Buckminster Fuller was famous for big, cocktail party-ready ideas, most of which never amounted to much. The biggest idea of the bunch? Domed cities. In 1960, the audacious inventor proposed a two-mile-wide dome covering most of lower Manhattan. It would pay for itself in ten years by eliminating the cost of snow plows, he contended, arguing that it was basically the logical thing to do.
Fuller was a great talker and writer and it wasn’t long before dome frenzy swept the country. But the engineering was problematic. The construction of the Montreal Biosphère, a 250-foot diameter climate controlled World Expo attraction, proved incredibly difficult. And when people built domed houses and other buildings, they tended to leak, requiring frequent and expensive maintenance. Would a domed city really result in energy savings, given the enormous volume of air conditioned, largely unused, space?
Decades later, we may have a solid answer: No. The most recent and bold plan for a modern domed city belongs to the proponents of Dubai’s Mall of the World, who envision a $20-billion complex of shops, offices, and residences, all enclosed under a dome for year-round comfort. But global economic uncertainty and an unpredictable oil price have kiboshed that dream. A consultant has recommended a dome-less development, implemented in stages, and even then financing is uncertain. The dome, it appears, was to be a marker of audacity, not practicality. “Air conditioning an entire development is not financially viable and not environmentally responsible,” Morgan Parker, the man tasked with the redesign, told Bloomberg.
Fair enough. But does that hold true in a cold environment?
Fuller long promised that domes would be essential to the occupation of the Arctic, Antarctic, and other planets, but there too, reality has fallen short. From 1975-2003 the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Scientific Station was encased inside a 160-feet-wide dome, but reviews were mixed. The dome could keep snow off the buildings inside, but not off of the dome itself, where it accumulated. Eventually, the entire station found itself buried in snow and, by 1988, the dome’s foundation was cracking spectacularly under the pressure. Today, the gold standard for Antarctic architecture is not domes, but modular units that can be elevated to escape an icy burial.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of a climate-controlled environment, sealed off from the outside world, was an enticing fantasy. Air conditioning was rare, and summers were sweltering. It was this insight that led to the proliferation of suburban malls, which offered the same promise in a slightly different package as Fuller’s domed dream.
Just as malls have lost the razzle dazzle of their heyday, so too has the notion of self-contained ecosystems. Biosphere 2, an attempt to build a self-sustaining ecosystem in a closed-off environment, failed spectacularly in the early 1990s after scientists inside began to starve, fight among themselves, and even sabotage their experiment.
Today, the idea of life inside a fishbowl has lost its appeal. Even if we could figure out how to do it successfully, who would want to live there? As it turns out, the only dome we really want is the sky. Fuller’s hubris was in trying to replace it.