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In the 1960s and into the early 1970s, geodesic dome structures cropped up around the world, including in Northwest Arkansas. Some lasted, many did not.
Based on the idea that what we see externally informs how we understand ourselves internally, domes epitomized a philosophical approach to human habitation.
Traditional architecture with its multiple separate rooms leads to a segmented self view, according to this argument. Rounded open space such as provided in a dome fosters a more holistic view of self and the world in general.
The dome concept was developed by Buckminster Fuller. Fuller discovered that if a spherical structure was created from triangles, it would have unparalleled strength.
In 1928, he wrote:
“These new homes are structured after the natural system of humans and trees with a central stem or backbone, from which all else is independently hung, utilizing gravity instead of opposing it. This results in a construction similar to an airplane, light, taut, and profoundly strong.”
The sphere uses the “doing more with less” principle in that it encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area thus saving on materials and cost. Fuller reintroduced the idea that when the sphere’s diameter is doubled it will quadruple its square footage and produce eight times the volume.
Fuller worked towards the development of a Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science which he defined as, “the effective application of the principles of science to the conscious design of our total environment in order to help make the Earth’s finite resources meet the needs of all humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet.”[i]
Domes were built not only by idealistic hippies pursuing an improved state of consciousness but also ended up in use at commercial locations. A enhanced dome built to house an optometry practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas remains in good condition.
One of the surviving residential domes in the area includes bump-outs and other additions that make for a more family-friendly features. This one includes a basement and a rear deck.
Other commercial uses included the Southern Energy Fast Oxide Reactor (SEFOR) built in south Washington County near Stricker. SEFOR operated from 1969 to 1972, when the original program was completed as planned. It was privately operated by General Electric and funded by the United States government through the Southwest Atomic Energy Associates, a nonprofit consortium formed by 17 power companies of the Southwest Power Pool and European nuclear agencies.
The facility was then acquired by the University of Arkansas in hopes that it could be used as a research facility. However that never happened and the university has been paying $50,000 in maintenance fees yearly since. SEFOR is still considered contaminated and the University continues to seek federal funds to clean up the site.
Another example of dome construction in commercial application is the St. Louis Climatron, part of the Missouri Botanical Gardens built in 1960. Controlled environment in this large dome re-creates a lowland rain forest.
Due to limitations of materials and use requirements, domes today are built for only a few applications, most notably sports arenas and as a complement to other structures such as churches where a separate dome feature may add another dimension to sacred space.
Photographs courtesy of Denny Luke, a longtime resident of the area.