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How Buckminster Fuller Made A Dome Over Manhattan Sound Sensible

A never-before-published interview with the inventor details how he rationalized radical urban ideas.

How Buckminster Fuller Made A Dome Over Manhattan Sound Sensible

Cover Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Now that radical architecture is the status quo in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, it's easy to forget that historic countercultural visionaries once had to wade through plenty of eye rolls as they promoted their ideas.

Thomas Heatherwick/BIG

In 1971, documentarian and Village Voice journalist Howard Smith interviewed inventor and urban futurist Buckminster Fuller about his ideas about urbanism, including wilder concepts like his proposal for a dome covering part of Manhattan. The interview was recently published in The Smith Tapes (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015), and it gives us a fascinating glimpse into how Fuller pitched his ideas.

It would have been easy to dismiss Fuller as a quack at the time, considering he was expelled from Harvard, his magnum opus was titled Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, and his rambling writing style was prone to hyperbole and filled with invented terminology, such as synergetics and the Dymaxion World. One of Fuller's wildest ideas—Dome Over Manhattan, c. 1960—could have been taken as an April Fool's joke. He essentially proposed covering part of New York City to regulate climactic conditions and curtail energy use.

Yet, in Smith's interview, Fuller's argument for enclosing Manhattan in a glass bubble reads as completely rational, sound, and even-keeled. Here's why.

He Augmented A Radical Idea With Logic And Statistics

The challenge Fuller tackled throughout his career was doing more with fewer resources. He called it "a fundamental condition around our planet," and bolstered his solution—which was admittedly far-fetched—with a relatable and logical cost-benefit analysis to support his case:

I invented a way of enclosing space with what's called a geodesic dome, which is very much stronger and more efficient than other ways of enclosing space . . . I began to study how big a dome I could build and see whether if you made them bigger, the economics of it began to be unfavorable, and I found in fact that the bigger they got, the more favorable they were. So I got up to finally calculating one two miles in diameter, how much material it’d be and what the size of the members would be, how long it’d take to get in place. Having calculated, I found it very economical and would be very advantageous. I’d like to see what a two-mile-diameter dome would look like in relation to something that we’re very familiar with. I found that Manhattan at Forty-Second Street is exactly two miles [wide], so I said, I’m gonna then get an airbrush and an aerial photograph and then I can superimpose this two-mile dome to see just what it would look like, and I did that.

Fuller also used a universally relatable visual metaphor to explain those complex structural principles:

[A] sheet of paper, it doesn’t have any real structural strength, but you put it in a simple curvature and make a cylinder out of it, it makes a column and has some strength. Put in a compound curvature, you get the greatest strength. That’s why very thin eggshells have such great strength. So you want to get the greatest strength, you go in the spherical, and if you want to get the most volume, you go in the spherical. That’s why a geodesic dome, in the first place, is very economical and very strong.

© Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao

He Appealed To Collective Fears And Desires

Then he quantified the benefits and related them to resource scarcity—an issue that was beginning to emerge in earnest during these years:

I found that the surface of buildings [that] stood below our dome were 80 times the surface of my dome, which would mean that if you just had the covering over there, you’d reduce heat losses in New York 80 times. We would reduce down to about 20% of the amount of energy input you’d have to put in today . . . I began to figure out about a dome over Manhattan, finding I’d reduced the amount of surface [through] which it could gain or lose heat 80 times. Then I found once the covering was up there and as big as that, the rate of its loss of heat out from the dome to the outer world would be very, very greatly reduced. Therefore, the energies that you would have in your buildings, just for electric lights in New York City, would give you enough heat to take care of absolutely everything, just bouncing lights through the window. You would conserve the whole thing.

While the calculations about energy use in buildings could seem esoteric to the average person, trudging through snow-clogged streets was (and is) annoying for most city dwellers. And for the city, the long-term benefit of saving money on street maintenance is a plus. On the flip side, Fuller doesn't talk about how much maintaining the dome would cost the city:

I found that just the cost of the snow removals under that area that’s being covered for 10 years would pay for the dome. I’m saying that’s pretty interesting.

Then Fuller switched gears, talking about how the dome would help keep the pride of many Americans in the 1970s—their lawns and cars—in shipshape:

Time and again in New York City, we have great water shortages, and everybody is asked to stop washing automobiles and sprinkling the grass and all that, and even goes on to turn off your water half the day. During those great water shortages, we have great thunderstorms in New York, and all the rain just goes down the storm sewers. Beautiful rain, but it just goes down the storm sewers and no one can consume it. Once you put a big dome like that up, you have a beautiful guttering around and this all gets channeled off to a holding, to a great reservoir.

And He Called It What It Was: A Moonshot

Fuller also readily acknowledged that his was an idea whose time had not yet come, which softened the technical unfeasibility of the project:

Anyway, yes, it’d be very worthwhile to have cities under geodesic domes, but New York City, if you think about all the different owners of different lands, the controversy about "this in my air rights, I don’t want a thing over my thing here," I just don’t think it’s going to happen with New York City. But it can happen where you start out in places where energy is a really fantastic problem.

Taken in the context of today's water-starved California, the dome makes perfect sense, and Fuller's ideas read as less pie-in-the-sky and more pragmatic. This kind of formal radicalism just needed a few decades to settle in.

Who knows which concepts Silicon Valley will mine for its next wave of corporate office buildings. Perhaps Ant Farm's inflatables? They are the ultimate reflection of transparency, after all.