Happy Bucky day!

July 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

Montreal from inside Bucky's Expo '67 dome

Jackie Craven’s blog just reminded me that it’s Buckminster Fuller’s birthday today–he would have been 115, and would have been seriously ticked off at the state of the planet.  (Oil spill in the gulf?  You’re still burning that stuff?  Don’t you realize that the interest on the energy debt for a gallon of crude oil is…)

Bucky’s career was proof that one great idea can make up for hundreds of poor ones.  Just to remind you of the litany of woes–he dropped out of Harvard, went bankrupt twice (nearly taking down his father-in-law once), developed a serious drinking problem and had a nervous breakdown all before he turned 50.  Most of us might have packed it in at that point, but during WWII he published a novel–if not new–map of the globe in Life and got a second career going.  The failure of the Wichita House, an attempt to re-jig the aircraft industry into providing homes, nearly stopped him again, but after a summer of teaching at Black Mountain College, his interpretation of student Kenneth Snelson’s idea for a structure composed of discrete tensile and compressive members, combined with the geometry of the Life “airocean” map led to the first crude geodesic dome.

That, of course, made his fortune and gave him a global platform for his developing ecological philosophy.  The dome’s sprouted up everywhere–as housing for DEW radar systems in the arctic, as do-it-yourself shelter in hippie communes in the desert, and as housing for cold war propaganda courtesy of the U. S. State Department.  That route is how a gigantic dome sprouted up in the middle of the St. Lawrence River as part of Expo ’67.  It’s now, appropriately, a museum of ecology and home of the best view of Montreal’s downtown.  We happened to be there yesterday.

The most telling story about the dome is its intriguing foundation problem.  The structure was originally clad in lightweight acrylic, and midway through the design process one of Bucky’s associates realized that the temperature differential between the inside air and the outside environment on a hot day would be enough to lift the lightweight dome off the ground.  The foundations, therefore, had to be designed for tension, in addition to compression.  Bucky, of course, thought this was fantastic, and later proposed floating geodesic cities using solar energy to create uplift.

So Happy Birthday, Bucky–it may be another hundred years or so before we catch up.

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