my license revoked!”

But if that grand vision (initially created by James Langenheim of Pereira & Luckman and recently featured on the book cover of Never Built Los Angeles by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell) had to be scrapped, a smaller yet equally iconic vision emerged in the revised LAX Theme Building which was finally built in 1961—the architectural team also included Paul Williams and Welton Becket, though Bradshaw’s name is not often mentioned (he doesn’t even have his own page on Wikipedia). Over time, the venerable engineer has learned to love this building despite his distaste for its false structural message: “The arches look like concrete, but they are steel, plastered. They had to be that way for code restrictions of what you could do with concrete arches.”

In laboring over shells, Bradshaw fine-tuned his process for designing these singular forms: “The first thing you have to consider when you are dealing with a shell is that what you are working with is a fragment of an object—every curved surface is a fragment of a larger object and this larger object will either go to infinity or will close on itself. You [have to] understand the overall form that fragment comes from [to] get a picture of how it behaves. In the equations of the structural behavior of a shell, aeronautical engineers derive them for the entire object and when you cut that object, you have done a very profound thing to the original object and you can control it.”

As Bradshaw’s understanding grew deeper, more projects came along and he was able to tackle these complicated forms in imaginative ways. The Tarzana Ice Rink, attributed to Carl Maston, was actually entirely Richard Bradshaw’s design (FIG. 6 and 7). “The way it started out was that the Ice Rink was going to be a box made out of bricks,” he says. “That was the sort of things that Carl Maston had done. The client became dissatisfied with Maston’s proposal and wanted something different. He talked to Carl Maston. And Maston came to me and said `Come up with something different.’ And I realized that you do not need a rectangular plan [for a rink], you need an oval plan. And you do not need a level roof, you can really bring it down on the ends. [So] I started fooling around with this. And I thought about a shell form. And the shell form that occurred to me was that of a torus.” The design came from understanding the geometry of the torus (a source of revolution traditionally found at the base of columns in classical architecture) and devising a method to precast the segment of the compound form on the parking lot for easy assembly with little explanation to the workers who were going to erect it.

For Welton Becket, Bradshaw designed a dome 200 feet in diameter for the General Electric Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair (FIG. 8), where the curvaceous structure floats on lyrical concrete supports forming a circular truss not dissimilar from what Myron Goldsmith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill did for the Oakland Museum of California in the same years. In 1963, he was also the engineer of record for the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (FIG 9, 10, 11 and 12). Three identical shells 200 feet across all meet at the center and balance each other, forming one huge gigantic shell. Each curve is a double shell in concrete two feet deep made of an air gap sandwiched between two two-inch concrete layers. An egg crate with three-inch ribs laid eight feet apart in the center connects the two layers and gives rigidity. Engineering-wise, there was no bending curve, but a compressive shape acting as a funicular under dead load. The result was a slender structure whose exterior surfaces were smooth inside and out. The top dropped just 14 inches when it settled.

It would seem that Bradshaw found his calling almost serendipitously. Born in Philadelphia in 1916, he moved around a lot with his family. His father, originally from England, was a U.S. Navy man who always wished he’d had a college education. As a result, he pushed his two sons to pursue their studies and, though his brother didn’t follow suit, Richard earned a degree in structural engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1939. During the subsequent war, Bradshaw says he “blundered into becoming an architectural engineer. The Navy had a big architectural engineering firm to do their buildings all over the Pacific. The 10th Naval District was the Pacific Ocean, so I went out there before the war. I was in Pearl Harbor when the [Japanese] attack came and I stayed there till the war was over. I was put in this architectural office, without having any idea about what architecture was, what it did. My whole background was just pure engineering. So my thoughts about engineering were that you become an aeronautical engineer, or you build dams or transmission towers. It was by sheer luck that I happened to get put into a general architectural office.”

It was in this office that Bradshaw developed a crucial friendship with Pete Wimberly, founder of the renowned Honolulu-based architecture firm WATG, who would later become one of his most loyal clients (FIG. 13 and 14). “Of all the architects I have ever worked with, Pete had the best instinct for structures. He really had an insight on how the structure behaved, but he could not analyze anything himself.”

Fond memories emerge when Bradshaw recollects a story about one structure he was to work on for Wimberly in Honolulu. It was a delicate, yet sturdy hyperbolic paraboloid in wood, composed of two layers of boards, with no beams: just stressed skin (FIG. 15 and 16). The enclosure was held together with nails. Bradshaw recalls: “I always had curiosity about how nails work. Before the nails take any load, the two pieces of wood have to move a little, they have to slip slightly and overcome the friction between the two. So after this structure was built, Pete and I got up and stood at the umbilical point and we jumped up and down. It was just like a diving board. It would move about six inches or so as we jumped. And then we would hear small explosions: Bruum! And the shell would come down about an inch. Then we jumped some more and another: Bruum! The nails were taking up load as the boards were slipping slightly. The nails held it through friction, then the boards slipped and then the nails get crooked and finally take hold.”

If his tenure in Hawaii shaped Bradshaw’s mindset, it also left him feeling increasingly out of place as a mere engineer. By the time he re-entered civic life, he found that after 15 years of the Depression and war, an entire generation had been inadvertently precluded from practicing architecture and there were no precedents for new challenges. “Therefore we were free to invent things,” he says. “There was this burst of energy to do all sorts of great things. And we did not have anybody to talk to!”

Despite his engineering degree, Bradshaw is, at heart, an architect. “Engineers are new-idea averse,” he says. “I did like new ideas [so] I fit with the architects very well.” And he especially related to designers who pushed the envelope of architectural norms—his collaboration with John Lautner, for example, lasted from 1947 till about 1960, during which he did the engineering for Googie’s, Coffee Dan’s and the Bick House in Brentwood (FIG. 17), all of them long since demolished.

It was after the war that Bradshaw made reinforced concrete his primary material in realizing his structures. Within the inventory of forms he explored, shells cast a unique spell on him (FIG. 18, 19 and 20). He became endlessly fascinated with them because of their potential to span large spaces through powerful sculptural shapes. That presented challenges since shells were at an experimental stage then and he realized that more technical knowledge was needed for him to control their static behavior under various load conditions. He remembers: “I undertook aerospace techniques and I became acquainted with some of the engineers of the aerospace industry, very brilliant guys. The top engineers did not go into architectural engineering, they went into aerospace. So I began learning from them. When it came to the design of shells, little or nothing was known at the time in the architecture field. Initially, I turned to the professors in the field of structural engineering. I paid them on the side to teach me about shell design. They would take me through the theoretical analysis, yet then they would stop short of a numerical answer. But in the aerospace industry you must get to a numerical answer, because you are putting people into machines. They had developed techniques to solve these equations that were totally unknown in other fields of engineering. So I learned these mathematical techniques. My turning to the study of the aerospace methods of solving things was what led me to the complicated shells. As far as I know, I am the only guy who learned that. It was laying right there in front of our eyes. Not a secret!”

When asked about taking professional risks and the impact they could have on his liability insurance, Bradshaw simply states, “I couldn’t stand not doing something different that interested me. I had to do it. Once I started getting new ideas, it was a compulsion that I had to go ahead and see them through to their completion. And that brought me into what became one of the driving forces of my life: I found out as I got into new fields of structure, because I was trying to do something new in architecture, that I did not have the technical knowledge to resolve some of these problems. And this drove me crazy. I had to learn it.”

So he went back to school, attending University of Southern California for a Master of Science in Structural Engineering in 1959 and earning a similar degree in Applied Mechanics at California State University in 1992. “As I struggled with these problems—math was a lot of it, as well as higher more complex theories—it took me years to learn some of these techniques. They did not just come fast. I am referring to calculations, I was learning a lot of ways to calculate structures. These impressive fields of engineering to solve more difficult problems were typically solved by the aerospace industry, so I found myself more and more [involved with] that. Fortunately, at that time, Southern California was the aerospace industry [capital] of the world. We were building rockets to take a man to the moon. Talk about risk! I could see that these guys were so far ahead of the architectural engineers, that it wasn’t even close!”
At his productive peak, Bradshaw oversaw an engineering firm with five offices and more than 40 employees; while his main headquarters were in Los Angeles, he opened branches in Honolulu, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Orlando, Florida where he received numerous commissions from Disney. But he never got used to the demands of an increasing volume of work and personnel to manage. “I hated running an office,” he says. His biggest concern, and frustration, was that such success interfered with his freedom to focus on the work he loved most—the actual structural design of his projects. “I detested a common attitude about engineers—which was that after they had been running an office for awhile and their practice had grown, they thought that they had really arrived, becoming the engineer-executive without doing the engineering, dealing with taxes…I had no interest in that whatsoever!”
While his list of projects is long and impressive, perhaps Bradshaw’s greatest achievement was his ability to infuse in each of them an enthusiasm for a technology rich in architectural expression that was largely anticipatory of the free forms we are experiencing today through an unleashed computing power. But with one marked difference: His structures were as functional as they were emotionally exciting, two layers always present in the ongoing project of modern architecture, in and out of California.

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