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Why Midcentury Design Endures

The American Boeing B-52 (left) and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 (right)
The American Boeing B-52 (left) and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 (right)

We are clearly living in a time that has a fascination with midcentury design. Weather it's AMC's Mad Men or the fact that most of Steven Spielberg's recent movies seem to be set between the late 40s and early 60s, modern America seems to like things that have been around for over half-a-century. Even the US Air Force is obsessed with midcentury aircraft designs that are much older than the men and women who fly them. I'm specifically talking about the Boeing B-52 "Stratofortress".

Intended to serve as the backbone of the US nuclear deterrent system, the B-52 became operational in 1954. Several replacement aircraft have entered service since then, but none ever truly replaced the B-52. It remains in use today, over 60 years later. Although many of its systems have been updated, the basic airframe has proven to be adaptable to a variety of new roles and new weapons. 76 remain in service today as part of the extensive arsenal of the US Air Force.

It turns out the longevity of the B-52 is not a uniquely American phenomenon. The Soviet response to the B-52, the Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" has enjoyed a similarly long life and is likewise still in use as part of the Russian Air Force.

While there may be a stylistic and aesthetic reasons behind the purchase of an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman for someone's living room, there's something else at play when the world's largest and most advanced air force similarly chooses to use an aircraft that's just as old. The fact is that in the decades immediately following World War II, design was really good. It was both practical and simple. The technology designs made use of was cutting edge at the time, but it was also robust and adaptable. The B-52 has become a symbol of American strategic air power not because of its looks but because of its ultimate utility. And although it is a beautiful thing, one could make the argument that an Eames Chair and Ottoman has become timeless because it is just as comfortable today as it was when it was first built. 

Although aircraft typically have a relatively short lifespan, buildings are supposed to last much longer. And so when designing a building it is important to try and create something that is robust and adaptable to an unknowable future.

For more information on the venerable B-52, the New York Times just ran a really good essay about the B-52. It's worth a read.