Art installation brings geodesic dome back to Black Mountain

Anne Chesky Smith
Special to The Black Mountain News

On Saturday, June 30, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center sponsored a workshop in which participants and Appalachian State University instructors installed a bamboo geodesic dome – a half-sphere structure made up of triangle supports -  in Black Mountain’s Town Square.

The geodesic dome art installation will remain in place through the end of November and is part of the museum’s Black Mountain College exhibit put on in conjunction with Appalachian State’s Black Mountain College semester. The exhibit can be seen every Tuesday – Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

The geodesic dome is often associated with nearby Black Mountain College, a progressive school committed to the idea that the arts are central to the experience of learning that existed from 1933 – 1957, because Buckminster Fuller – inventor, architect, and educator – constructed prototype domes at the college during the summers of 1948 and 1949.

Participants in a workshop sponsored by the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center assemble a geodesic dome in the Black Mountain Town Square on June 30. The installation will remain up until November.

Though Fuller never completed a formal education (He was expelled from Harvard twice.) and had no prior teaching assignments, he was invited to teach at Black Mountain College during the 1948 summer session.

He arrived at the college without notoriety, but soon became one of the most popular lecturers. Long committed to environmental sustainability, doing more with less, and addressing the post-WWII housing shortage, Fuller was interested in constructing a 48-foot dome – a lightweight shelter that would enclose the largest volume of space using the least materials.

Geodesic domes were already being built by the 1920s, but it was Fuller who would call them “geodesic,” receive the US patent, and popularize them in the 1950s.

To begin, Fuller and his students measured long venetian blind strips – the best material they could afford - and marked points where the strips would meet. Though Fuller was afraid that the materials were wrong, he decided to have the class complete the project. Sure enough, as soon as tension was applied, the dome collapsed.

Fuller dubbed it his “supine dome” and said, “I got the sort of feeling it wanted to go up, but it was limpid and settled down like a pneumatic bag that had little air in it.”

The next year, using aircraft tubing instead of venetian blinds, Fuller and his class succeeded. To prove his design, Fuller suspended himself and several students from the structure’s framework. The prototype would be known as the “Autonomous Dwelling Facility with a Geodesic Structure.”

Just a few years later, the Ford Motor Company commissioned the Ford Rotunda Dome and the US Military began using the domes to house their radar antennas. Geodesic domes are still in use today for many purposes – housing, play structures, churches, planetariums, and auditoriums to name a few.

The dome in Town Square was originally designed and constructed on the campus of Appalachian State University and has also been assembled at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum and the Turchin Center in Boone. Black Mountain is its final stop.