I’ve found there’s two main reasons why people build geodesic domes. Some folks do it for shelter and others build them for pure enjoyment of the shape itself. Regardless of the reason, there’s something profoundly delightful that happens when a dome springs to life.
My interests in these structures started back in design school, where I was first introduced to the work of Buckminster Fuller. I became fascinated by his holistic approach to design, or as he called it “comprehensive anticipatory design science.” Bucky foretold of a scientific and socio-economic revolution accomplished through the use of livingry instead of weaponry.
Geodesic domes were just one of Bucky’s ideas to help heal a broken world. Quick, cheap, reliable, and self-supporting, these architectures can span incredible spaces with a minimal amount of material. Bucky foresaw the geodesic dome allowing everyone access to comfortable, efficient, and economically-viable housing.
Smart but not wise
Inspired by his ideas, folks started experimenting with geodesic domes. Communities like Drop City and Pacific High School used these structures as more than shelter. To them the geodesic dome became a symbol of a new way living: doing the most with the least, working together for the betterment of Spaceship Earth.
It’s important to note that neither Drop City, Pacific High School, nor many of the domes built in the 1960's and 70's survived. The materials used to cover these domes gave way after repeated abuse from the elements. While new materials and technologies exist that outperform those used by these early communities, the notion of using domes for shelter has been described as “smart but not wise” by architect Lloyd Khan. He continues:
“We are vertical to the earth. So are refrigerators, beds, bureaus, tables, kitchen counters, etc. These things fit best in a rectangular space, less efficiently in circular space.”
Take a look away from the glowing rectangular screen that you’re reading this on and look at the environment around you. You’ll most likely see a lot of rectangles and right angles. Sure, there’s a circle here and there, but my point here is that humans are really good at rectangles. Nature, on the other hand, is really good at circles.
Personally, I agree with Lloyd Khan. Geodesic domes are a great way to enclose space, but when it comes to permanent shelter, a simple structure with a pitched roof is easier to build, maintain and adapt than a geodesic dome. So if not for shelter, what good is a geodesic dome?
Another way of looking at it
When I started teaching design a couple years ago, I began experimenting with asking students to build geodesic domes on the first day of class. I was looking for something a bit more interesting than a syllabus review or introductory lecture so I decided to give it a shot. The results were unexpected, to say the least.
The students had a blast putting these shapes together. Because the structure depends on every part being in the right spot, the whole class had to work together to build the dome. A time limit created an additional constraint that encouraged a bit of friendly competition. At first I thought 20 minutes would be reasonable challenge, but since then I’ve witnessed highly-organized teams of students raise a dome in less than 7.
In the past couple of years I’ve tested this activity across varying age groups and have seen similar outcomes: from kids to adults, folks just love building domes. The activity offers an engaging, experiential alternative for practicing problem solving, collaboration, and leadership skills. Dome building lays the groundwork for an educational experience that teaches 21st century skills like systems thinking, visual literacy, and intellectual curiosity. It’s an engaging way to stimulate interest in STEM by helping students experience and interact with geometry at a human-size scale.
In the same way that the structure requires each part in the right place in order to hold its shape, the group that raises a geodesic dome must work together as a whole to achieve a common goal. The end result is a living structure that when built at a human-scale, exudes a peculiar energy that draws you in close and makes you feel comfortable.
It’s something primitive but at the same time distinctly modern. Architect Christopher Alexander calls it “the quality without a name.” As ineffable as this effect may be, it there’s something special about this network of triangles and the way it unfolds that seems to bring people together.
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