The concept of a geodesic dome and its contribution to 20th-century architecture was attributed to Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983). I was surprised to find an article in the weekend Haaretz newspaper (2020-01-14) about a cultural center designed by Buckminster Fuller and built on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem. Beit Habanim, the 865-seat cultural center, was commissioned by the Ben-Horin family in memory of Amram and Yohanan Ben-Horin, who fell in the 1967 war. It is said to be a spectacular concert and performance hall, with a vast dome rising in its center. The dome features a “lattice construct made of gilded aluminum [hexagons] that create a magical atmosphere through the light projected on them.” After such glowing description, it was a much bigger surprise to read that Buckminster Fuller was an autodidact who did not complete his studies and did not have an architectural license!
My husband was the one who introduced me to the work of “Bucky” Fuller. He became a fan a long time before we met. His studies in engineering, physics and biophysics helped him to recognize the ingenuity of the dome structure and its connection to structures within the human body. When he was working on his PhD at the University of Western Ontario, he befriended Prof. Arthur von Hochstetter from the Anatomy department, who was investigating spherical and ellipsoidal organs in the body. The professor showed my husband excitedly series of pictures of spherical-shaped organs like eyes, testicles, and ovaries, showing that they are formed by collagen fibers arranged in Star-of-David-shaped structures. He got very excited when my husband introduced him to the ideas of Buckminster Fuller. He immediately wrote to invite Fuller to his lab. The two became close friends, but I do not think that my husband had the honor to meet him, since he left shortly before the visit for his post-doctoral study at the Weizmann institute.
A short while later Prof. von Hochstetter went back to his native Switzerland to head the Anatomy department at the University of Basel. That is where I met this gracious and warm human being on our way back to Canada via Switzerland. He reminisced with my husband about the time he spent at Western, and I remember him telling me that Stars of David form the strongest structure with the minimum amount of material. That is why the important organs in the body are constructed like geodesic domes. When we unpacked many boxes of books at our home in Canada, I found several books by and about Buckminster Fuller that fascinated me. We were delighted to be able to attend a public lecture he gave at the University of Western Ontario in 1968. Both of us were interested in design and modern architecture, and for a long time we used to buy Modern Architecture magazine.
We did not have much money left over after a down payment for our home, mortgage payments, and purchasing a car. We started to construct our own furniture. My mother-in-law flew in from Winnipeg to meet her new granddaughter and was horrified to see that we constructed out own beds from 4X8 sheets of plywood and six 4X4 cedar posts. My husband still uses this bed, but he now has a fancy new mattress instead of the original foam mattress. When she saw her son building furniture she despairingly exclaimed “you had to study so many years at university in order to become a carpenter?” Sadly, this attitude that appreciates purchased things rather than self-made ones stems from growing up with very few possessions and wishing a more affluent existence for your children. Affluence that expressed itself by possessions. The styles of the late 1960s were all heavy upholstered furniture, which I abhorred. I was drawn to clean, simple ergonomic designs which I found in Buckminster fuller’s modern homes featured in his books and his own home. We also liked Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant simplicity, and even managed to visit his home in Chicago many years later. Our kitchen table and chairs, which we designed and built more than 50 years ago, are still the ones we use every day in our kitchen. The table saw is still sitting on the covered patio outside our kitchen. We bought it 50 years ago with money we’d designated to purchase a refrigerator, since the former owner left the old fridge for us. It saw much use in the first 15 years when we were outfitting the house with needed items.
One rainy Sunday afternoon my husband and I challenged each other to draw our dream house. My husband drew a nice one-story ranch house, with pleasant symmetries and down-to-earth dimensions. Mine was a huge geodesic dome, with a swimming pool in the middle, surrounded by a wide area of patio, and a lush garden. The first floor beyond the patio consisted of guest rooms, a shower and dressing room, a large kitchen area, living room equipped with lounging areas, music, and a screening space. There was another space for play and art. There was an elevator to the second floor, where there were 4 bedrooms and attached bathrooms, and 2 more spaces as office and ham radio station/electronics workshop. An internal balcony went around the entire floor, with doors leading to the various bedrooms and work spaces. A large slide led from the master bedroom balcony area directly to the pool, so I could slide down to swim as soon as I woke up. When my husband looked at it, he asked, “Do you realize the size of the property you would need in order to have such a place?” Pulled back down to reality.
Geodesic dome as a home was actually possible. Built for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, Canada, this geodesic dome (part of the “Man and his World” exhibition) by Buckminster Fuller is known as the Biosphere and houses an environmental museum. Beside it was an attraction, a Solar Experimental House, which today is no longer experimental, nor a novelty. There are already companies that offer self-construction kits, like the one shown here. The same company, GEODOMAS, offers a large variety of pre-built models, plus designing and building your own dream house. Were I to build my dream house today, I would probably attach to the entrance a smaller dome, with a separate entrance, to be used as a studio, equipped with sitting space and art space.
Admittedly, it is a bit more than 50 years later, but my daughter and my architect son-in-law are about to erect a geodesic dome for group workshops on Sally’s Brook, their property, which they transformed into an Eco-Friendly wilderness camping facility, on beautiful Cape Breton Island, close to the entrance to the Cabot trail. I plan to be there this summer and lead a workshop retreat, if only this clingy pandemic would finally let go.
This is only the beginning of the largest dream which Buckminster Fuller proposed a decade ago. Right after the great depression Fuller was desperate enough to try to drown himself in lake Michigan. He had a meaningful experience as if being told “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself.” This experience led to a profound re-examination of his life. He ultimately chose to embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” From there the road led to all his inventions, though he did not like that term. Although he dabbled in creating many different transportation vehicles, his greatest contribution to humanity remained the geodesic dome. He lived in his creation, which is still preserved as “Bucky’s Home.” But his greatest desire was to see the creation of an entire city under a dome, which would protect it from the harsh elements and enable humanity to survive the environmental disaster that he foresaw. Even though in 1960 he proposed, together with his collaborator Shoji Sadao, The Dome over Manhattan, a 3-kilometer-diameter geodesic domed city covering Midtown Manhattan, it was never approved, and the project only lives in science fiction movies based on the idea. Like many other of his dreams, it may one day be fulfilled.