The photograph (left) shows Robert Kronfeld in his 1929 glider Wien designed by Alexander Lippisch to Kronfeld’s specifications. The Wien was the first glider to establish the possibility of long-distance cross-country soaring flights.

I have always been fascinated by aviation. Although architectural design has been my chosen profession, which I have found fascinating, like many others not fortunate enough to make their career as a pilot, I have spent huge chunks of my time pursuing non-professional flying… and of course reading many, many books on anything related to it. It might be surprising to some, but an interest in aviation is totally compatible with a passion for design matters. Aircraft are not only outstanding examples of engineering design, but the aerodynamic qualities that are crucial for efficient performance has also often led to great aesthetic beauty, form following function. Aircraft structures, which need to be strong and light demand innovation in form and materials. Appreciating the way in which a beautiful aeroplane is designed, made, and operated is not that far from appreciating a high-quality building.

For me, the ultimate aircraft is the glider, designed as it is for its aerodynamic soaring efficiency so that it (and its pilot) may stay aloft utilising just the energy generated by the atmosphere. Early gliders used traditional materials like wood and fabric, but in an innovative way bringing ultimate strength for minimal mass. Contemporary gliders have built on this tradition with early adoption of high strength composite materials such as glass-fibre and carbon-fibre. Glider pilots are tested not only on their ability to control their aircraft, but also must have a deep understanding of its construction and maintenance (for safety and performance reasons) as well as how the meteorological atmosphere affects and sustains it. 

Literature is an important part of the architectural world – there are uncounted books on the subject covering diverse aspects of its design history and construction. In my experience there is a far smaller library of books about aviation, although some prominent author’s works have transferred beyond specialist reading (for example the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry). Just before the first lock-down I came across a book which in retrospect has been a real inspiration in getting me to buckle down and scratch my gliding itch properly by finally doing the work to earn my licence. It’s a rare book (although you can read the entire thing for free by downloading it from the Sailplane and Gliding archive section of their website), and I was excited a few weeks ago when I spotted a copy on an online auction site. The seller accepted my offer, so I now have my own copy. Published in 1932, and never re-printed, it’s called Kronfeld on Soaring and Gliding

Robert Kronfeld was a pioneer glider pilot who set many landmark records for duration, height, and distance in the early days of the sport, flying at the legendary Wasserkuppe site in Germany, and elsewhere in the inter-war years. He not only helped develop many of the advanced soaring techniques that are so familiar today, but he was also deeply involved in expanding meteorological knowledge, and the design development of the modern glider. He was brave not only in his flying exploits, pushing the boundaries of human flight in an era where danger and death were the pilot’s close companions, but in his own personal ethics, an Austrian Jew who defied the Nazis by escaping to England to fly with the RAF during World War II. He could also write! This is an easy and compelling read, with a fantastic re-telling of his experiences such as his record-setting flights and travelling around Europe popularising the sport of soaring and gliding, but also the methodology and experience of designing and building these cutting-edge machines. Sadly, Kronfeld died shortly after the war testing a prototype tail-less glider. 

Reading this amazing book by another ‘RK’ struck home to me what a fascinating legacy gliding has. It is an endeavour without which all forms of flying would never have existed, and which counts very special people amongst those who are its enthusiasts. Architecture is often referred to as a merging of art and technology, but in my (non-professional) experience of aviation I would argue that in many aspects of its pursuit, it is easy to see how aeronautical engineering creativity can also be compared to artistic endeavour. In fact, this is true for many aspects of applied engineering, particularly in the sphere of vehicle design. Kronfeld’s life work is a great example of this; he was a pilot first, but his consummate understanding of aircraft technology pushed design development in the field forward enormously. No wonder he is an inspiration to the designer and pilot in me.