It was the centerpiece of the Montreal Expo of 1967: Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome, a vaulted structure made of lightweight materials that form interlocking polygons.
Nineteen years before that majestic statement, Fuller, an architect, author, designer, futurist, inventor, and visionary, had gathered a group of students together at Black Mountain College in Bunscombe County, NC to make the leap from theory to reality and construct the first full-scale geodesic dome.
Black Mountain College, established in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier and other former faculty members of Rollins College, was the first American experimental college boasting complete democratic self-rule, extensive work in the creative arts, and interdisciplinary academic study.
The faculty and students worked on a farm, did maintenance, served meals, and constructed buildings – no extracurricular activities or sports were organized as it was felt that there should be no distinction between work and play.
This independent, coeducational, four-year college was originally located in buildings leased from the Blue Ridge Assembly, near Black Mountain, N.C. In 1941 the college was moved nearby to property purchased by the college, and it remained at this location until it closed in 1956.
Josef and Annie Albers held central positions at Black Mountain from 1933-49. They arrived shortly after their previous home, the Bauhaus, had been closed by Hitler, and brought with them that institution’s emphasis on working from first principles, or starting at zero.
It was Josef Albers who invited Buckminster Fuller, as well as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall to teach at the 1948 summer session. At the time they were all struggling and unknown artists.
Buckminster Fuller’s project aimed to produce a dome with a forty-eight foot diameter, a height of twenty-three feet, and an area of fifteen hundred square feet. It was to weigh less than 270 pounds. The students measured long strips of venetian blinds and computed the tensile strength of each unit. Each strip was coded and the points marked where they would meet.
The class began to connect the points on the strips, but the dome collapsed to the ground when tension was applied during its attempted erection. Fuller had said in advance that it probably wouldn’t hold (the materials weren’t right), but decided nevertheless to go ahead and complete the class project, blithely referring to the experiment’s result as the supine dome.
As Fuller put it, “You succeed when you stop failing,” a valuable lesson for the young students. The next summer, working with a slightly larger budget and aluminum aircraft tubing, Fuller and his class succeeded.
The structures slowly filtered into public consciousness and commercial use: Ford commissioned the first commercial one for Dearborn. The military used them widely as radomes for early warning radar.
One of the Black Mountain students, Kenneth Snelson, claims that Buckminster Fuller took credit for Snelson’s discovery of the concept of tensegrity. Fuller gave the idea its name, combining tension and structural integrity. Geodesic domes are the most commonly known structures whose composition depends on tensegrity.
Fuller’s dome idea was just the tip of his “comprehensivist” thinking. His worldview included everything from his three-wheeled Dymaxion car to a plan to stack hundreds of houses in airplanes and drop them on underprivileged areas. In other words, a cornucopia of global, revolutionary, and completely unrealized plans.
Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, by Calvin Tomkins, MacMillan Publ, 2005