Home Sweet Dome

Home Sweet Dome

Behold one of the great grandmothers of all modern FRP buildings:

The Fly’s Eye Dome was visionary designer Buckminster Fuller’s ultimate statement, the culmination (he said) of everything he had learned in fifty years of design, and the thirty-two years before that.  Designed in 1980, there were three prototypes built, one each of three sizes: 12’ diameter, 24’, and 50’.  The largest one was exhibited at the Los Angeles Bicentennial in 1981, then disassembled and discarded in a field.  It remained there for 30 years until it was acquired by architectural curator and historian Robert Rubin, and restored by him.

The restored 50’ dome was re-assembled for exhibition at the Festival International d’Art in Toulouse, May 24-June 23, 2013, where it was positioned next to the river, an object that still packs futuristic impact standing in dramatic contrast with the centuries’ old buildings surrounding it.

Buckminster Fuller with the 24′ dome, and his Dymaxion car, in 1981. The dome is fitted with plexiglas glazing, including a “popped-up” skylight at the top that provides ventilation as well as light.

The round openings, which comprise 75% of the surface area, are the conceptual heart of the design.  Fuller strove to minimize the closed surface. The deep flanges of the openings give rigidity to the structure. (There are also shallow flanghes between the pieces that allow them to be bolted together.)  The openings would be used to provide a variety of functions: doors, windows, skylights, mountings for solar panels, etc. Fuller said in his book Critical Path, “As with the ports and pores of all organic systems, the size and shape of these openings sort, sieve and classify the inbound and outbound physical component traffic of metabolic regeneration which the domes embody.”

Fuller envisioned this dome as a complete, self-supporting environment, an “autonomous dwelling machine” with three stories containing not only living space but gardens as well. Fuller imagined double-shell structures, utilizing the area between the shells for insulation and mechanical services.  In other words, the prototype as-built was a versatile framework, both literally and figuratively, for different applications of the concept.

Robert Rubin wrote in March 2013:

Like the Maison Tropicale, the dome is best understood as a prototype for an industrialized building system that never got off the ground because it was too far ahead of its time (or, as tech entrepeneurs today say, “too early.”) Coincidentally, there were three tropical house prototypes (one deployed to Niamey, two to Brazzaville) and three fly’s eye dome prototypes, of which this one, at a diameter of 50’, is the largest. They were preceded by Fuller’s Dymaxion House, another exercise in aluminum, which today may be seen at the Ford Museum in Dearborn. My fascination with both Fuller and Prouvé derives from the artisanal nature of these industrial prototypes. Each has intriguing evidence of human fallibility embedded in its futuristic beauty. For example, certain panels had to be “modified” after the fact because one of the fiberglass molds was built without converting degrees to inches. In the restoration process, we left clear evidence of this. One is reminded that, in the industrial age but before the age of computers men built things that looked like they imagined they ought to look like, and used their head and their hands. Not to mention whatever was easily at hand at the last minute. (Futurists seem always to be working to tight deadlines.) For example, Fuller’s specs called for thin gauge aluminum or poly coated sheet steel to reinforce the fiberglass, but they settled for plywood for the prototype. Amazingly, we have not needed to replace this material yet. And although the dome has spent three decades disassembled in a California field, we needed only replace a few of the fiberglass panels. The rest were just fine.”

You can see a video about the assembly of the dome at Toulouse at http://www.groupe-bovis.com/fr/actualites/mai-13-le-dome-de-buckminster-fuller-installe-a-toulouse/181/

The blog Quimicamenta Composites reports that Goetz Composites, the boat-builder that restored the 24’ Fly’s Eye dome in 2011, scanned all the parts as they repaired the dome, creating 3-D render files, (which they have made available to the Buckminster Fuller Institute) that offer the possibility of using 21st century digital fabrication techniques to build new domes using state of the art methods.

Toulouse images via rocknfish.com.

24′ dome assembly images via Goetz Composites.