24 November 2011

Geodesic Magic – There’s No Place Like Dome

Geodesic domes have been with us for over fifty years but are still hardly common. Partly or fully spherical, they consist of a shell of great circles which rest upon the top of a sphere. Here are some of the more famous on the planet.

The Montreal Biosphere
The World Fair of 1967 was a fair old time ago but one extreme example of recycling old buildings is the Montreal Biosphere which is now the home of an environmental museum. The original acrylic shells that enclosed the dome are now gone – the steel remains however. At the time of the World Fair the building housed the longest ever escalator (thirty seven meters in length).

Unfortunately a 1976 fire destroyed the acrylic shells but the building was bought by Environment Canada in 1980 and it is now an interactive museum. One of the highlights of a visit to Montreal, the museum is devoted to showing people about how the Great Lakes ecosystem can be developed in a sustainable way – this is done through a variety of exhibitions and interactive pieces.

The Eden Project
Welcome to the largest Greenhouse in the world. If Swine Flu kills ninety nine percent of us this winter then the survivors could do far worse than to head down to this set of artificial biomes in which the ecosystems of the world are recreated. Each dome is constructed from a few pentagons plus hundreds of hexagons that connect the whole structure together. Opened to the public in 2001 this has all the elements of a classic geodesic dome. This is a partly spherical structure that has a network of large circles (known as geodesics) which lie on a sphere. The geodesics form elements in the shape of triangles that have great rigidity and also make sure that stress is distributed evenly across the whole structure.

The whole set of structures was built in an unused clay pit. The main sphere contains a reproduction of a rain forest and such plants as bananas, rubber and coffee are grown within. It looks like something out of a science fiction film and true enough, the original clay pit was used to film the Magrathea locations for the 1980s BBC series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Nowadays, of course, it looks rather different – perhaps even more alien.

TELUS World of Science
Although most Vancouver residents still call it Science World, the above is the new name for this amazing geodesic dome which is the home to a great many permanent science displays. It also has a variety of different exhibitions throughout the years.

It could have been worse. The original new name was Telusphere but people hated it so much that it had to be rechristened. Still, it remains a popular Vancouver tourist destination and a particular if peculiar shape on the skyline of the city.

Sweet Home Missouri
So far we have seen a number of large domes used to facilitate events for large numbers of the general public. Of course, there is always the option of adopting the design for domestic use. This house in Corder, Missouri uses exactly the same science as the other examples we have seen so far – but for uses that are much more down to earth. It has an almost fairy tale look to it, despite the regularity of the shape of its domed roof.

The Union Tank Car Company
The American Architect Buckminster Fuller is recognized as the modern father of the geodesic dome in architecture. He was responsible for the Montreal dome. In 1958 his designs were used to take create the then revolutionary Union Tank Car Company dome in Baton Rouge. The above is the dome the year later, 1959.

It is a shame that the good people of Louisiana decided to demolish this piece of history in the year 2007. The pictures here show it rusting away, abandoned, its environs being reclaimed by nature in 2004. The building itself broke many records at the time, including those for enclosed surface space and volume, not to mention the speed at which it was constructed. In centuries to come, perhaps this could have become an iconic building.

Spaceship Earth
Included here ever so slightly grudgingly as Disney chose not to give Buckminster Fuller any credit for the design of this (OK, remarkable) structure. An enormous eighteen storeys in height this takes visitors on a trip through the history of the planet and is one of the most recognizable structures of the Americas. The thirteen minute ride shows how human communications has developed over time. This is not surprising really, as since its inception the ride has been sponsored by a variety of multinational telecommunications companies.

Remarkable in the day time, it takes on a whole new set of characteristics in the evening.

The Nagoya Dome
We have seen a museum and a great big green-house but geodesic domes can be used to house more popular entertainment. One such example is the Nagoya Dome of Japan. It is the headquarters of the Chunichi Dragons, one of the country’s leading baseball teams (a sport they picked up in the American occupation of 1945 onwards). The dome does not look huge from the outside but it can seat over forty thousand people. Looking at it from the outside, who would believe that the picture below was of its interior?

Missouri Botanical Gardens
The Climatron was built in 1960. If you have ever seen the film Silent Running, set in the future when the remnants of the earth’s forests have been placed in to huge domes in space, then you will not be surprised to learn that these domes inspired the creative minds at work on the movie.

It was the first ever greenhouse of this size to be built as a geodesic dome and beat the Eden Project in the UK by more than forty years. It recreates a lowland rain forest in all of its beauty. The people of Missouri are very lucky people, not only for the Climatron but for the beautiful botanical gardens that surround it.

Inside, the visitor is transported almost to another world.

The Matrimandir
At the heart of the experimental city of Auroville (in India) is the Matrimandir. Auroville is an experiment – where people from all over the world can live in harmony with each other. The Matrimandir houses a huge crystal and silence is maintained in its environs at all time to facilitate meditation. The city of Auroville is intended to be a utopian community and model for the rest of the world.

Apologies if your own favorite geodesic dome has been omitted. Please comment below and I will attempt to add them on!