July 10, 2009

St. Louis Parabolas

Arches are commonplace architectural features; arches in the shape of parabolas are rather rare. One of the most striking instances of the use of parabolas in architecture can be found at the Priory Chapel of Saint Louis Abbey in Creve Coeur, Missouri.


Designed by Gyo Obata, the chapel’s circular fa├žade consists of three tiers of concrete parabolic arches. The arches stretch upward from a grassy base; the top row forms a bell tower.
Photo by Jane Barnard.

Based in St. Louis, Obata was also responsible for the striking hyperboloid design of the James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the St. Louis Science Center. In addition, he designed the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., a structure that consists of four marble-encased cubes connected by three steel-and-glass atria.


A view of the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by I. Peterson.

The famous Gateway Arch, part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, is not a parabola. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the structure is essentially an inverted catenary, described by the hyperbolic cosine function. Obata studied under Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

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