Fairs Conservation USA

Buckminster’s pioneering eco dome rises again

One of only three prototypes of the inventor’s “autonomous dwelling machine” comes to the Design District

Piecing things together: Fuller’s “Fly’s Eye Dome” during its restoration by Goetz Composites

Architect, philosopher, environmental activist, engineer and, according to a 1964 Time magazine article, crackpot: just a few descriptions of Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), the American inventor whose defining achievement was the popularisation of the geodesic dome.

Visitors to Miami’s Design District will have the unique opportunity to see “Bucky’s” newly restored 24ft “Fly’s Eye Dome” thanks to property developer and Design Miami co-founder Craig Robins, who recently bought the dome from Brooklyn’s Buckminster Fuller Institute and funded its restoration. The early-1970s structure is a “Monohex” dome and one of only three prototypes of Fuller’s “autonomous dwelling machine” (architect Norman Foster owns a 12ft version and the Fuller institute has a 50ft one).

“It was envisaged as an off-the-grid dwelling—low-cost, deployable all over the world and erectable with little effort—that could create its own energy and harvest its own water,” says Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of the institute. “Basically, it could take care of all the needs of its inhabitants.”

Joining this iconic structure is another of Fuller’s inventions—“Dymaxion Car No 4”—a futuristic three-wheeled, rear-engine car owned by Foster. Fuller built three versions of this car and Foster has a fourth built using the original drawings and authentic early Ford components.

Two shipping containers placed alongside these “machines” contain photographs of the restoration as well as original models, drawings and correspondence between Fuller and his principal collaborator, John Warren, who is hosting tours of the installation on 3 December.

Road to Miami

How did Fuller’s dome end up in Miami’s Design District? “As a collector, the opportunity to own a masterpiece by Fuller fits into the kind of collection I’m building,” says Craig Robins. “It’s also perfect for the Design District.” Robins also counts a Fuller prototype of a rowing needle (a double-hulled scull), among his collection.

Robins declined to reveal the dome’s purchase price or the cost of its restoration, only saying that his agreement with the institute involved “acquiring the dome in a restored condition. By funding the acquisition, I funded the restoration.”

Nautical know-how

The restoration project was undertaken by Goetz Composites, a Rhode Island-based engineering company and boat builder with ten America’s Cup boats under its belt. “We normally build new rather than engage in restoration projects so it was fun to get a chance to look at the forensics,” says the company’s chief technology officer, Eric Goetz, who described his shock at seeing the structure’s 50 or so pieces arrive at his studio on pallets. “It was hard to believe such a small pile could become a huge installation.”

Thompson says the choice of Goetz’s company was fitting: “How poetic that this historic structure—an icon of 20th-century innovation—was restored in a yard responsible for making the most advanced boats. Bucky would have been thrilled given the importance sailing played in his ideas.” Fuller’s fascination with boats began at an early age when he spent summers with his family on an island off the coast of Maine.

Before Goetz and his team could begin the restoration they needed to renumber the individual fibreglass pieces. “Each piece had numbers scribbled on it in a haphazard fashion,” says Goetz. “They were only about 85% accurate, so it was a bit like a gigantic Chinese puzzle.”

After stripping off the paint and finish so the pieces could be assessed individually, new numbers were embossed on each piece “as a permanent tattoo”. Despite evidence of earlier refurbishment attempts, which Goetz called “haphazard”, the structure had deteriorated in many places. One of the biggest issues related to the bolt holes. “People drilled into the structure willy-nilly to add more bolts, which elongated the holes,” says Goetz.

After filling the holes and rebuilding corners that had been chipped, or in some cases torn-off, the pieces were smoothed and repainted with a polyurethane finish commonly used on aeroplanes. The final stamp of approval came from a group of architects after the dome’s final reassembly. “They wanted to make sure we hadn’t wrecked an antique and that it was still a Bucky piece rather than a bastardised version. It was very satisfying to get their seal of approval,” says Goetz.

While Goetz admits that the project was a greater challenge than anticipated, he says the opportunity to work on the dome was a lot of fun and well worth four months of long hours in the studio.

As far as post-restoration maintenance goes, Goetz says: “It depends on what kind of treatment it gets. If it’s in the bright Miami sun it will need periodic repainting or the finish will start to deteriorate.” He also warns that although the dome was intended to be erected, taken down and re-erected, this would be punishing for the structure if done too often as the bolt holes could become elongated. “If it’s put up and left up, that is probably the best thing for it,” he says.

Following its presentation at Design Miami, Robins plans to re-erect the dome at a nearby location in June 2012 as part of a “substantial development project”. Plans are also under way for Goetz to restore Fuller’s 50ft dome for the institute. “It’s twice the size so it should be really fun to do,” says Goetz, who hopes to begin work at the beginning of next year.

Unrealised vision

Thompson remains enthusiastic about the future of Fuller’s dome: “We are interested in the evolution of this structure. Fuller’s vision for the dome was not realised in his lifetime and we are interested in taking its core principles and bringing it into the 21st century. We want to use advanced technologies to experiment with the structure.”

She hopes the installation will open up a new dialogue. “We’re just thrilled at this opportunity,” says Thompson. “I’m resisting the urge to ask The Art Newspaper to publish my phone number so the discussions can begin.”

“Architecting the Future: Buckminster Fuller and Lord Norman Foster”, Palm Lot, 140 NE 39th Street, Miami

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