Visitors to Crystal Bridges this week will notice something unusual taking shape on the north lawn. From the north gallery bridge, you can see sections of white fiberglass coming together to form… what?
This is the Fly’s Eye Dome, a prototype of a design for inexpensive, efficient housing conceived by R. Buckminster Fuller in the early 1980s. The finished dome, covered with 61 circular openings, or “oculi,” will be 50 feet in diameter and stand some 30 feet tall. Crystal Bridges acquired the dome in 2015. It is being assembled on the north lawn, and will be available for up-close viewing this summer.
Buckminster Fuller was an American theorist, engineer, and designer, among other thigns. A true renaissance man, “Bucky,” as he was called, produced a wide body of work that crosses many disciplines, but his chief interest was in improving the quality of life through inspired design, particularly of affordable housing. He was interested in creating structures that relied upon what he referred to as “tensegrity,” his own mashup of “tension” and “integrity” that referred to a building model by which all the parts of a structure shared in the support of its weight, distributing the force in every direction, rather than just downward, as most architectural models do. One such structure is the geodesic dome, which Fuller championed as an ideal example of his concepts. Although he did not invent the geodesic dome, Fuller is sometimes credited for its invention because he devised and patented ways to build lightweight, yet structurally sound domes for industrial and military use in the 1950s and ’60s.
The Fly’s Eye Dome was a further development of his designs for geodesic domes. Fuller saw a close-up photograph of a multi-lensed fly’s eye in a magazine, which sparked an idea for a way to let more light and air into his dome structures without compromising strength. He got together with a surf board manufacturer and fiberglass expert named John Warren, and collaborated with famous British architect Norman Foster to develop his idea. Together they created three prototypes of the Fly’s Eye Dome — a 12-foot, a 24-foot, and this 50-foot version — which debuted at the 1981 Bicentennial festival in Los Angeles.
After the festival, the domes were dismantled. Although the smaller versions eventually found permanent homes with private collectors, the 50-foot version languished in an overgrown lot until architectural historian Robert Ruben acquired and restored it in 2013. It appeared briefly at the Toulouse International Art Festival in France that summer. It is now part of Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection.
Along with the dome itself, Crystal Bridges also acquired the archive of Buckminster Fuller’s original plans and documentation of the process that went into designing the dome. Parts of this will be on view in a focus exhibition in the museum in mid-summer.
Three Architectural Gold Medal Winners
With the installation of the Fly’s Eye Dome at Crystal Bridges, guests to the museum may view the work of three recipients of the American Institute of Architecture’s Gold Medal in one place. Frank Lloyd Wright, designer of the Bachman-Wilson House on the museum grounds, received this honor in 1949. Buckminster Fuller was honored with the gold in 1970; and Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed Crystal Bridges itself, received the Gold in 2015.