Under the dome: the Winooski that wasn’t

Score one for internet serendipity, and another for news organisations republishing archive articles. Both SlashDot and architecture/design webzine Inhabitat.com ended up pointing toward the story of Winooski, Vermont, and the flirtation that city had during the last gasp of the seventies with the idea of encasing itself in a giant geodesic dome to protect itself from the snow-bound New England climate. Here’s the 1979 article from Time, when the idea was still freshly under consideration:

Tigan has no inkling yet of such details as whether the dome would be inflatable or rigid, what it would be made of, how air would be circulated, or even roughly how much it might cost. An artist’s rendering commissioned by the town shows a structure about 200 ft. high at its center (enough to clear the town’s tallest building, eleven stories high), covering a square mile of Winooski; it is transparent on its southern side, where there are also solar panels to catch the sun’s rays, and becomes gradually opaque on the northern exposure. The principal entry points are two half-buried tubes that would serve as the major cross streets. Travel inside the dome would be by electric cars or monorail—to avoid lethal accumulations of automobile exhaust.

And here’s a contemporary piece at H+ Magazine that digs up the whole story [and from where the copy of the concept drawing below has been borrowed; please contact for immediate take-down if required]:

Winooski dome concept drawing - John Anderson

Enthusiasts organized an International Dome Symposium, held in March 1980. Buckminster Fuller, then busy assisting in Brasilia, the planned capital city in Brazil that had been hacked out wholesale from the Amazonian jungle, flew in to express his enthusiasm. Fuller (naturally) proposed a structure of multiple geodesic domes, but in any case declared the engineering “not terribly difficult,” and pointed to already existing structures like large airport terminals in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fuller had built the “US Pavilion” at Expo Montreal in 1976 — three-fourths of a sphere consisting of 1900 molded, transparent Plexiglas panels, 200 feet high and 250 feet in diameter, covering 1.1 acres. Winooski’s dome would cover nearly the entire town, 800 times that area. He stressed that the biggest challenge was not keeping the dome up, but holding it down against the force of rising warm air.

It’s easy to look back and laugh at what seems to be a bout of naive and ludicrous old-school futurism… but is it really that crazy an idea? Surely we’ve got the architectural and engineering skills to be able to build such a structure by now, and cities like Winooski – which are likely to become even more harassed by the weather as a result of climate change and rising energy prices – might find there were few other palatable answers to the question of how to remain an economically viable place to live. Is it perhaps time to reconsider Bucky Fuller’s geodesic domes as a last resort in our stand-off with the environment?

5 thoughts on “Under the dome: the Winooski that wasn’t”

  1. “Is it perhaps time to reconsider Bucky Fuller’s geodesic domes as a last resort in our stand-off with the environment?” No, not in my opinion. First of all, cities are concentrations of people that, historically, have enabled commerce. The rise of low-cost extremely-broadband communications, in combination with robotics and automation, reduces the need to pack large numbers of people into small, tight, geographic areas. I expect that in the future, cities will shrink in population (some already are) as people will find such dense living environments to be less appealing. Second, it is easier to strengthen a single building against harsh weather than a giant dome. Third, a giant dome represents a single-point of failure kind of system, unlike a distribution of buildings. Structural failure of a giant dome over a city would be a catastrophe on a scale much greater than that of any ordinary building. Fourth, it would represent a terrorist target, in terms of both destruction and for increasing/concentrating the effectiveness of chemical, biological, or radiological attacks. Fifth, due to its huge size, cost and civic nature, it would be necessarily a government-run project. Such projects, based on history, are less likely to be cost effective than free-market ones, while at the same time represent huge opportunities for political corruption. In summary, although I have long admired the gleaming domed cities of science fiction, I do not think their time has come. Not yet, and not soon.

  2. Oh, I know you’re right, Robert. It’s just that little voice at the back of my head that always says “yeah, but it’d look awesome!” 🙂

  3. Indeed, sort of like giant rotating space colonies. I’m still hoping to live long enough to see those.

  4. And probably not a good isea until we come up with a way of reliably keeping the air breathable in said domes while keeping out the bad weather. That ion itself would probably take an awesome amount of planning and possibly legislation…

  5. Great idea, I fully support implementing it, but….

    …imagine being locked out. ‘Outside’ would become quickly worse and worse.

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