Can the Dome Home Finally Find a Mass Audience?
The dome has been a reliable construction shape for architects since well before the Pantheon.
In the 20th century, architects were highly tempted to use the Euclidean purity and inherent strength of the dome as a futurist expression of industrial potential. The geodesic dome, made of hundreds of triangulated frames locked together, made possible not only domes, but complete spheres.
Buckminster Fuller was perhaps the most well recognized dome devotee of the postwar era, and found many industrial applications for the dome, including the legendary, if short-lived Union Tank Car Dome, constructed in 1958 and demolished in 2007.
The dome is also a popular shape for ephemeral purposes such as World’s Fairs – Fuller designed the USA Pavilion at the Montreal Expo ’67. A monorail passed through the building, whose exhibits were built around the theme of “Creative America – the positive use of creative energy.”
Yet, despite its simplicity and purity, the spherical shaped building has always had an air of eccentricity that seems to bother the more square-shouldered among us.
Reportedly, Lyndon B. Johnson was not feeling the positivity of the content of “Creative America,” and remarked upon exiting, “The homosexuals have had carte blanche!” Apparently unable to take the ongoing pain of a snub from its own President, the USA Pavilion’s acrylic skin burned off in a 1976 fire.
The dome later became the Biosphere, an environmental museum (not to be confused with the Biosphere 2, an experimental closed ecological system in Arizona, constructed using technology by an “associate” of Fuller’s – which is a another story for another time).
The in-house designers of Disney World were clearly taken with the prototype, essentially copying the Expo ’67 pavilion, completing the spherical shape, and dubbing the structure “Spaceship Earth,” (a term coined by Fuller) for its permanent world’s fair, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), which opened in 1982 (though they mysteriously and disappointingly routed the monorail around the structure). The late Ray Bradbury contributed to the storyline of the ride within.
Perhaps the most plebeian appeal of the dome for the contemporary citizen comes from that which shelters gladiatorial rituals such as football games and monster truck rallies. Many stadia and other long-span structures dot ring roads and the outer fringes of urban downtowns, including the world’s largest wooden geodesic dome, the Tacoma Dome, whose commemorative brochure includes citizen comments such as: “It has a classy texture” and “I broke in to sign a rafter before the Rush concert!”
These are the archetypes we think of when we hear the word “dome.” But the dome has rarely been considered as a mass residence in the popular imagination. Buckminster Fuller certainly tried to change that – the Dymaxion house (not quite a dome so much as an onion shape on a toothpick) was supposed to be a prototype of autonomous living, made of prefabricated parts and jacked up to chest height on a central spindle. The perpetual perfectionist was never satisfied with the design, and only two were built.
2: An Architect to the Stars Dreams of Domed Domesticity
In the 1940s, Wallace Neff, a Los Angeles architect, became fascinated with the idea of a dome as mass housing. He broke from his usual line of work – well-appointed Spanish Mission-style mansions for Hollywood legends such as Douglas Fairbanks – to experiment with concrete domes formed around inflatable balloons. In a partnership with the Goodyear Tire Company, Neff devised a technique that could create a solidly built dome in just a few hours, with requirements for the usual tools of the trade – hammers, nails and wood – limited to formwork for windows and doors. A large, rubber-coated balloon is inflated, then sprayed with gunite or shotcrete. Once the concrete is set, the balloon is deflated and pulled out through a door or window. It’s as if a bouncy castle was sprayed with Magic Shell, and then inhabited.
Several Neff dome homes were built in the U.S. – including company housing for Goodyear in Litchfield, AZ. Neff thought of these homes as the solution to the housing crisis that plagued America after the Depression and World War II. Given the rise of the baby boomer population and crumbling cities subjected to disinvestment for decades, he said he was “possessed by the thought that there should be a demand for small homes of real charm within the reach of people of limited means.”
The democratic idea briefly attracted the Defense Department, which commissioned a few in Falls Church, VA; several more were built in South America and the Middle East. Very few survive. The Pasadena Shell House, built for Neff’s brother, Andrew, is the last remaining such home in the U.S. Its current residents described, Zagat-review style, living in the 1,000 square foot home as “light and airy” but also “like being in an upside-down swimming pool.”
The initial appeal of these homes is largely defensive and utilitarian – a bunker in an igloo shape –though they can be womb-like and cozy on the inside. Mass-produced, portable, affordable and close to indestructible, the houses’ integrity comes from concrete’s material properties that make it an excellent insulator and temperature regulator, as well an excellent repellent for termites, bombs and shrapnel. Getting the general public to embrace these homes as standard domiciles is a substantial hat trick several architects have tried, and are still trying to perform.
3: Sprung from the Foam, or, Better Living Through Chemistry
Neff’s legacy continued on, sort of: The development of lightweight building materials, including Fiberglas and rigid polyurethane foam insulation, gave rise to a short non-rectangular building movement in the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Some examples persist, including the Baggin’s End cooperative at University of California, Davis. Other, more eccentric foam homes, often dome-based with accretions of freeform curves and Dr. Seuss-like protuberances, predominantly existed in or near amusement parks as demonstrations of the miracles of modern chemistry and home automation. Many have been demolished, including the Kissimmee, FL Xanadu House (Disney World-adjacent), Gatlinburg, TN (Dollywood-adjacent), and Wisconsin Dells, WI (near Tommy Bartlett’s Robot World).
The most famous fiberglass home, the Monsanto House of the Future in Disneyland, predates these examples, and proved to be a little more resilient – when it was demolished in 1967, a wrecking ball bounced off its plastic surface, and chainsaws, torches and jackhammers were equally ineffective. It had to be crushed into smaller parts with choker chains.
A self-selecting class of people wanted to live in something that looked like a giant marshmallow. Later, less assertively futuristic wooden domes, resembling the tops of familiar grain silos, took up the slack in the market. Domes built with more conventional materials turned out to be highly problematic, due to the number of seams and the unusual shape of windows and openings. Leaks, mold, and high construction cost limited the persistence of wooden domes into the landscape.
As anyone who has spent a night in one can attest, the peculiarities of dome living — bumping one’s head on sloping walls in sleeping lofts, the lack of right-angled corners to accommodate furniture, and the “whispering gallery” effect of sound projection along the interior wall surfaces over transom walls that don’t meet the ceiling – require a bit of an adjustment period. The groovy, communal attitude of an octagonal space that directs every gaze inward was a perfect complement to the blissed-out drug culture of the period. As such, the geodesic residential dome, along with the foam homes, persists in the popular imagination as the eight-track tape and polyester slacks of architecture.
4: Domes as Doom Defense
Seventy years after Wallace Neff sought to house returning GIs in domes, another Southern California architect, Douglas Stanton, is reviving the Airform practice, inspired by another housing crisis – the massive destruction wrought by the excessive weather events of the 2000s and 2010s.
Stanton, whose main practice consists of high-end single-family homes that would not be uncharacteristic of Neff himself, presented his own Airform-based concept, the AFTER “Affordable Fire, Tornado and Earthquake Resistant” Home, at the AltBuild conference in Santa Monica in May 2012.
“After the Missouri tornadoes of 2011, I thought, why rebuild with sticks?” asks Stanton, a Texas native familiar with tough weather.
In Stanton’s design, two inches of concrete affords R-12 insulation and uses only about 50 percent of the energy of wood frame construction, even when considering the generators needed to keep the Airform inflated during construction. Stanton proved the readymade robustness of the Airform approach by constructing a prototype AFTER home, which he called a “cabana,” during the conference and trucking it off to a then-unknown destination.
The cabana has since landed at the Warren Lane Elementary School in Inglewood, CA. There it is to become the centerpiece of a community garden managed by the Social Justice Learning Institute, which will ultimately support a farmer’s market based on the students’ plantings. This seems to align with Stanton’s philosophy.
“I entered school in 1987 when deconstructionism was in vogue – the building was very much regarded as an object,” Stanton says. “It was not about creating space. I still favor a more organic approach. I think we need to live in places with which we can identify and live a life a little less isolated from nature.”
It’s inspiring to think that our current financial and continuing environmental crisis might inspire a new kind of mass housing, and help restore some of the relevance architects lost during the go-go monomania of the ‘90s and ‘00s. It’s equally fitting that the cabanas Stanton has created so far have become sharable public assets – the other prototype is in a park in Palm Springs.
The affordability and green features of the AFTER homes could resonate with today’s market. But in a society still so conditioned to think of homes as a gable-roofed, picket-fenced rectangles that urban high-rise-dwelling kindergartners still draw them when asked to depict a “home,” could the appeal of a dome home be so overwhelming that the masses would be enthusiastic about living in something that looks not entirely unlike Ms. Pac-Man?
Could the 2010s finally be the decade in which domes become as common a sight as the Cape Cod, the Shingle Style or The Tuscan?
Stanton is not overly concerned with the effect of traditional Western aesthetics on the appeal of the dome homes, and his view is broader than the North American market.
“The gabled roof is a very strong symbol for ‘house’ in western cultures, however, I believe that there is an opportunity to increase the market for the dome homes,” Stanton says. “Many indigenous peoples on several continents have maintained the tradition of circular domed residences, so it isn’t that foreign of an idea in a global world.”
While it’s certainly possible to maintain a dome-shaped concrete core and preserve the structural integrity of the dome form, while adding projections like dormers, eaves, and decks, Stanton discourages this for both aesthetic and practical reasons.
“There is no limit to how the [dome homes] can be developed both inside and outside,” Stanton says. “However, adding traditional elements to a dome structure gets to be very tricky. The proportions would most likely make a bit of a joke of the traditional style being emulated, and the dome would only look to be ‘dressed up’ and hidden. I think it is better to see the dome homes as something new which can develop its own new aesthetic, and which could (as is my preference) be contemporary, but also have a timeless quality. A dome home with the qualities of homes in North Africa or Spain come to mind: new and ancient, but connected to the earth.”
Stanton views his design challenge as creating variations in exterior surface treatments, as well as door and window openings. Responding to the landscape may be a better strategy than attempting to mimic the local vernacular, he says. Integration with the landscape, by pushing earth into berms alongside the walls, for example, could offer the practical effect of even more insulation, and is one logical alteration to the exterior of the form. In today’s zeitgeist, it at least makes for a pretty awesome man-cave.
“I see the dome homes as a residential living concept with an emphasis on sustainability, and very connected or rooted to the earth,” Stanton says. “The landscape design is very important to create this environment.”
Even if the dome shape is not everyone’s ideal, its sheer practicality in the face of an uncertain future climate might warrant further exploration now. A quickly-fashioned residential form that is made to withstand worsening calamities, uses minimal resources, and melts into the landscape could well be the archetypal home of a future generation less fixated on traditional domestic trappings and more interested in fundamental survival.
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