While you might not find much written about the history of air domes, there are a few relatively unsung heroes of the industry. One of which is Ralph Farley, our founder, who gave the concept legs in North America. But air domes had to start somewhere, and one of the first successful air supported roof systems was made a reality by an American engineer by the name of David Geiger.
David Geiger was a brilliant man. He was born in 1935 in Philadelphia, and his extensive studies quickly made him to stand out as a multitalented engineer. During his long academic career, he obtained a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University, followed by a master’s with the University of Wisconsin, which he topped with a doctorate from Columbia University in the field of civil engineering. With a strong theoretical background, he went to work on unique projects—one of which would soon set off a revolution in fabric structures. This revolution would start on the world stage.
World’s fairs are often the site of the newest technologies and designs and Expo ’70, a world’s fair in Osaka, Japan, was no exception. The United States pavilion would be the world’s first air filled structure.
America wanted something different for their pavilion and multiple architects proposed concepts for the structure, but one design beat out all the rest. The architecture firm Davis Brody presented a design, which consisted of a 30-story high, air filled “pumpkin” to serve as the roof of the pavilion. The original idea was to project images and video to the inner surface.
The project was ambitious, to say the least, and congress would only approve half of the expected budget for the project. With fewer funds, the project had to be scaled back and it was up to David to figure out how to make it happen, but with much less money.
David had to concede on the 30-foot height and significantly shortened the structure—but to make it under budget, he had to get creative. To create a structure with a dome shape, Geiger had a stroke of genius. His alternative to a fixed dome was a fabric structure that, when inflated, would create the desired shape and look, but at a fraction of the cost.
The extreme height for the original design wouldn’t have worked anyway. Japanese codes meant the structure would need to be able to withstand typhoon level winds. To meet this, the height of the dome had to be severely restricted by placing cables in a criss-cross pattern across the dome. The rise would be limited to just 23 feet for a dome with a clear span of 262 by 460 feet.
David’s work opened the floodgates, and air-supported structures quickly took off. He would go on to design and build many more famous air structures including the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the Silverdome in Michigan, and several structures for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
As Sun Tzu said, though, “The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long,” and this was true for David. He passed away in 1989 at the age of 54.
David Geiger’s work lives on though, and his influence helped to solidify air-supported structures as a viable alternative to traditional construction. The Farley Group’s air supported structures owe much to David and his early air supported structures. If anything, his domes prepared the world for what would become one of the greatest solutions for creating indoor clear span spaces.