Prominent Figures in Air Structure History: R. Buckminster Fuller
There are many different types of domes in use throughout the world and they all have interesting development histories. Years before air-supported domes became common, geodesic domes began to dot the landscape. These structures use a geometric formula to fashion a sphere out of triangles. This might sound preposterous, but it’s actually quite brilliant.
Geodesic domes were revolutionary because they offer a great deal of enclosed space, while using relatively little in terms of construction materials. Designed to approximate a perfect sphere, they do not require any internal columns or supports. They also take up much less floor area than a conventional building occupying the equivalent space. The style makes them much easier to heat or cool, which can mean considerable savings.
The credit for the first dome of this type goes to Walter Bauersfeld, a German engineer who supervised the creation of a planetarium in 1926 on behalf of the Zeiss company. However, it was American R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller who really demonstrated the possibilities of this new form of structure.
A Noble Goal
American focused a huge amount of its manufacturing might on World War II. When the conflict finally ended, the country found itself with a housing shortage. Fuller felt geodesic domes could provide an excellent answer to the problem, thanks to the reduced construction time and supplies required.
His first attempt in 1948 failed, due to the use of materials lacking sufficient strength. However, increasingly durable and lightweight alternatives soon surfaced and these offered Fuller the degree of support and firmness necessary for the dome to function. While Fuller’s original plan for the housing domes didn’t pan out because of problems unrelated to his design, he was certainly not about to give up on such a promising concept.
Fuller created a company called Geodesics Inc. and the government asked him to create a smaller version of his dome for the Marines to use. The structures were very effective and Fuller received patents for his design.
Geodesic domes also became more common for other uses, though not on a massive scale. However, Fuller’s contributions to architecture kept him in demand throughout the rest of his career. He founded a new firm with Shoji Sadao called Fuller & Sadao, and the company went on to create the awe-inspiring dome that was the centerpiece of the US Pavilion at Expo 67.
Influence and Legacy
While his pet project didn’t become the widespread form of housing Fuller envisioned, geodesic domes have endured.
Even though they have been around for decades, they are still unique enough to be eye-catching and seem no less futuristic decades after their North American debut.
As geodesic domes offer an extremely sustainable type of structure, their popularity will almost certainly increase as this sort of design consideration is becoming increasingly important. Fuller’s devotion to material efficiency and energy conservation also influenced other pioneers to devote their time and expertise to improving upon current models.
While committed to helping provide effective, inexpensive housing, Fuller also dedicated his time to tackling issues related to science, geometry, cartography, and education. His accomplishments in these fields received substantial recognition in the academic community. He also held 28 patents and wrote an equivalent number of books. True to his belief in the effectiveness of the design, Fuller lived in his own geodesic dome in Carbondale, Illinois.
If you wish to learn more about Fuller and his contributions, you will find some rewarding reading at the Buckminster Fuller Institute.