The Airstream Project: Introduction
“The human body has an innate ability to sense sympathetic space.”
When I find myself in a space that brings a feeling of well being the above idea comes to mind. I believe it is attributable to Pietro Beluschi. Regardless, this project has been all about my attraction to the sympathetic space of an Airstream trailer and my quest to make it into a contemporary fit for my own needs.
The project was never about nostalgia. I had no interest in restoring a 1977 Airstream. I understand the value and satisfaction of doing such a thing but it wasn’t my agenda. For one thing I’m not sure that Airstreams of the seventies would top a list of things worth preserving or restoring to “as original.” Airstreams have been in production for decades and as objects they’ve managed to maintain an iconic status over the life of the brand, but in 1969 Beatrice Foods bought the company and the build quality and product vision of Airstreams suffered under that corporations ownership. Fortunately the company was rescued by Thor Industries in 1979 and the brand refocused on building quality travel trailers. I do believe that Airstream took quite a bit more time to find its way back to the idea of designing and building innovative mobile structures, only recently showing real progress in that direction, but Thor at least stabilized things and stopped the degradation.
The Airstream I acquired was built in 1977 at the Cerritos California plant. On the outside it was an attractive enough package with some dents and dings here and there but largely in good shape. The inside, however, was a different story. The interior was fitted out with low quality plastic components and moldings. Vinyl sheeting/wallpaper was cemented to the aluminum interior skin panels and this sheeting had become irremediably sticky and foul. There was cheap composite paneling and fake wood surfaces everywhere, as well as furniture and cabinetry cobbed together using poor craftsmanship and an absurd assortment of wood and aluminum sticks and panels that just looked like leftovers barely reheated. Mind you, the interior was all original and pretty much as delivered from the factory, but as mentioned above, these were not glory years for Airstream build quality and forty plus years of use had taken its toll on materials of dubious original quality.
So why did I buy it? As disappointing as many of the materials and craftsmanship from this era can be, the quality concerns were largely limited to replaceable interior components. While there were some cost cutting attempts in the seventies to reduce the size of the steel frame that led to some issues of the rear part of trailers sagging and separating from the fuselage in the longer models, for the most part the structural concept and integrity of Airstreams remained relatively consistent through the years. Also, the seventies model (the redesign actually occurred in 1969 predating the Beatrice Foods purchase) did bring some changes to the exterior profile of the shells that I find aesthetically pleasing. Ultimately, for me, it is the structural concept of Airstreams that makes for a truly beautiful object from the outside and which defines such a welcoming space on the inside. My plan was to strip the trailer I purchased back to the bare shell and frame, examine and refurbish any structural issues that needed attention, and remake the systems and living space according to my own vision and needs.
The following episodes deal with my adventures in pursuing my quest to remake an Airstream according to my own interpretation of a sympathetic space.
The Structural Source of Sympathetic Space
Airstreams are built using a monocoque structural system. Thin aluminum panels are attached to the outside and inside of a minimal array of aluminum ribs. In such a system the skins themselves supply the rigidity and the strength to support the structure and to resist load. It is astonishing when you tear one of these things apart and see just how few structural ribs there are (especially at the front and rear). And when you bend one of the sheet panels that are patterned and cut in two dimensions into three dimensions you begin to feel the strength of the whole. It is a very elegant structure taken from the airline industry. It is minimal and streamlined and clean. As a modernist, what more could you want?