Hullavington revisited

Renowned architecture critic, Jonathan Glancey (author of Concorde), explores the curiously mechanical history of Hullavington Airfield. Exploring the base through the events, objects, and people who helped to create the 750-acre R.A.F. base, Glancey’s whistle-stop journey explores Britain’s military and aviation history through the buildings and places that housed them.

In 1923 Le Corbusier, the provocative Swiss-French architect, published Vers une Architecture, a polemic defining the house of the future as a “machine for living”. Iconoclastic page layouts lauded Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals in the same aesthetic breath as new French cars, giant American grain silos, ocean liners and biplanes.

This was the same year that Sir Reginald Blomfield, the very model of an Edwardian architect, saw his R.A.F. Memorial — a Portland stone pylon crowned with a bronze zodiacal orb from which a gilded eagle spread its wings ready for flight — unveiled on London’s Victoria Embankment.

British architects of Blomfield’s age thought little or nothing of Le Corbusier until four years later when Frederick Etchells, the Vorticist painter, translated Vers une Architecture into English. Cue outrage.

In a caustic review of the book, Sir Edwin Lutyens, the greatest British architect of his generation, wrote, “M Le Corbusier’s theme is that architecture of our time should have the qualities of the machine. Efficiency and mass production are the watchwords. Houses are to be like the products of Mr Woolworth’s shops — stamped out or cast in moulds and sold, I suppose in ratios of 3d and 6d. For such houses, nature will provide a new humanity. Robots without eyes — for eyes that have no vision cannot be educated to see.” Some Dyson engineers might disagree.

As for Sir Reginald, he waited until 1934 before letting rip and unleashing his own book; Modernismus, a choleric rant against the world represented by Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and “functionalist” design. The Spectator panned Modernismus: even conservative thinkers, it appeared, found Blomfield too dismissive of modern life, while for Sir Edwin airplanes, automobiles and Atlantic liners were “excellent things in themselves” and, in design terms, “may well serve as tonics”.

Le Corbusier’s Toward a new architecture | Dover Publications / Illustrations of Junkers Ju87 | Photography Getty / A portrait of Sir Reginald Blomfield | RIBA

Intriguingly, 1934 was the year that the R.A.F.’s tonic to the nation, an ambitious expansion programme took effect. With Germany free to re-arm, the young R.A.F. moved rapidly into action. In 1923, it could field no more than 371 first-line aircraft. In 1934, it had 800 such machines in 42 squadrons. By the time Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, it boasted 157 squadrons and 3,700 fighting aircraft.

Working under the auspices of the Air Ministry and with the Directorate of Works and Buildings, the R.A.F. invested in dozens of new aerodromes. One of the most expansive of these was Hullavington. What remains intriguing about their design is the way in which they brought together the architectural concerns of Blomfield and Lutyens, Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus.

14 June 1937, R.A.F. Hullavington Airfield’s runways Open

Ramsay MacDonald, prime minister of the National government of 1931–35, called on the Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC) to supervise the design and planning of the new airfields. As these were major, technologically driven undertakings, there was concern about how they would fit into the British countryside and what image they should represent. Blomfield and Lutyens happened to be RFAC commissioners. Archibald Bulloch was appointed in October 1935 as Architectural Advisor to the Directorate of Works and Building. The 52-year old Scottish architect had worked around the world and, at home, designed both Neo-Georgian Post Offices and Telephone Exchanges — his best is in Bath — and electricity generating stations.

So, Hullavington, one of the largest of the new airfields built between 1934 and 1939 boasts Neo-Georgian domestic and administrative buildings arranged in a Beaux-Arts or Garden City plan and designed by Bulloch in the style of Lutyens and Blomfield, and hangars and technical buildings that were at the forefront of new design and construction technology. Here at Hullavington, the design circle was squared: the new airfield would represent both modernity and tradition. The three-storey officers’ mess was clad in local limestone, its lobby and main hall lined in polished oak panelling. The aircraft hangars, two of which are being converted into Dyson offices and workshops by architects WilkinsonEyre were as up-to-the-minute as the design thinking of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, director of the Bauhaus.

Above and beyond architectural and planning concerns, it was speed that drove the design and construction of Hullavington. Speed encouraged innovative design and engineering that, today, makes the former R.A.F. airfield an ideal site for Dyson. What remains so very exciting is that, although the airfield, opened in 1937, has been closed to flying since September 2016, its least obvious buildings are daring designs that link Hullavington to the Bauhaus and pre-war Modernism and invention in unexpected ways.

Around the perimeter of the airfield, for example, are late 1930s’ E-Type hangars. With their earth and turf roofs, these curved concrete buildings are truly discreet. Seen from the road, or from the air, they might be mistaken for Neolithic barrows, for which Wiltshire is famous. Think of the ancient earthworks around Avebury, from the low-lying to the spectacular like Silbury Hill, England’s echo of the pyramids of Ancient Egypt. Yet, where Silbury Hill is, as far as we know, a solid earthen mass, the doors of E-Type hangars at Hullavington open to reveal quite spectacular spaces, free of columns, and shaped by ingenious concrete roof structures derived, in this case, from the work of Hugo Junkers, the German inventor and industrialist better known for the aircraft, including the Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber, mass produced in his name at Dessau.

Workers assembling Wellington Bombers at the Vickers factory in Castle Bromwich | Photography Getty

A left-leaning pacifist, Junkers was one of the principal patrons of the Bauhaus. He played a key role in bringing the new design school to Dessau. Three years younger than Reginald Blomfield, Junkers was a successful inventor and maker of gas water heaters for bathrooms and fan heaters before turning to aircraft design. In 1915, he built the world’s first all-metal aircraft, the Junkers J.1. The material he employed was duralumin, an alloy of aluminium, copper, manganese and magnesium patented in 1909 by the German metallurgist Alfred Wilm. This was the material used to mass-produce the Supermarine Spitfires that shot down Junkers bombers in the Second World War. By this time, however, Junkers had been bullied to death by the Nazis, while Wilm had long since taken up farming.

12 December 1915, Maiden flight of Hugo Junkers’ j.1 the world’s first all-metal aircraft

In 1925, Junkers patented a steel development of the timber “Lamellandach”, or segmental roof, pre-fabricated structural system patented some years earlier by the German architect, engineer and town planner Friedrich “Fritz” Zollinger. Junkers’ net-like steel framework proved ideal for aircraft hangars. The first in Britain was built at Heston Air Park in 1930, in just five weeks, under licence by the Horseley Bridge & Engineering Company of Tipton, Staffs. Flight magazine described this as “hangar construction reduced to Mecanno simplicity”. The Horseley Bridge & Engineering Company sold its “Lamella” hangars on the strength not only of their innovative structure and speed of construction, but on that of “architectural beauty”, too.

The concrete E-Type hangars at Hullavington, with their roots in German design although employing a simplified construction system, stand testimony to both the evolving relationship between aviation and architecture and to the technology transfer between engineers fated to represent opposing sides and irreconcilable political creeds in a hugely destructive war. Kier & Co built the E-Type hangars in 1938. Eighty years later, the Kier Group is restoring two Dyson D-Type hangars. Steel framed Lamella hangars can be found at the former R.A.F. Kemble airfield, Gloucestershire.

The D-Types, built primarily as aircraft storage units, are built of reinforced concrete columns supporting concrete bowstring ribs, or trusses, that form the roof. Their 15-bay walls are solid 14in thick reinforced concrete with large steel windows at their upper level. Doors consist of six steel leaves, opening into concrete door gantries projecting from each side of the buildings. The construction of these hangars had been developed in France where sophisticated concrete engineering informed not only new airfield buildings, notably at Montaudron Airfield near Toulouse, but also the work of Auguste and Gustave Perret, whose church of Notre-Dame du Raincy (1922–23) remains a masterpiece of concrete construction. Le Corbusier worked in the brothers’ Paris studio in 1908–9. In certain lights, the Type D’s look like temples.

When, though, Hullavington airfield opened in June 1937, its runways were grass and its first aircraft biplanes. The Hawker Harts of No 9 Flying Training School were, however, exceptional machines. Built by Vickers at Weybridge between 1931 and 1936, these were trainer versions of the light bomber Sydney Camm endowed with the performance and aerobatic dynamics of the latest fighters. Apprenticed as a carpenter in 1908 at the age of fifteen, by 1925 Camm was chief designer at Hawker. His later aircraft included the Typhoon, Tempest, Sea Fury, the pitch-perfect Hunter jet fighter and the Hawker-Siddeley P.1127/Kestrel FGA.1, progenitor of the VTOL Harrier jump jet, one of which, of course, stands outside the main entrance to Dyson’s Malmesbury campus.

If you had been able to visit Hullavington in its 1940s heyday, you would have been impressed and perhaps even overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of RAF aircraft gathered there, from Mosquitoes, Spitfires and Lancasters to Douglas Bostons, North American Mitchells and GAL Hotspur troop-carrying gliders. Although squadrons based at Hullavington took part in the defence of Bath and Bristol, the airfield was built primarily for aircrew training, as well as the training of flight instructors, and for the storage of aircraft.

The atomic bomb, “Fat Man”, which was dropped on Japan in 1945 | Photography Getty

Perhaps the most famous wartime pilot trained here was Pilot Officer — later Group Captain — Leonard Cheshire VC, OM, DSO and Two Bars, DFC who was one of the two British observers on board the USAF B-29 bomber Big Stink when the atomic bomb Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki on 9th August 1945. Cheshire devoted the rest of his life to the care of people with disabilities. He may yet be canonised as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

9 August 1945, Cpt. Leonard Cheshire VC Observes dropping “the bomb” on Nagasaki

Hullavington’s parish church is named after Mary Magdalene, a redeemed sinner who became a saint. In the 11th Century land here was held in the possession of Harold Godwinson, better known as Harold I, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Harold was killed in 1066 during the last successful invasion of England.

Hullavington airfield was built to stop an just such an invasion by Nazi Germany. The immanent fear of the invaders of this irredeemable state in September 1939 saw ten Bristol Blenheim bombers of 114 Squadron flying from their base at R.A.F. Wyton, Cambridgeshire to Hullavington where they would be safe from attack by marauding Messerschmitts and Stukas. The presumed aerial assault never happened. The Blenheims returned home within a fortnight. Sir James Dyson, one of the judges of the 2015 Freddie March Spirit of Aviation Trophy at the Goodwood Revival, chose a painstakingly restored Blenheim as the winner. He would rather like to see a Blenheim on the new Dyson Hullavington campus. And, if not a Blenheim, then a Spitfire — or a Vulcan.

From 1939, Hullavington was given over to many overlapping uses. It was a base for R.A.F. storage and maintenance units. One of the many components stowed here was the Whittle gas-turbine engine, waiting to be dispatched to Canada for cold weather testing, that has pride of place today in Dyson’s Malmesbury campus. It is now joined by the oldest surviving example of the Rolls-Royce Welland jet, an engine that helped change the very nature of aviation.

The Whittle gas-turbine engine visiting Hullavington | Photography Getty

Volunteer R.A.F. gliding squadrons and their engineless aircraft had their base here, as did squadrons in charge of air defence balloons. The last of these “blimps” flew over the airfield in March 1995. The Empire Central Flying School was at Hullavington, as was No 1 Air Navigation School, the Air Electronics School, the Parachute Heavy Drop Company of the Royal Ordnance Corps, the Parachute Packing Unit, squadrons of the R.A.F. Regiment and the Defence Codification Data Centre, moved to Glasgow in 1986.

3 January 1993, Douglas Bailey, Senior Aircraftsman sets fire to a parachute store

The airfield was the venue of the 1970 World Aerobatic Championship won by Igor Egorov of the Soviet Union flying a Yak-18PM single-seater, the aerobatic version of the Yakovlev trainer that Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, used for initial flight training. During 1963, Russian-speaking Iraqi pilots were trained at Hullavington. And, not to forget, model aircraft clubs have flown their miniature machines here as well.

As well as the home of the ingenious and brave, Hullavington has been the playpen of the foolish, too. In January 1993 and after drinking seventeen pints of beer, Senior Aircraftsman Douglas Bailey, 26, set fire to the parachute store in one of the D-Type hangars causing £19m worth of damage. In 1703, according to a plaque attached to Hullavington church, and since lost, 33 year old Hannah Twynnoy, a servant at the White Lion Inn, where there happened to be a menagerie of exotic animals, “took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the remonstrance of its keeper”, a fierce tiger. Managing to escape from its cage, the enraged cat “sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.”

One of Hullavington’s parachute ovens | Photograph Dyson

The graves of young men based at R.A.F. Hullavington who died in training accidents during the WW2 can be found in dignified rows in the church of St Giles, Stanton St Quinton on the fringe of the airfield. Sir Reginald Blomfield and Sir Edwin Lutyens were two of the Principal Architects of the Imperial War Graves Commission. The graves they designed remain dignified. The major monuments they built — Blomfield’s Menin Gate at Ypres, the Thiepval Memorial overlooking the Somme by Lutyens — are profound designs by these grand anti-Moderns.

The R.A.F. ceased regular flying from Hullavington in 1965 and R.A.F. Hullavington was closed in March 1992. The Army took over. English Heritage designated the entire former airfield a conservation area, stating that Hullavington “embodies, to a unique degree, the improved architectural quality associated with the post-1934 expansion of the RAF. Most of the buildings have survived and form a particularly coherent and well-ordered ensemble.”

Those parts of the former airfield still in use by the Army were renamed Buckley Barracks in 2003, after Conductor John Buckley of the Bengal Ordnance Department, awarded the VC for his heroic defence of the Delhi magazine during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

In November 2016 the MoD announced that the site would close in 2029. Meanwhile, in February 2017 Dyson bought the 517-acre airfield site beyond the barracks and work began remodelling the D-Type hangars as the development of this new technology campus took off. This, however, did not happen at the flick of a switch as buying an MoD airfield is not an off-the-shelf deal. Far from it. Sir James, who has driven past the airfield since the late Sixties, had to persuade David Cameron’s government to sell the land after lengthy negotiations. Before coming to an agreement, there were two other contenders, Lyneham, closed in 2012, and Colerne where the Air Training Corps, the Royal Signals and Bristol University Air Squadron retain a presence.

Even then, “Crichel Down Rules”, established after a political scandal in 1954, require surplus government land acquired through compulsion to be offered back to former owners or their successors. Potential buyers must advertise their interest to ensure former landowners are informed. If both of the parties involved are then unable to reach an agreement, a lengthy judicial review can follow. In the case of Hullavington, claims on Hullavington were settled, but it was not exactly, to borrow a little wartime R.A.F. slang: a “piece of cake”.

An artistic render by showing the completed D-Type hangars | Photography Dyson & WilkinsonEyre

The exciting thing is that Hullavington airfield is back in action as a place of innovative new technology, architecture and design as it was when it first opened in 1937. It is underpinned today by conservation, by a care for this Wiltshire landscape and a sense of the ways in which competing ideas of architects, designers and engineers of the past and from competing countries are somehow reconciled in Dyson’s future adventure open to global markets. The world came to Hullavington in the 1940s to thwart the Axis powers. Now it reaches out to the world again.

As to the future, Dyson believes that Buckley Barracks, and the streetscape they occupy, would make an ideal test bed for intelligent electric cars, machines navigating the ground while, in terms of design and engineering, reaching for the sky.


This article was originally published in Dyson on: magazine. To read more visit on.dyson.co.uk