The Science of Sustainability

The Bay Area Thanks Buckminster Fuller for Geodesic Domes

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Non-Symmetrical Tension-Integrity Structures

Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne, Non-Symmetrical Tension-Integrity Structures, United States Patent Office no. 3,866,366, from the portfolio Inventions: Twelve Around One, 1981; screen print in white ink on clear polyester film overlaid on screenprint; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Chuck and Elizabeth Byrne; © The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, All Rights reserved. Published by Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is showing, for just a few more short days, an exhibit called "The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area." Fuller never actually lived in the Bay Area, but the exhibit's designers seem to think he would have liked it. Considering the region's abundance of oddball inventions, disruptive technology, and sustainability experiments, it's hard to disagree. And Fuller was no stranger to the kind of collaboration between engineers and designers that actively ferments in the Bay Area today.

Geodesic domes are a great example. Fuller didn't actually invent the things. The very first was a planetarium in Germany, built by one Walther Bauersfeld in 1926, but it wasn't called a geodesic dome. It was Fuller who coined that term in the forties, as he was developing and popularizing the architectural design. "Geodesic" refers to the shortest distance between two points on Earth's surface, which is always a segment of a great circle–a circle that slices through the center of a sphere. Geodesic domes are built entirely out of great circles.

Laminar Geodesic Dome

Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne, Laminar Geodesic Dome, United States Patent Office no. 3,203,144, from the portfolio Inventions: Twelve Around One, 1981; screen print in white ink on clear polyester film; 30 in. x 40 in. (76.2 cm x 101.6 cm); Collection SFMOMA, gift of Chuck and Elizabeth Byrne; © The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, All Rights reserved. Published by Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati

Fuller's ideas about domes were intimately connected* with another concept he named: tensegrity. Tensegrity structures are built out of compressed members (bars) and tensioned members (cables) such that the bars never touch. The cables follow the shortest paths between bars and are therefore geodesic, resulting in exceptional strength. Stress force is always transmitted across the shortest distance, so tensegrity structures–whether bridges, buildings, or works of art–are optimally designed to handle it.

Artist Kenneth Snelson was involved with Fuller's tensegrity work from the beginning, creating aesthetic applications even as Fuller was working on practical ones. In fact, Fuller commissioned a piece from Snelson early on, which was later shown with some of Snelson's other work at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Geodesic domes in the Bay Area today follow the legacy of both men. As Burning Man approaches, the thoughts of many Burners are turning to their domes. (Even those who prefer to camp in off-the-shelf tents are likely to benefit from tensegrity.) The SF MOMA show is only open until July 29th, so go check it out if you need inspiration for your dome–or for your livingry in general.

(Can you tell one of my favorite things about Fuller was his propensity for making up words?)

* For more on the overlap between geodesic domes and tensegrity structures, see first comment below.

Tesla Coil Dome

Tesla Coil Dome from Burning Man 2010, photo by meganpru[/add_caption_link]. Bucky would love it.

Related

Explore: , , , , , ,

Category: Blog, Engineering

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Danna Staaf

About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.
  • Anonymous

    There are a variety of geodesic domes that are also tensegrity structures, but rigid geodesic domes (like EPCOT, and the Tesla dome you have pictured above) are not a tensegrity. If you search on

    tensegrity geodesic

    on images.google.com, some but not all of the geodesic domes will be tensegrity structures. The critical thing is that the struts do not have a rigid connection between them.

    Bucky was quite confusing on this point in Synergetics. He clearly loves both concepts, but it's very important to understand that not all geodesic domes are tensegrity structures (and not all tensegrity structures are geodesic domes).

    I would love to see a Burning Man model of a large tensegrity structure — perhaps one of the Tensegrity Skeleton anatomical models that Tom Flemons makes (see http://www.intensiondesigns.com/models.html) would be appropriate. Flemons also makes tensegrity marionettes where the tensional lines can control movement of the model; those would be very cool. I also love the models from California inventer Bruce Hamilton at http://tensiondesigns.com ; they are the best models for showing the non-linear stress-strain response of a tensegrity icosahedron that Bucky described in 740.21 of Synergetics.

    • http://cephalopodiatrist.com Danna Staaf

      Thanks for the details! It's fantastic to have such knowledgeable readers. "He clearly loves both concepts"–hee! Tensegrity marionettes sound way cool and indeed, very appropriate to Burning Man.