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Design Icons

The story of Buckminster Fuller’s radical geodesic dome

About the author

Jonathan Glancey is a journalist and broadcaster. Formerly Architecture and Design correspondent of the Guardian and Architecture and Design Editor of the Independent, he writes for the Daily Telegraph and works with the BBC on radio and television documentaries. His books include The Story of Architecture, Lost Buildings, Spitfire: the biography, Nagaland and Giants of Steam.

(Katie Rommel-Esham, wikipedia cc by 3.0)

(Katie Rommel-Esham, wikipedia cc by 3.0)

The radical design conceived by inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller was futuristic and influential. Jonathan Glancey salutes a revolutionary structure.

For the technically or mathematically minded, a geodesic dome is a spherical structure composed of triangular elements forming part of a network of circles, or ‘geodesics’, on the surface of a given sphere. This description might seem a little mind-bending, yet for New Age Americans in the 1960s and ‘70s, the geodesic dome, for all its formal complexity, represented freedom, the potential to create a wholly new form of lightweight structure that, theoretically, could be placed anywhere within the United States.

The idea of a home that could be manufactured in a factory and flown by helicopter to any suitable plot of land had long been a dream of the US inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller. Born in 1895, Fuller was a more or less a practical dreamer. Expelled twice from Harvard, he took on such unlikely jobs as a labourer in a stockyard and commander of a crash rescue boat in World War I before finding funds – through persuasion and charm – to develop a number of prototypes for factory made homes. He called these radical devices Dymaxion houses. Fuller believed they would sell like Model-T Fords, but they never quite caught on.

Fuller even developed a Dymaxion car that was like no other that has been seen on US roads or anywhere else since. The British architect Norman Foster has recently had a replica built of this enormous, three-wheel, streamlined Buck Rogers-style car. Originally, only three were built.

The three-wheeled 1934 Dymaxion 4 Door Transport by Buckminster Fuller (Getty)

The three-wheeled 1934 Dymaxion 4 Door Transport by Buckminster Fuller (Getty)

Where Buckminster Fuller did meet with some success was in the version of the geodesic dome he created with help from the artist Kenneth Snelson in the late 1940s. Fuller's lightweight lattice of intersecting icosahedrons was granted a US patent in 1954.

Few people either then or now wanted to live in a dome that looked as if it would have been more at home on Mars than Dallas or Des Moines.

London calling

The US Marine Corps, however, commissioned thousands of small geodesic domes that could be delivered to the military anywhere around the world by helicopter. Larger Fuller domes were put to use as weather stations, long range radar stations and storage depots.

The most impressive of all was the eye-catching US Pavilion at Expo ‘67, the World Fair held that year in Montreal. It captured the attention of futuristic architects around the world and especially the young architect Norman Foster who employed Fuller as a consultant to his adventurous and, ultimately, hugely successful London studio until  Fuller's death in 1983.

The United States pavilion at the Montreal Expo (Keystone/Getty Images)

The United States pavilion at the Montreal Expo (Keystone/Getty Images)

What fascinated architects was Fuller's claim that the geodesic dome offered the greatest volume for the least surface area,  a case of doing very much more with very much less. The biggest of all geodesic domes, at 216m is in Fukuoka, Japan. And Fuller and his wife lived happily in a geodesic dome in Carbondale, Illinois until they died.

Even then, and despite its influence among Hi-Tech architects, the geodesic dome remains a rare and exotic building type.

Although it never sold in anything like the numbers envisaged by Fuller, nevertheless he went on to become highly feted wherever he travelled and talked: his fascinating lectures spanning technology, engineering, environmentalism, philosophy, life and the universe could go on for hours on end. Students adored "Bucky" and in 1983 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.

Dymaxion House was designed by Fuller in 1927. (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)

Dymaxion House was designed by Fuller in 1927. (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)

Space age

Today, a number of camping supply shops claim to sell ‘geodesic domes’; these canvas and timber tents are, however, very far removed  from Fuller's gleaming steel and aluminium domes. Here were buildings that promised a revolutionary shift in the design of homes, much in the way that Henry Ford – a hero to Fuller – offered a cheap and reliable automobile as a replacement for the horse and trap. But, how exactly was a modern nuclear American family to divide up a dome to everyone's, or anyone's, satisfaction? And just how did all your old furniture fit into an interior formed of continuously curved and sloping walls?

Fuller's geodesic dome was, however, far from being the end of the road for what might have seemed to many people little more than a quixotic design and engineering adventure. Not only were the most impressive domes – like Montreal's and the Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth’s  – truly thrilling Space Age designs, very much in tune with NASA and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the mind's eyes of today's computer age designers, the logic of its mesmerising structure is there to be morphed and stretched into adventurous new architectural spaces – huge, unprecedented spaces free of columns and other supports – that we will come to see in the near future on the design of a variety of large scale public and private buildings.

The biosphere for the 1967 World Expo (David Muenker / Alamy)

The biosphere for the 1967 World Expo (David Muenker / Alamy)

Meanwhile, the sheer visual drama and excitement of Fuller's geodesic domes have been celebrated in popular culture, in the 1967 James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, and as a spoof as the headquarters of Dr Evil in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. After all, what more perfect headquarters could there be for a villain bent on world domination than a mighty, ultra-modern dome? On a gentler note, the first big geodesic dome to make an impression on the public, built for the1964 New York World's Fair, is today the much-loved aviary of Queens Zoo.

Fuller, a brave and enterprising inventor, designer and thinker pointed an intriguing way forward. We might not be living in steel domes delivered by helicopters, with or without US Marines in tow, but the shadow of Fuller's brave new domes is proving to be a long one. The geodesic dome had been a slow burn in terms of everyday design, but its influence should never be underestimated. And doesn't that Montreal dome still speak of a Space Age future we might almost have achieved?

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