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Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Biosphere’ Celebrates 50 Years of Pioneering Sustainable Design

POSTED BY katherine mcbride COMMENTS

This year one of Buckminster Fuller’s crowing achievements, the US Pavilion at Expo 67’ in Montreal, now known as the ‘Biosphere’ celebrates it’s 50th anniversary.  We thought we’d take a moment to pay tribute the man who is regarded as one of the forerunners of the sustainability movement in architectural design, and the geodesic dome that is now synonymous with his legacy.

The US Pavillion at Expo 67 in Montreal, now known as the 'Biosphere'

Buckminster Fuller is considered one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. During his lifetime Fuller took on many roles including that of designer, architect, philosopher, and scientist. Both a renaissance man and a true visionary, Fuller’s forward thinking ideas are as relevant today as they were half a century ago.  At a time in history when ideas like sustainability and green design were a distant concept rather than a  design standard for the 21st century, Fuller and his followers were at the forefront of the environmental movement, and greatly contributed to opening people’s eyes to the need for green solutions in building and design.  Fuller argued that we were on the brink of either ‘utopia or oblivion’ and emphasized that how we chose to move forward, and the relationship we had with our ‘Spaceship Earth’ would greatly impact generations to come in the not so distant future.

Through his philosophies, experiments, and inventions, Fuller was always seeking to find a way to lessen our environmental footprint.  A common theme to his work and philosophies encompassed the ideas of finding new and innovative ways to solve humanity’s ongoing struggles with ‘housing, energy, shelter, ecological destruction, and poverty’ (bfi.org). One of the ways he sought to tackle these issues was through the use of new building materials, and developing structures that were more versatile and efficient than traditional building materials and structures.

Buckminster Fuller, Stands infront of his Domed City design, 1971 (source: wikipedia)

Buckminster Fuller, Stands infront of his Domed City design, 1971 (source: wikipedia)

One of Fuller’s most successful and well-known contributions as an architect and designer is the Geodesic Dome.  This is an invention that draws on his design philosophy of doing less with more.  A geodesic dome is a ‘sphere-like structure composed of a complex network of triangles. The triangles create a self-bracing framework that gives structural strength while using a minimum of material’ (architecture.about.com). Geodesic domes can be built on any terrain and built to withstand any climate.  Domes are structurally quite strong and stable, lightweight, easy to build, and energy efficient.  The building materials required for Domes are generally low cost and economical.   Today there are over 300,000 geodesic dome structures worldwide, and across the United States homeowner’s and enthusiasts of dome dwellings swear by their structural superiority, efficiency, and lower energy bills.

One of the most notable and recognized Geodesic Domes was the one that Fuller built to house the US Exhibition at Expo 67.  Fuller was approached by the US Information Agency to construct the US Pavilion for the 1967 World’s Fair in 1963. The dome was constructed of a three-dimensional steel frame with an acrylic skin, and 1900 triangular panels.  It was 200 feet tall, or 20 stories, and 250 feet in spherical diameter. It was the first ¾ sphere, and up until this time most Geodesic Domes in existence were hemispherical, meaning they were only half dome structures (greatbuildings.com).

US Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal (source: playle.com)

US Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal (source: playle.com)

Expo 67 is considered the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th century with over 50 million visitors during its six month run and a record breaking number of single day attendance for a World’s Fair Opening Day of over 300,000 visitors.  The theme of the Fair was “Man and His World” and was celebrated during Canada’s centennial year.  There were 62 nations that participated in the fair, and of all of the attractions at the fair, the US Pavilion and Fuller’s Geodesic Dome was the most popular and visited exhibition, and was regarded as the symbol of Expo 67(tourisme-montreal.org).  The dome itself served as the exterior structure that housed the US exhibition.  It was a joint collaboration between Buckminster Fuller, and the Cambridge Seven; an American architecture and design firm that also collaborated on exhibits, signage, and graphics.

The theme of the Exhibition was ‘American Creativity’ and the concept was developed by the US Information Agency as a way to showcase on an international stage, all of the creative achievements of the United States.  Through the transparent acrylic skin of the structure, visitors could look out and view the grounds of the Fair, and from the outside looking at the dome was said to resemble ‘an enormous silver bubble that floated above the fairgrounds’ (tourisme.org).  Another notable architectural feat of the structure worth mentioning is that the ‘mini-monorail’ built for transportation of visitors around the Fairgrounds, which ran through the dome, giving guests a glimpse of the inner workings of the American Exhibit without having to wait in the long lines to come inside.

Interior of US Pavilion at Expo 67 designed by Cambridge Seven (source: 032c.com)

Interior of US Pavilion at Expo 67 designed by Cambridge Seven (source: 032c.com)

The interior structure of the Dome designed by the Cambridge Seven was meant to demonstrate to the world the creative genius of America and the United States conquest of outer space. It was constructed of six separate terraces that were connected by massive escalators, the largest ever constructed at this point, which moved people from one section of the exhibit to another.  The exhibits included Modern American Pop Art and the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, a separate ‘Ode to Hollywood’ section that saluted film stars of the Golden Age of Film, and among a variety of other American artifacts, at the very top of the dome a tribute to American technology in Space that featured a lunar landscape with actual space craft used by NASA.

Internationally the dome and exhibit were received quite well, but to Americans, and then president, Lyndon Johnson, the exhibit was a monstrosity, and generally quite hated.  Out of the 90 Pavilions that were built for Expo 67 only 4 pavilions still exist at the original site.  Of these, is the US Pavilion, which is now known as the ‘Montreal Biosphere’ and houses exhibits that address environmental concerns including ‘climate change, air and water quality control, and sustainability’ (ec.gc.ca/biosphere).  That one of his most famous inventions is now the site of a museum dedicated to the environment is fitting legacy for one of Buckminster Fuller’s most notable Geodesic Domes, and a tribute to his ongoing legacy and historical significance.

View from Inside Montreal's Biosphere (source: thewiredjester.co.uk)

View from Inside Montreal’s Biosphere (source: thewiredjester.co.uk)

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