There’s nothing like a dome

The geodesic dome theoretically allows us to live anywhere, free to roam in our own environmentally controlled bubble

Credit: Charles Holland

Among the ordinary tents and temporary structures of London’s 2014 Occupy protest camp lurked a shelter of more exotic cultural provenance. Parked in one corner of Finsbury Square was a geodesic dome, about five metres in diameter and fabricated from rusting triangular metal panels.

For some, this structure was instantly recognisable as a fragment of Drop City, a 1960s utopian settlement built in South Eastern Colorado. Set up by artists and partially funded by the visionary architect Buckminster Fuller, Drop City was the countercultural utopia par excellence. It lasted little more than half a dozen years but its impact on architectural culture has been significant and long lasting.

This was partly due to its association with Fuller, whose technologically driven work has transfixed many architects, most notably the English high-tech generation of Richard Rogers, Norman Foster et al. Fuller designed many things including the so-called Dymaxion car and a lightweight, flat-pack house, but he is best known for his work with geodesic domes.

Fuller was obsessed with domes, designing them for almost every conceivable situation. This enthusiasm reached a zenith with his 1960 proposal to place a two-mile wide dome over midtown Manhattan. Fuller claimed that the savings from snow-clearing alone would pay for this vast and improbable structure, a justification that captured his bizarre combination of wide-eyed technological romanticism and geeky problem-solving. 

Despite this, Fuller’s proposal exemplified a persistent thread in the technologically driven thinking of the 1960s, which embraced the idea of architecture as little more than a form of sophisticated environmental control. Lightweight, transportable and transparent, the geodesic dome theoretically allows us to live anywhere, free to roam in our own environmentally controlled bubble. Inside the dome there are no walls, no inherited forms of spatial hierarchy or social segregation.

Fuller’s own utopian credentials are less clear however and his adoption by the countercultural avant-garde problematic. Photographs of him and his wife at home in their own dome in Carbondale, Illinois make the disparity evident. Fuller’s dome has internal walls and the couple’s traditional furniture and Eisenhower-era haircuts sit awkwardly within the purist futurism of the geodesic structure. What’s more, much of his research was funded by the US military who were interested in very different forms of temporary encampment to the one built by hippies at Drop City.

Drop City’s innovation was to combine Fuller’s geodesic technology with the collagist experimentalism of Robert Rauschenburg and other artists. The settlement’s collagist, ad-hoc aesthetic ensured its place in architectural history far more than its radical social ambitions. Drop City figured prominently in Charles Jencks’ early books describing the origins of postmodernism, one strand of which can be traced back to such radical experiments in self-build architecture. 

Drop City's collagist, ad-hoc aesthetic ensured its place in architectural history far more than its radical social ambitions

It is routine to describe experiments like Drop City as failures and in a sense it was. It lasted less than a dozen years and no doubt the clichés of power struggles, internecine warfare and bickering that bedevilled it are true. But such a dismissal assumes two things: that experiments like Drop City are intended to last and that their value can only be judged by longevity or by becoming completely normalised; and that the settlements that do last, the ones we live in now, are unequivocal successes.

The dome that turned up in Finsbury Square was not a genuine relic of Drop City; it was a replica fabricated by British artist Alex Hartley. It was initially made for an exhibition called Dropper at the Victoria Miro gallery in Islington, and Hartley lived in his dome for two months before donating it to the Occupy camp.

Unlike Drop City, Hartley’s experiment was never intended to last. And he was consciously playing with the symbolism of the structure, its rusty metal panels now standing for ruination and failure rather than possibility. But clearly there was an archaeology of the radical utopian impulse going on too, an attempt to explore the latent potential of such structures and what they mean today.