The solutions to combat the Earth’s overheating have grown ever more radical as warnings about the severity and implications of climate change have grown ever more dire over the past few years.
We could shield the planet from the suns rays through a network of orbiting shades. We could inject particles into clouds to force them to produce more rain for the parched land below. We could bring back the woolly mammoth or suck massive amounts of carbon out of the air or wrangle an asteroid into providing a little cover between us and the sun.
All these inventors are following in the footsteps of a singular midcentury innovator who was already imagining the ways humans could dramatically (and in a style that was delightfully zany) alter the built environment and reduce the human footprint.
In the 1950s, Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky” to friends) proposed that a glass dome be erected over a large portion of New York City.
The Dome Over Manhattan, as the project became known, would extend from river to river and from 21st to 64th Streets, and it would provide something of a controlled environment for residents lucky enough to be caught in its bubble.
Along with offering protection from the elements (goodbye, snow boots), by Fuller’s calculations the dome would also increase the energy efficiency and significantly decrease the heat loss of the buildings within.
The plan was certainly outlandish, but it was also well thought out. As otherworldly as the drawings may look, Fuller and his collaborator architect Shoji Sadao had sound reasoning for each design and engineering decision. But that wasn’t enough to sway the naysayers… or to get the agnostics to seriously consider it.
The Dome Over Manhattan never came close to being built, a turn of events that wouldn’t have surprised Fuller, who boasted of being “the world’s most successful failure.” But the provocative ideas introduced by the conceptual project have gone on to influence generations of engineers and inventors, and it continues to be a “what if” that never stops being fun to imagine.
Born in 1895, Fuller was a polymath and an eccentric genius. His discoveries and inventions spanned the disciplines and helped influence scientists and thinkers in a variety of fields so much so that he set the standard for multi-hyphenates; a 1966 New Yorker profile described him as “an engineer, inventor, mathematician, architect, cartographer, philosopher, poet, cosmogonist, and comprehensive designer.”
But his overwhelming success later in life belied his early performance in school. Setting the standard for geniuses to come, Fuller was kicked out of Harvard not once, but twice, and never received a college degree. Despite his lack of academic credentials, he would go on to win a myriad of prestigious awards as well as become a tenured professor later in his life.
Over the course of his career, Fuller developed many unconventional and thrilling designs. There was his famous geodesic dome house (a creation that Fuller and his wife made their own home in when he wasn’t traveling).
The Dymaxion Car was a nimble three-wheeled automobile that was meant to be an early iteration of what would become a land-air vehicle. And the Triton City was his plan for how an entire city could fit efficiently and seamlessly into a single large building.
“Architects viewed him as a mad scientist, and the scientific community considered him an eccentric architect with scientist aspirations,” British architect and critic Joseph Grima wrote in Icon magazine. “In truth, Fuller was the archetypal designer-inventor with an irrepressible entrepreneurial streak. He was given to setting up companies for the purpose of manufacturing his often flawed inventions, and the little profit that emerged from each of these ventures was almost invariably sunk into the next one. No field was beyond his irreverent reach.”
Fuller’s intellectual inquiries and inventions were driven by a desire to ensure the survival of humanity while protecting the planet. His philosophy combined a little hope with a little urgency. He thought, according to Calvin Tomkins in the New Yorker, that “man has the ability to play a conscious, active role in his own evolution, and therefore to make himself a complete success in his environment.” He can do this through technological innovations that would increase efficiency and reduce resource waste.
It was an exciting time, a promising time, but also one of opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered. “Fuller thinks that there is still time, but he also thinks that time is rapidly running out for humanity,” Tomkins wrote.
It was with this worldview in mind that he conceived of the infamous Manhattan Dome. The shell of the structure was to be fashioned after Fuller’s famous geodesic dome, with a two mile diameter from the Hudson River to the East River and a height that would trump the Empire State Building by a factor of three.
According to Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell in Never Built New York, the glass would be shatterproof and one-way (no airborne looky-loos, thank you very much), and the shell would be threaded with electrical wires to melt snow.
Grima describes the visual effect of this giant dome as “like a vast but delicate soap bubble.”
There was no doubt that the scheme would cost a fortune to build. But even that aspect of the project had been rationally considered by Fuller. He contended that the money saved in services like snow-plowing and road maintenance that would be rendered unnecessary or infrequent would largely offset the expense of building such a structure.
While Fuller’s eye on the environmental impact of design was revolutionary, he hadn’t entirely thought through the social ramifications of his creation.
He suspected the real estate beneath the dome would become highly coveted and valuable. It was an exciting prospect, but it ignored the fact that a massive number of people in that vast area of Manhattan would be displaced by rising costs.
“The proposal is breathtaking in its reductivist ambition to solve many complex problems with a single architectural gesture,” architect and urban designer Georgeen Theodore wrote in an essay for Next City. But that didn’t “[take] into account social and cultural exchange processes…Questions like ‘Who’s in the Dome and who’s out?’ and ‘Who benefits’ and ‘Who loses?’ were not answered.”
The Dome Over Manhattan was always going to be a crazy, fantastical pipe-dream, a vision of the city that could be created and the problems that could be addressed if only we dreamed a little bigger. It held the spirit of boundless innovation and imagination that surely we could use today.
After all, this audacity and vision came from the dreamer who once proclaimed: “I have a theory that someday all buildings will be so light that they can be delivered by air. Whole cities will come in by air.”