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The birth of the geodesic dome; how Buckminster Fuller did it. SECOND PART.
By Admin (from 31/01/2012 @ 15:01:14, in en - Science and Society, read 2175 times)

... CONTINUES.

A New Form of Architecture

In 1948, the geodesic dome was far from the amazingly sophisticated structure it would become only a few years later.  In fact, it consisted primarily of Bucky's idea and an enormous pile of calculations he had formulated.

Although Fuller was developing and studying the geodesic dome using small models, he was eager to expand his understanding through the construction of larger, more-practical projects.  Thus, when he was invited to participate in the summer institute of the somewhat notorious Black Mountain College in the remote hills of North Carolina near Asheville, Fuller eagerly accepted.  He had lectured at that rather unorthodox institution the previous year and had been so popular that he was asked back for the entire summer of 1948.

When he was not delivering lengthy thinking-out-loud lectures that summer, Fuller's primary concern was furthering an entirely new form of architecture. In his examination of traditional construction, he had discovered that most buildings focused on right-angle, squared configurations.

He understood that early human beings had developed that mode of construction without much thought by simply piling stone upon stone.  Such a simplistic system was acceptable for small structures, but when architects continued mindlessly utilizing that same technique for large buildings, major problems arose.  The primary issue created by merely stacking materials higher and higher is that taller walls require thicker and thicker base sections to support their upper sections.  Some designers attempted to circumvent that issue by using external buttressing, which kept walls from crumbling under the weight of upper levels, but even buttressing limited the size.

Fuller found that the compression force (i.e., pushing down) that caused such failure in heavy walls was always balanced by an equal amount of tensional force (i.e., pulling, which in buildings is seen in the natural tendency of walls to arc outward) in the structure.  In fact, he discovered that if tension and compression are not perfectly balanced in a structure, the building will collapse.  He also found that builders were not employing the tensional forces available.  Those forces are, instead, channeled into the ground, where solid foundations hold the compressional members, be they stones or steel beams, from being thrust outward by tension.  Always seeking maximum efficiency, Fuller attempted to employ tensional forces in his new construction idea.  The result was geodesic structures.

Because Bucky could not afford even the crude mechanical multiplier machines available during the late 1940s and was working with nothing but an adding machine, his first major dome required two years of calculations.  With the help of a young assistant, Donald Richter, Fuller was, however, able to complete those calculations.  Thus, he brought most of the material needed to construct the first geodesic dome to Black Mountain in the summer of 1948.

File:Dymaxion house.jpg

A Dymaxion House at The Henry Ford.

Disappointment before Success

His vision was of a 50-foot-diameter framework fabricated from lightweight aluminum, and, working with an austere budget, he had purchased a load of aluminum-alloy venetian-blind strips that he packed into the car for the trip to the college.  Over the course of that summer, Bucky also procured other materials locally, but he was not completely satisfied with the dome's constituent elements, which were neither custom-designed for the project nor of the best materials.  Still, with the help of his students, the revolutionary new dome was prepared for what was supposed to be a quick assembly in early September, just as the summer session was coming to an end.

The big day was dampened by a pouring rain.  Nonetheless, Bucky and his team of assistants scurried around the field that had been chosen as the site of the event, preparing the sections of their dome for final assembly, while faculty and students stood under umbrellas, watching in anticipation from a nearby hillside.  When the critical moment arrived, the final bolts were fastened and tension was applied to the structure, causing it to transform from a flat pile of components into the world's first large geodesic sphere. The spectators cheered, but their excitement lasted only an instant as the fragile dome almost immediately sagged in upon itself and collapsed, ending the project.

Although he must have been disappointed that day, Bucky's stoic New England character kept him from publicly acknowledging such emotion.  Instead, he maintained that he had deliberately designed an extremely weak structure in order to determine the critical point at which it would collapse and that he had learned a great deal from the experiment.  Certainly, the lessons learned from that episode were valuable, and his somewhat egocentric rationale was by no means a blatant lie.  However, had he really been attempting to find the point of destruction, Bucky would have proceeded, as he did in later years, to add weights to the completed framework until it broke down.

In his haste to test his calculations, Fuller had proceeded without the finances necessary to acquire the best materials.  Because of the use of substandard components, the dome was doomed to failure, and a demonstration of the geodesic dome's practical strength was condemned to wait another year.

During that year, Fuller taught at the Chicago Institute of Design.  He and his Institute students also devoted a great deal of time to developing his new concepts.  It was with the assistance of those design students that Fuller built a number of more successful dome models, each of which was more structurally sound than the previous one.

Then, when he was invited to return to Black Mountain College the following summer as dean of the Summer Institute, Fuller suggested that some of his best Chicago Institute students and their faculty accompany him, so that they could demonstrate the true potential of geodesic domes.

Having earned some substantial lecture fees during the previous year, Bucky was able to purchase the best of materials for his new Black Mountain dome. The project was a 14-foot-diameter hemisphere constructed of the finest aluminum aircraft tubing and covered with a vinyl-plastic skin.  Completely erected within days after his arrival, that dome remained a stable fixture on the campus throughout the summer.  To further prove the efficiency of the design to somewhat skeptical fellow instructors and students, Bucky and eight of his assistants daringly hung from the structure's framework, like children on a playground, immediately after its completion.

TO BE CONTINUED...