Rachel Carroll

The Magic Structure

I’m going to take you on a little walk around this structure, a structure that has a magic to it.

The geodesic dome symbolizes a future seeded by nature’s sacred mathematics. An encounter with the purposiveness of form. It’s hard to deny its rounded beauty, the elegance of its repetitions, counter-cultural optimism, or the excitement of its space-age promise. It reaches toward the sky like a breast clutching a sigh inside it.

A Twentieth-Century Man

R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was a Twentieth-Century Man. Born in Milton Massachusetts, known as “Bucky,” Fuller was a design wizard of efficiency who saw the world as energy to be directed. Expelled from Harvard twice for having too good a time and “irresponsibility and lack of interest,” Bucky’s early adulthood was searching. He spent some time in the Navy where he gained credibility as an inventor and engineer. With his father-in-law, the architect and Beaux-Arts designer James Monroe Hewlett, he patented a new method for producing reinforced concrete buildings. In 1922, his daughter Alexandra died of polio and spinal meningitis as a toddler. Hewlett gave Fuller a construction company to run, which then failed around 1927. Fuller was unemployed. At 36, Fuller began an affair with an 18-year-old young woman named Evelyn Schwarz, or Evy. When Evy eventually dumped him he became depressed and stalked her apartment. He was a wreck who, according to Isamu Noguchi, “drank like a fish.”

Fuller lead a life of comebacks. His extraordinary capacity for self-promotion was central to his mythos and prolific design career. A magus of patents and trademarks, his inventions, neologisms, and vision of “spaceship Earth” brought radical ideas into the mainstream and made them profitable. He became an oracular font for an unlikely collection of followers, including the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the U.S. military. Fuller invented cars, houses, maps, games, watercraft, and submersibles. He lectured all over the world and his visionary ideas brought in the crowds. He was consulted on questions of global crisis: overpopulation, energy shortages, housing, famine. An authority on resources and what to do with them, he declared his subject of expertise to be “all humanity.”

What was dreamed in the West

The occasion is the inaugural Ornette Coleman Day, September 29, 1983. Clarke shoots Coleman accepting the key to the city from the mayor, which he receives in a small clear plastic case. He takes Clarke to his childhood home near the Trinity River in a predominately Black neighborhood referred to as the Bottom. It’s a wooden one-story rectangular house with a front porch, painted pea green, fairly identical to the homes around it. A style of urban working-class Southern architecture I know well by sight, a variation on the shotgun house. Longer than they are wide, generally having no hallway, each room opens up onto the next, allowing for a palliative cross-breeze in the shimmering Southern heat. These houses earned their name because you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and the bullet would pass through the backdoor as long as you chivalrously held it open for those careening lumps of metal.

Biosphere 2 was an experiment in colonization. As with any colonial dream, it was dependent upon the fantasy of a blank space, the construction of a world with no past. All the best parts collected and arranged to be called a Good Life and a specially selected group of people to live it. In the Biosphere 2’s futuristic geodesic architecture, we see the playacting of whiteness, the smoothness of its textures which erase and suck until it produces the emptiness that it needs to imagine itself. The emptiness that is needed to dispossess and to imagine a perfect society from nothing. The emptiness that is needed to forget everything that already happened and is happening around you. The emptiness needed to imagine yourself in the future in a world that only you built.

Good Management

The geodesic dome uses the principle of tension, rather than compression, to keep its structure strong and intact. Fuller developed the sphere composed of triangles on this principle, choosing the triangle because it is twice as strong as the rectangle, the shape upon which most modern structures  are based. This design allowed the geodesic dome to be stronger, lighter, and more efficient that other modern structures. It can enclose more space with a smaller amount of surface area. The spherical, open form allows energy and air to move freely, allowing heating and cooling to take place naturally.  Because of the spherical shape, which creates less surface area, exposure to heat and cold is decreased, which allows the temperature to be more regular and unobstructed airflow within the dome allows air to move evenly without ducts. Wind flows more smoothly around the dome, lessening heat loss. It reflects and concentrates interior heat, preventing radiant heat loss.

All physical objects that are in contact may exert force on each other.

Compression squeezes materials together. Tension pulls the material outward, as if it were stretching. The structure holds when stress moves, when force can be endured, when the object can handle the lengthening force. Stress must be distributed, cajoled, carried, to flow in specific ways so that the objects won’t buckle or snap.

Fuller understood that to control pressure was to be able to control something much greater than himself. That he could give a larger surface area the shape of his desire through the proper application of force.

Of course, the “little tiny trim tab” isn’t actually working in isolation. It’s part of the whole machine which weighs thousands of tons, lifted weightless by cold, unbreathable air.

A harmolodic ensemble

In Coleman’s interpretation of Fuller’s ideas about the structure of the universe, there is a burst in the dome that keeps happening as it’s being built. The different parts of itself call out to each other trying to meet. There is doubt and there is hope as the ropes of music, green, blue, red, and yellow, pull taut and let slack through the first ascent. One at a time and simultaneously the two violins, viola, and cello make the climb, seeming to watch each other even as they are viscid with heavy feeling. Before too long, they are at the top. Catch your breath-hhhuh! In the non-silence of inhale they dive off the edge together. In freefall, they curl in and out of each other without touching, like Coleman said. It’s making something thick, a tension, this kissing space between. A texture that’s like air through the lips. And above there’s all this drawing. All these lines. And the thing about the line is that it’s its own structure that doesn’t have to be an enclosure. And in between, the freedom of air which makes any sound possible. It’s like Coleman walked away with something that Fuller didn’t even know he was missing.

Back to nature

In popular culture, the geodesic dome is strongly associated with natural forms—a mathematics of the universe that only needs to be revealed, like the Fibonacci sequence in a sunflower’s seed spiral, the fractal patterns of snowflakes, or the dendritic branching of trees. This idea that the geodesic dome is a design harvested from nature like a flower was nurtured by Fuller’s salesmanship of the dome as a utopian structure. Strong, versatile, reproducible, efficient, like nature herself. The geodesic dome was both a return to the natural world and a futuristic innovation that symbolized human longevity and ingenuity.

The dome makes the future look simple. A standardized repetition of form executed in mesmerizing beauty. We tend to think of nature as something that moves toward the future without ambivalence or ambiguity. Part of Nature’s beauty comes from the clarity of its desires: to make more of itself in the most efficient way possible. But perhaps it is our fantasies about nature that are simple.

It’s unexpected then, that Fuller’s geodesic domes were developed for the U.S. military as structures to be used in warfare and occupation. Fuller used tens of thousands of dollars of funding from the U.S. military and American universities to develop domes that could be helicoptered to a site, providing shelter—light but strong—in harsh or improvised conditions.

While at first these two groups—the U.S. military and peace-loving sexually liberated artists—seem like two irreconcilable opposites in coincidental overlap, in the space of the “frontier,” we see more clearly what they have in common. There is something about the dome. Not just its shape and practicality, but its particular kind of idealism, that they already shared. The idealism which draws new borders and erases history.

On Innocence

Who sets off in innocence to build a society built on principles. And yet, your innocence requires a ground that doesn’t belong to you, to us.

What I am trying to do is find the arrangement that lets us see whiteness as a structure, just a glimpse of it really. A pattern that promises freedom, but works through a principle of infinitely reproducible sameness. A structure that takes up actual space. You see, the aesthetic is like this extra sense. A way of picking up signals. I’m trying to tell you about these signals that I kept picking up about the geodesic dome and what it means and how this structure tells us about shapes of things that are all around us but hard to bring into one place. I’m trying to take a few of these things and put them in one place for you so that together we can look at it and maybe see something that we couldn’t see before when they were so spread out or in a different shape.

I’m walking away from the dome. I look for something else.

Rachel Jane Carroll is a writer, scholar, and teacher. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She’s currently at work on two book projects, an academic book on race and experimental aesthetics and a book of lyric essays on utopianism. Her writing can be found in various scholarly publications, as well as the Los Angeles Review of Books.