What the dream of dome cities tells us about urban sustainability

By | 4 minute read | October 3, 2017

R. Buckminster Fuller, Dome Over Manhattan, 1961. Courtesy The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller and Stanford University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

In 1960, futurist Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller had a pretty wild thought: What would happen, he wondered, if part of midtown Manhattan were enclosed in a geodesic dome?

It was an unlikely idea, yes. But for Fuller, the man credited with popularizing the concept of the geodesic dome, it was one worth exploring. Fuller had a sketch drawn up, and made a few rudimentary calculations. The dome would be two miles across, he decided, and would cover the island from the East River to the Hudson River, from 21st Street to 64th Street.

Shoji Sadao, Fuller’s longtime business partner, told IBM recently the plan was a “visionary” one, and that while Fuller thought a dome that size might be “technically feasible,” he knew it was unlikely to become a reality. But the somewhat fantastical idea, Sadao said, was rooted in a very serious desire to make cities more energy efficient.

“Bucky thought it would be a much more efficient way to create a sustainable environment,” said Sadao. “You’d be able to control the sunlight and the temperature and the humidity through various means on the surface of the dome. Rainwater could be collected at the perimeter and put in a cistern. You wouldn’t have to worry about cleaning the streets after a snowstorm.”

Artistic rendering of 1970s space colony concept| NASA Ames Research Center/Rick Guidice

Artistic rendering of 1970s space colony concept | NASA Ames Research Center/Rick Guidice

Fuller’s plan never got off the ground. But the dream of the dome city persisted. Images of rounded space colonies proliferated during the Space Age, inspiring architects designing structures on Earth. In science fiction, meanwhile, dome cities remained a staple, fueling the notion that enclosed metropolises might indeed be just around the corner.

“In the 50s and 60s and 70s, there was this obsession with the future — and domes, for various reasons, have a naturally futuristic look to them. They’re very sleek and simple, and they have a Space Age look,” said Sam Lubell, co-curator of the Queens Museum exhibit, “Never Built New York.”

In reality, however, dome cities are easier dreamed than done. Constructing one comes with significant engineering hurdles, and organizing a society within would present perhaps even greater challenges. Politics are also an obstacle.

In the 1970s, futurist Athelstan Spilhaus discovered that firsthand when—with Fuller’s strong input—he proposed the Minnesota Experimental City, a self-sustaining dome city designed for scientific advancement on the swamps of north central Minnesota. It was to house 250,000 people and include a power plant, a monorail system, and high-rise parking garages filled with cattle. Ford, Boeing, Honeywell and the state legislature all got on board. But local opposition and concerns about cost and feasibility ultimately sunk the project.

“This was not a community or an area where people wanted a giant city. It would have been like building a nuclear power plant in the backyard,” said Sharon Moen, senior science communicator at Minnesota Sea Grant and the author of With Tomorrow in Mind: How Athelstan Spilhaus Turned America Toward the Future.

An artist rendering of Athelstan Spilhaus’ proposed Minnesota Experimental City | Russell Habermann/Minnesota Sea Grant

An artist rendering of Athelstan Spilhaus’ proposed Minnesota Experimental City | Russell Habermann/Minnesota Sea Grant

While domes can make great stadiums and terrariums, Lubell said, they “don’t really have all that much success” on a larger scale. The dream of a dome city, he said, stems from a “utopian impulse” to create an entirely human-made environment separate from nature — and that impulse seems to have subsided. Plans for dome cities still emerge from time to time, but for the most part visions of urban sustainability in the 21st century look a lot different.

Rather than wall off the world, the cities of the future, Lubell said, are much more likely to “embrace nature and use natural systems.” And today’s real estate and facilities management professionals are as interested in innovative new structures as they are in technologies that reduce waste and conserve energy in existing buildings. In the U.S. alone, buildings produce 38 percent of green-house gas emissions. Building solutions powered by AI can effectively manage energy use, optimize space, and reduce operating costs.

“We’re enabling the next level of energy efficiency,” said Joern Ploennigs, an IBM research scientist specializing in cognitive buildings, environment and industry.

Today’s urban planners, meanwhile, are devising intelligent transportation systems by using sensor networks, digital information and cognitive computing technologies. These sustainable initiatives are emblematic of the kind of transformations taking place across industries, said Miro Holecy, a transportation and national infrastructure CTO in IBM’s Global Center of Competence for Government.

“We are experiencing the fourth industrial revolution,” Holecy said. “The previous revolution was about digitization. Before that it was electricity. Now it’s about data, cognitive, and the Internet of Things. That’s the era we’re living in.”

Domes may not be a staple of this new era, but 20th century inventors like Fuller and Spilhaus would have been happy to know that today’s designers are still working toward a sustainable vision of the future — even if it’s not exactly what they imagined.

“The goal is the same but the message is very different,” said Lubell.