Why the Geodesic Dome

When the name Richard Buckminster Fuller is mentioned, what comes to mind next is the Geodesic Dome, for who could forget the most important single structure at the Montreal, Quebec Exposition in 1967. And everybody who visited the exposition grounds stood in awe at the magnificence of the U. S. Exposition Pavilion. This structure is a testament to the genius of the designer, of technological edge and awesome mathematical analysis – a manifestation of inventiveness and structural clarity (Jacobs).

But what is a Geodesic Dome? To give you an idea, a dome is a spherical structure placed over concrete or steel supports that houses a gymnasium or a large circular hall. Think of a whole ball, cut it, and in essence the half sphere is the dome. Now think of the structurally designed steel trusses to support an 83meter diameter spherical structure. Or maybe a dome made of reinforced concrete, imagine the man-hours that will be used to complete the structure. And you will be convinced that indeed constructing a dome is a tedious process and should be left to the experts.

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But, most of all consider the costs and time allied with the construction of the mammoth structures (Bowers). The Geodesic dome is another story as designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. A geodesic dome is a spherical structure designed with crisscrossing steel tubes that looks like a complex jargon of triangles, welded or bolted at its ends. Looking closely at the interconnecting triangular struts, the encompassing triangles are of different sizes – rightfully devised to form a spherical rather than an angular shell.

Actually the sphere is symmetrically subdivided into 31 great circles, much like the lines or longitudes that divide the earth. Since all struts are designed to hold together, each structural member becomes a contributor to the structural stability of the whole structure (Bowers). In the U. S. Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967, the Geodesic Dome was almost 80 meters in diameter. And what gave structural stability to the structure are the triangular struts made of 90mm diameter steel struts welded at its ends. The steel component used was only 1/50th of materials that could be otherwise used in a conventional dome construction.

So, because the structure was lightweight the cost to complete the project was similarly minimal. Because of the popularity of the Geodesic Dome, Fuller was commissioned to do a similar structure for Ford Motors Company, and the construction time was only 22 days (“Richard Buckminster Fuller”). The Early Years Richard Buckminster Fuller was born in Massachusetts in 1895 to a wealthy patrician New England family. He studied at Harvard University but failed to graduate as what other Fuller boys did, and this enraged his parents.

Then at age 22 he married his long-time sweetheart Anne Helwett and practically defied his family and volunteered to the U. S. Navy for wartime service. His stint at the U. S. Navy was a blessing because it taught him all the technical expertise that would later on mold his career. He was a naval communications officer and gunboat commander, attributes that honed the development of his scientific knowledge; the skill to harness the wind; to navigate blind by using only the stars; and improved the ships capability to cope up with the “Fluid Geography” of the seas (“R. Buckminster Fuller”).

In 1922, he left the U. S. Navy and started the Stockade Building Company, the idea is to produce lightweight building materials to house the returning servicemen. It was here that Fuller further developed his innate skills about design and architecture. But then in 1927 at age 32 he was booted out of Stockdale and found himself loitering along Lake Michigan, jobless and contemplating suicide. But the good Lord may have other plans for him, because he decided to devote his life for the betterment of others by doing “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity”.

Thus his journey towards the creation of “energetic-synergetic geometry” started to take root (Craven). Actually Fuller decided to continue experiments on matters dear to his heart – construction. A year after he applied for his first patent on the 4D Tower. This is a design of a lightweight, pre-fabricated, multi-story apartment tower that could be packed and delivered to sites anywhere in the world. This is so designed that once the tower is assembled on site, it could support itself – self generating lighting, heating system and a really efficient sewage disposal system.

This started Fullers quest for excellence as he was awarded 25 U. S. patents in the course of his lifetime for his inventions (Jacobs). What makes R. Buckminster Fuller different from the rest is his philosophy “more for less” which gave him the drive to really excel and devise things for the benefit of humanity. His quest to provide mankind an affordable housing resulted in the “Lightful Houses” designed with lots of openings so light can penetrate the inner sanctum of the structure, also constructed of lightweight materials making them stand out from the rest.

His agenda in life include visions of a world interconnected by an efficient transport system and modern communication lines a philosophy called four-dimensional, or the 4D design. This belief is anchored towards thinking in time rather than the three dimensions of space to serve the greater good rather than immediate personal satisfaction (“R. Buckminster Fuller”). Buckminster Fuller’s name catapulted to fame with the exhibition of the Dymaxion House in 1929. This was a breakthrough concept at the time, a residence made from lightweight steel, duraluminum and plastic panels that rest on a central cylindrical core.

The building in itself is hexagonal in plan, with all the rooms radiating cantilevered from the central core. Though the house was not intended as permanent residence, but temporary in nature, it could be transported anywhere or probably rented just like a modern modem from a cable company. His research and invention was not confined to housing, but also touched automotive design. In fact he had designed a flying car with inflatable wings with three prototypes developed for the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair (“Richard Buckminster Fuller”).

The War Years and onwards During the war, Fuller was busy with the designs of temporary shelter both for the British and American Armed Forces. And from 1948 onwards, Fuller taught in various Colleges and Universities, being a pioneer in project-based teaching, he often mixed student projects with his own experiments. But Fuller was charismatic and overtly enthusiastic and he developed long lasting friendships with his peers. This resulted in collaboration with various personages particularly those colleagues from the Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

This was important to Fuller, because in 1950 these colleagues helped in the first ever construction of the Geodesic Dome – his most important contribution to humanity, technology and architecture in particular (“R. Buckminster Fuller”). When the Geodesic Dome was completed, it was a technological innovation being the lightest, strongest and a really cost effective structure. It was envisioned by Fuller to cover large spaces without the often bulky internal support, as shown on the first fully completed Geodesic Dome, 49 feet in diameter in Montreal in 1950.

In fact this structural feat was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the following year. In 1954 two more of these domes were transported and constructed at the Milan Triennale exhibition in Italy. By 1957, Fuller has by then perfected his design of the Geodesic Dome and the first enormous auditorium sized structure was constructed and assembled in Honolulu in just over 22 hours (“R. Buckminster Fuller”). R Buckminster Fuller’s ingenuity has caught the attention of the world, and by then hundreds of these Geodesic Domes were constructed at different sites worldwide.

Since the Geodesic Dome is an inexpensive shelter it found its way to homeless families in Africa and when conditions at the scientific sites in the Antarctic becomes unbearable due to 180mph winds, the dome was likewise used. But the crowning glory of his achievement was the 61 meters high and a diameter of 76 meters Geodesic Dome designed together with Sadao for the U. S. Pavilion at the Montreal Expo ’67. It was hailed by critics as the most imposing of Fuller’s domes – the dome being a quarter sphere (Jacobs). The testament to his ingenuity

In his lifetime R. Buckminster Fuller delved into other disciplines, but nothing could equal his contribution to modern technology with his Geodesic Dome. In most instances, recognition to the importance of Fuller’s discoveries came only after his death. He had accumulated 25 patents, wrote 28 books, he traveled the globe 57 times and was a recipient of 47 honourary doctorate degrees, culminating with a 1969 nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. Through it all, Fuller’s strength and genius lies in his advocacy for change for the good of humanity (Jacobs).

And this dedication to a cause could be summed up by “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong”. R. Buckminster Fuller (“Quotations by Author”). Though R. Buckminster Fuller was a midget by physical standards (being only 5’2” in height), his achievements more than made-up for it, he grew to be a huge success and a Goliath in his chosen field (Craven).