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Jonathan Ellis-Miller of Jonathan Ellis-Miller Architects talks to Sutherland Lyall about SOM's United Airlines wash hangar, San Francisco, 1958

This is the grown-up version of the car wash - designed specifically for DC8 jets.

The 16.5m-high slot in the middle is for the tall tail fin of the aircraft which was towed through the 48m-deep structure for washing. It's square in plan so the clear span is 48m as well, with the frames at a spacing of 12m. The 914mmwide columns start splaying half-way up - at the point where the end cladding starts. The columns widen to 1371mm at their junction with the 1371mm-deep main beam. The designer was Myron Goldsmith, then architect and chief structural engineer to the San Francisco office of SOM, working with senior designer James Ferris.

Some people would say this is a banal building. They are the sort of people who can't see its meaning, the kind of people who would try to make a building interesting simply for the sake of it. Goldsmith had done the engineering for Mies's Farnsworth House and understood what Mies was about. But Mies would never have done those splayed bits on the columns. He was too much of a stylist. And that's what's great about this building. It's a standard building type with a mundane function, a type built elsewhere all over the world. Badly. Yet Goldsmith's building is incredibly elegant. It's elegant because it is utterly straightforward. It's the result of following the logics of absolute function and of structural function. Every element of the structure and every detail has been thought out. Everything has a reason for being there.

There's a joy in observing this rigorous elegance. Yet the building is fun. It's just so good it makes you laugh. And like brilliant one-liners it's the way you tell 'em: you have to go to extraordinary lengths to arrive at that utter simplicity and directness.

And think. When this was designed, SOM was the greatest architectural practice in the greatest country in the world.

And what happened when this little, relatively unimportant job offering a banal structural problem came into the office?

Its design went not to one of the staff, but to Myron Goldsmith. In what giant international practice of the present would that happen?

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