Canned designs: Manhattan's doomed domed city


Urban planning is full of 'what ifs': designs for future cities that never materialised. In the latest instalment, Christopher Beanland peers into the mid-century urban domes planned by Richard Buckminster Fuller

19th January 2016

The dome is a delicious idea. Utterly barmy of course, yet the appeal of it is not hard to see. The dome connotes safety, but it also plays with ideas of inclusion and exclusion. At the most primal level it harks back to our very atmosphere, the comfort blanket surrounding the earth; the thing that would wipe us all out in a flash if it wasn't there tomorrow.

Artificially mimicking this notion of the atmosphere was a popular ruse in postwar America. It's no coincidence that it came at a time of deep paranoia, of reds under the bed, of the Cuban Missile Crisis, of the greatest empire the world has ever known getting tetchy when it had no need to.

The dome's most famous exponent was Richard Buckminster Fuller – sci-fi dreamer, entrepreneur, wag, writer of odd sentences, conflicted builder of natural shapes on industrial scales. In 1960 he and Japanese architect Shoji Sadao conjured up a scheme to put a giant dome over midtown Manhattan.

The pros of the Domed City, they argued, were largely to do with climate control – a shrewd sales tactic in an AC-obsessed nation. Mild winters, cool summers, no need for any buildings in the dome to run heating or cooling. It would have made Manhattan look like an adolescent's cheek with a huge blackhead emptied of pus (no snow under the dome, you see).

Later, Fuller planned a floating city – a spherical geodesic dome, heated, that would float above America. It never took off either

The bravado and insanity of the project captured the public mood in a country prone to both of those conditions. It was never built owing to the immense cost and the question of how to get in and out of the bloody thing. But Bucky was heartened; later, he planned a floating city – a spherical geodesic dome, heated, that would float above America. It never took off either.

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Some domes did fly though: in 1958 Buckminster Fuller had, with Dick Lehr, built a works for the Union Tank Car Company in Baton Rouge, demolished 50 years after its construction. Railway wagons that carried oil from the city's refineries were maintained under the huge dome which kept out the swamp sweat of the Louisiana summers. And for Expo 67 in Montreal, Bucky was tasked with designing the American offering – a giant geodesic dome with a podium and pavilion inside. The dome caught fire in 1976 and the image of the flaming structure, which seemed to augur the end of a richly optimistic, fantastical era of architectural posturing, was later purloined by Arcade Fire when the Montreal band were promoting their 2010 album The Suburbs online.

The dome recurred in pop culture – in The Simpsons and the sci-fi TV series Under the Dome. But it never appeared over New York as Bucky really wished it had. One interesting postscript to consider: if it had been built, what of the rash of supertall skyscrapers currently infecting midtown, like 432 Park Avenue? Would they simply not have been built, or would holes have been drilled in the dome for them to puncture through towards the heavens, the oligarchs' apartments at the top of these terrible towers being, so very literally, beyond the pale?

Image of Buckminster Fuller's Montreal dome courtesy of jacques_perron, via Creative Commons 2.0

More in this series

Canned designs: Berlin's paths not taken
Canned designs: Cars on roofs in Staines
Canned designs: Rip it up and start again in Paris
Canned designs: Two sides of Glasgow
Canned designs: Tokyo's floating city


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