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The High-Tech Dome That Could Save Us Energy and Make a Better City

Can Buckminster Fuller’s Dome Over Manhattan be reinvented for the future?

Story by Janette Kim and Erik Carver

Illustrations by Janette KimErik Carver

Published on Nov 2, 2015

This feature is a selection from The Underdome Guide to Energy Reform, an architect’s guide to the politics of energy slated for release by Princeton Architectural Press on Tuesday.

Though U.S. news media show climate change and oil depletion as partisan matters of opinion, major institutions — from insurers to armed services — have sidestepped these conflicts to form plans of action. Architecture firms have codified sustainability principles into a straightforward set of best practices: embrace LEED standards and renewable products, or stay out of the way while engineers and bureaucrats handle it.

Technical tweaks — insulation, tree planting, upzoning, heat recovery, transit overhauls, and smart grids — can help maximize services while lowering bills. But they don’t merely save energy. They also support narratives on lifestyle, property rights, and the horizons of political possibility. As we survey these approaches, we must also map their blind spots in order to move forward. Infrastructural solutions demand large-scale action, but who has the means and authority to execute them? If the American Dream has taken shape in times of crisis or rapid expansion, can it emerge in an era of slow growth and limited government?

“To fuel ambitious strategies, architecture must rethink performance.”

By delineating economics and ecology, architects and planners trouble familiar figures of the city, even as those figures themselves change. Designers manage resources, systems, and organisms by reimagining the good life at all scales. In this way, they can replace a scarcity-driven model of sustainability with one that acknowledges the struggles inherent in governance. While sustainability defers to the invisible hand of the market and keeps its hands off Mother Nature, a more ambitious approach seeks new energy problems as well as solutions.

Domes

To fuel ambitious strategies, architecture must rethink performance. Modernists optimized a short list of variables: labor, material, and square footage. In an era aware of climate change, we need to manage multiple definitions of efficiency to address an expanded constituency. A broader set of metrics could measure not only carbon and dollars but also variables like housing availability, species counts, and resource equity.

Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s 1960 proposal for the two-mile-wide Dome Over Manhattan imagined a massive architectural surface that would regulate the city’s ecosystems. They delivered this design along with a series of surprising calculations: the Dome would reduce heat loss by scaling the city to one eighty-fifth of its surface area; the elimination of snowplowing alone would pay for heat; buildings inside the Dome could be built lighter and cheaper without need for weatherproofing; and interior air could be heated by remote plants.

This grand scheme, while easily dismissed as technocratic megalomania, significantly proposed repurposing efficiency to address new criteria. By creating an overarching surface, the Dome would dislodge architecture from its conventional identification as a boundary between public and private. In doing so, it would make visible a redistribution of real costs and benefits to a different public than that implied by the Manhattan street grid. The Dome redefined efficiency by constructing a communicative surface of enclosure and energy distribution.

In a way, all buildings are domes—atmospheric enclosures that define collectives. Domes regulate climatic energy (Biodome) as well as agonistic spectacle (Thunderdome). they house utopia as well as struggle. Buildings mediate climate, vision, and bodies in ways shaped by politics. Architecture’s effectiveness as a technology of power flows from its naturalization of economic, juridical, and technological principles.

Bucky Fuller and architect Shoji Sadao built this large geodesic dome for the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. It is now known as the Montreal Biosphère. (Photo credit: Cédric THÉVENET/ Wikimedia)

Guide

The Underdome Guide to Energy Reform depicts energy reform as a landscape of competing agendas. It maps icons of energy management schemes arranged around four fields of analysis: power, territory, lifestyle, and risk. Each agenda is located in the United States or American spheres of influence.

“Architecture’s effectiveness as a technology of power flows from its naturalization of economic, juridical, and technological principles.”

The Underdome Guide offers no guidance. Instead, it frames debates to inform the decisions that affect our environment. Like Architectural Graphic Standards, it illustrates a variety of techniques, forms, and managerial protocols in contemporary design. Like a voter guide, it catalogs ideologies behind energy rhetoric to enable participants in the building process to make informed choices and identify allied approaches.

The following excerpt from the guide, “Territory” by architect Georgeen Theodore considers questions of planning, land use, and property regimes in the dome of the future.

A postcard of Fuller and Sadao’s Dome Over Manhattan. (Photo credit:Joseph Bergen)

TERRITORY: Energy and Equity

Dome Over Manhattan was Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s 1960 visionary proposal to enclose midtown Manhattan with a two-mile-wide glass hemisphere. Fuller and Sadao’s photomontage of the project shows the Dome as an artificial bubble enclosing the world’s most constructed environment, Manhattan—a representation that continues to capture people’s imagination today. It is hard not to see the project as a spectacular object. Yet while this representation emphasized the project’s unprecedented scale and striking form, Fuller and Sadao’s written explanations took a decidedly more pragmatic tone, discussing construction details and energy savings. They conceived of the Dome as a super-envelope within which the city’s many processes could be managed and balanced. The proposal is breathtaking in its reductivist ambition to solve many complex problems with a single architectural gesture. Yet the project raises pertinent questions as we define and develop design strategies to address the environmental challenges of today.

Fuller and Sadao took cues from systems thinking, a school of thought that emerged in the 1940s but first gained traction within the design community in the 1960s, when their proposal was published. Then, as now, systems-based thinkers understood objects, conditions, and problems not in isolation but in terms of interconnections and interdependencies. Fuller and Sadao focused mostly on energy and environmental issues, claiming that fuel, material, and labor inputs could be drastically reduced under the domed city. Their emphasis on optimizing architecture and building systems influenced green design practices
and has a legacy today in programs such as LEED certification. Yet their approach employed systems thinking narrowly by focusing on energy usage and resource consumption within the Dome, without really taking into account social and cultural exchange processes. Not all the system’s inputs and outputs are traced. Questions like “Who’s in the Dome and who’s out?” and “Who benefits?” and “Who loses?” were not answered.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the crushing environmental challenges we face.”

If we understand these limitations of the Dome as a closed system, can we imagine an approach to systems thinking that takes into account the complexities of the city as an open system? Can systems thinking be expanded from energy consumption to the complex network of forces and actors at play in the city today? The most successful examples of such practices are far less visible than the iconic Dome, as they work on the ground by closely studying existing environmental, social, and economic systems in order to adjust or subvert them.

The work of Petra Todorovich Messick, June Williamson, Denise Hoffman Brandt, and Laura Kurgan exemplifies this approach. The four represent a range of disciplinary backgrounds: planning, urban design, landscape architecture, and architecture. Their work is diverse and includes regional planning, funded research, competition organization, and exhibitions. Despite their differences, all argue for an expanded zone of action in which designers can test new approaches to energy and resource management. Rather than trying to reduce the number of variables in each condition, each seems to embrace the complexity of her site, using it to enrich the design process. Their work raises issues related to scale, time, and stakeholders.

Scale

The metropolitan regions of the northeastern United States are highly fragmented. Within a system of home rule, local municipalities in
these regions have the power and incentive to make decisions based
on the local tax base and credit rating, while there are few incentives
to make decisions based on larger-scale regional interests. This system makes regional cooperation and sharing of risks and resources inherently difficult.

For example, many municipalities in New Jersey established smaller and more fragmented jurisdictions because they wanted greater control over their school districts. It was in the interest of residents 
to focus all their tax dollars within their community. But something interesting happened: ultimately, many municipalities became so
small and inefficient that they couldn’t economically sustain a school district. In response, they created sending-receiving relationships, in which a school district sends its students to schools in another. This practice reveals forms of sub- or trans-municipal cooperation, and gives designers clues about viable ways to organize regional cooperation.

The America 2050 Plan, produced by the Regional Plan Association under Todorovich Messick’s directorship, envisions a new American geography organized around megaregions. Rather than following the political boundaries of cities, states, and nations, the 2050 Plan highlights nodes of populations, economic activity, and transportation infrastructure, aggregating them into larger regional groupings. In visualizing this alternate geography, the 2050 Plan is an implicit critique of the limitations of municipal and state-led planning, which for the most part fail to address big-picture regional needs. There are clearly winners and losers in the plan. The map suggests that some areas are more worthy of investment, and others not. Yet the argument is clear: more people will benefit if investments are made in areas with high population concentrations, as opposed to, for instance, the area now known as Idaho.

There are also ways we can work with existing systems to gain glimpses of what such a future could be. Williamson’s research has been focused on the American suburb. In her book Retrofitting Suburbia and the design competition Build a Better Burb, Williamson argues that the suburbs should be a major site of design inquiry. By shifting attention from the central city to the somewhat unspectacular outer rings, her work demonstrates that alternative territories offer easy wins and big impacts from an ecological perspective. Williamson looks both from the top down and from the bottom up. She examines local dynamics and long-term goals, and asks where these interests meet.

Time

Embedded in the impulse to think at a large scale is the need for designers to think about long-term cycles of change. Hoffman Brandt’s research on carbon sinks is rooted in a systems-based approach that takes the long-term carbon cycle into account. She argues that debate about climate change today mistakenly focuses on carbon emissions, as opposed to the entire carbon cycle. An important phase in the carbon cycle is carbon sequestration, when carbon is removed from the atmosphere and stored in biomass or other reservoirs. Hoffman Brandt’s research initiative “City Sink” proposes new sites and methods to sequester carbon. Because carbon is moving throughout the earth and its atmosphere, this atomic approach belies a defined territory. And the carbon cycle moves slowly, so the benefits of carbon sinks don’t immediately accrue. However, in her proposal, each carbon sink is paired with a public amenity that immediately yields a benefit to users. This strategy will make each investment more valuable and will help assemble a constituency in support of the process.

Stakeholders

Perhaps more than any of the other projects, Kurgan’s work advocates for constituencies who are too often left “outside the dome” or “off the map.” Kurgan presented Terre Natale: Exits Part 2, a project that visualizes global migration. Using digital mapping techniques, she created a series of animated cartographies depicting population shifts, remittances, political refugees, natural disasters, and sea-level rise. Her project demonstrates that the world’s most vulnerable populations pay far more than their fair share. For example, the maps make evident that the poorest countries will be most affected by rising sea levels, although they are not major producers of carbon emissions. In this way, Kurgan’s work represents the first step in advocating for a more equitable system of balancing the global climate crisis.

Kurgan takes the concept of territory to its limits, as a zone that encompasses the entire earth. She also redefines the territory of architectural expertise through the drawing itself. These visualizations form a site of negotiation in which different forces are recognized. They enable us to envision new futures and new ways of organizing things.

Glimpses of reform

As Fuller and Sadao’s use of systems thinking suggests, the most robust design solutions consider the bigger picture. But systems thinking should be used by designers to make the physical environment not only less energy reliant but also more equitable. We can only meaningfully address the challenges we face by recognizing and leveraging interdependencies among systems and people. The key to mobilizing and assembling support for action and change is visualizing complex conditions for a broader audience.

The work of Messick, Williamson, Brandt, and Kurgan underscores that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the crushing environmental challenges we face. What we do need are approaches that leverage complexity and embrace the social, political, and economic dynamics at play in our regions and the world at large. But we shouldn’t lose the optimism that is epitomized by Fuller and Sadao, which asserts that our human-made problems can be solved using design.

The Underdome Guide to Energy Reform (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015) has been supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), and the Van Alen Institute, New York Prize fellowship.

Assistance with drawings and research were contributed by Momo Araki, Skylar Bisom-Rapp, Gabriel Burkett, Kyle Hovenkotter, Min Kim, Standish Lee, Jake Matatyaou, Simon McGown, Leah Meisterlin, Talene Montgomery, Katie Okamoto, Michael Schissel, Parker Seybold, George Valdes, and Benjamin Weinryb-Groshgal

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.