Buckminster Fuller's vision realized

“Eden 1 mile”, said the road sign, and you could almost believe it, but for the traffic. The sign advertises the presence of the world’s largest plant-house, built using the lightest and most environmentally sustainable technology, and known properly as the Eden Project. Located in a disused clay pit in the scarred yet still beautiful landscape of coastal Cornwall, “Eden” is a victim of its own astonishing success.

The £86 million ($120 million) project is designed to promote the notion of global sustainability, and is stocked with species from which man has derived shelter, clothing, medicines and food—as well as the air we breathe. Well over a million people have visited the attraction since its opening in March.

Even as a building site the place drew half a million curious tourists. For the Eden Project is as notable for its architecture as for its sprouting botanical collection. Within this spoiled English paradise has flowered a uniquely American vision exemplifying the revolutionary principles of the maverick architect Richard Buckminster Fuller. The core of the project comprises two “biomes” or ecological plant habitats—one temperate, one tropical—housed within a sequence of eight great domes, the largest more than 300 feet across. The domes echo those Fuller built and dreamed of building and yet surpass his achievement both in technical terms and in terms of the ideals they represent.

They are not beautiful in any obvious way. They lack the ornate elegance of the cast-iron glass-houses of the Victorian era, whose successors they are. Are they even architecture? Perhaps not. For, for along with the gust of moist heat and the splash of cascading waterfalls that assail the senses upon entering the biomes, it is the sight of the pure structure that really takes the breath away. “Eden brings together two traditional British threads—an interest in plants and an interest in structures,” says Nicholas Grimshaw, of the architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. He might have added that these two concerns were implicit in Fuller’s philosophy and therefore that the Eden Project is the greatest vindication ever realized of this far-sighted thinker and designer.

Fuller is celebrated for his geodesic domes, which he believed could provide shelter on any scale for less weight, less cost and less environmental impact than conventional structures. His most famous unrealized scheme was to enclose the whole of midtown Manhattan under a single transparent dome. Fuller filed his patent for the geodesic dome 50 years ago next month [ie. Dec 1951]. It was his one great commercial success—a structural archetype that could be deployed in an instant to create a home, or a refugee shelter, or an exhibition hall.

But his inventions range far wider, and the geometrical ingenuity that led to the domes was, for Fuller, merely a facility that he directed toward a larger goal of “design science”, a technocratic vision that would enable humankind to live better and in closer harmony with nature. “Humans have thus far evolved the industrial complex designing which is only of kindergarten magnitude compared to the complexity of the biological success of our planet Earth,” he wrote.

Fuller’s vision has come to fruition here for a good reason quite apart from the national obsession with gardens. Britain is also home to a thriving engineering tradition that goes back to Joseph Paxton, the creator of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and of the Palm House at Kew, the Royal Botanic Garden. The post-war generation of architects, of whom Richard Rogers and Norman Foster are the best known internationally, reinvigorated that tradition with new ideas from America—their inspirations were the California “Case Study” houses of Craig Ellwood and Charles and Ray Eames, and, of course, Fuller.

Gradually, they united the American ideal of architecture as a kind of industrial design based on mass-manufactured components with a truly British craftsmanship, which saw no reason why those components should not be custom-made rather than ordered out of catalogs. Now these architects are returning to the scene of their inspiration and winning jobs in the United States—Grimshaw’s first American building is a performing arts center for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Albany, New York.

Britain’s architects have been indulged by a special breed of structural engineer prepared to tolerate their improbable fantasies—and do the hard calculations to make sure they won’t fall down. Tony Hunt of Anthony Hunt Associates, the Eden Project engineers, certainly shared the architects’ drive to provide a visual thrill as well as a sound structure. “The geodesic geometry fulfills Fuller’s ideal as well as being the ideal way to cover that weird terrain,” he says. “The original idea of using arches was not nearly as exciting.”

Even the clients have come to share the excitement that such bravura architecture produces. Jo Readman, Eden’s director of education, says: “We got what we wanted. And they got what they wanted. It was the ideal vision.”

Like some of Fuller’s domes, including his most famous one at the Montreal Expo of 1967, the Eden biomes comprise a double-layer space frame of two hexagonal shells joined by a rigid triangular truss system. This structure uses less steel than a single layer and so admits more light. Unlike Fuller, the architects at Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners were able to make use of sophisticated design technologies to optimize their structure. “In the 1970s, people like Frei Otto [the German engineer responsible for the extravagant tent-like structure of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games stadium] did everything hands-on, using soap bubbles,” says Andrew Whalley, the architect who directed the project. Soap bubbles still serve their purpose: they demonstrate, for example, the law of nature that says the bubbles—or domes—must join at one particular angle. But today, Whalley adds, “the great thing about computers is that you can model things three-dimensionally and then handle it as a drawing very easily, so you can describe it to others to build, so the manufacturer took our models and that data was then fed directly in to cutting lengths of steel and patterning the pillows.” Finally, the transparent cladding panels and their steel frame components simply arrived at Eden like a giant item of flat-packed furniture, with each piece coded for assembly like an Erector set by a crew of abseiling “sky monkeys”.

But perhaps even more than the design techniques, it is the novel building materials that would have caused Fuller to marvel. The Eden domes surpass Montreal in weight-saving and transparency—and therefore also in reduced environmental impact—because they are able to take advantage of materials unavailable in Fuller’s day. Chief among these is the transparent polymer foil of ethyl tetrafluorethylene (ETFE), which is inflated in three-fold layers to make the more than 800 lentil-shaped panels to provide the covering for the structure.

The largest of these high-tech pillows is more than 35 feet in diameter and yet may still be lifted by one man. “The ETFE foil is incredibly light,” Hunt enthuses. “The weight of the whole structure is less than the weight of the air inside. Fuller had this whole thing about reduction of weight in structures. He would have gone bananas. He would have said, now we can do that dome across Manhattan.”

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