The Architectural Genius of the Geodesic Dome and the Challenge of Putting It All Back Together

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History puts the engineering innovation back on display after decades in storage

Weatherbreak structure NMAH.jpeg
A Fuller-style geodesic dome known as Weatherbreak is gradually rising 25 feet in the air in the Flag Hall of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on the National Mall. NMAH

R. Buckminster Fuller didn’t invent the geodesic dome—that honor goes to Walther Bauersfeld, a German engineer who in 1926 introduced a globe-shaped planetarium made of interlocking triangles that reinforced each other. But it was Fuller who arguably perfected the design in the late 1940s.

With a little help from his students and friends, Fuller improved the dome’s strength by drawing inspiration from structures that he found in nature, like those of snowflakes and crystals. He saw that the form’s mutually reinforcing geometry held promise for homes and other buildings. A geodesic dome has a remarkable ratio of strength to weight, which means, among other things, that it can be constructed with comparative speed—and on the cheap.

This week, a Fuller-style geodesic dome known as Weatherbreak will gradually rise 25 feet in the air in the Flag Hall of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on the National Mall. Visitors are able to watch the dome being constructed on site, strut by strut, as professors and architecture students from Catholic University alongside museum curators erect the iconic structure and answer queries from attendees. The dome, 49 feet in diameter, will be on view through July 28.

The exhibit has been seven decades in the making.

Weatherbreak was the very first large-scale, self-supporting geodesic dome built in North America. In 1950, Jeffrey Lindsay, a designer who studied with Fuller, erected it for the first time over the course of two days in a suburb outside Montreal. The dome was donated in the early 1970s, already disassembled, to the Smithsonian—where it remained in storage, nearly forgotten.

“Lindsay is the genius behind Weatherbreak,” says Abeer Saha, a curator in the museum’s Division of Work and Industry who is leading the reconstruction of the dome. “He deserves the credit for proving that [Fuller’s] theory could be made reality.”

Lindsay’s remarkable career in design began after serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. Afterwards, he went to Chicago’s Institute of Design to refine his technical drawing skills and produce product designs, and in 1948, Lindsay began studying architecture with Fuller.

That summer, Lindsay followed the charismatic professor to Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts school in North Carolina, where Fuller had been hired by the Bauhaus-trained dean and artist Josef Albers. Also present at the time were students Willem and Elaine de Kooning and instructors John Cage and Merce Cunningham. It was at Black Mountain where Fuller and Lindsay got serious about all things geodesic.

Fuller had a theory: The most stable structural form was not the rectangle but the triangle. He believed that by joining any number of equilateral triangles connected at angles to one another, he could construct a stronger, more stable geodesic dome. And, because a dome encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, it also saves on material and cost.

The problem was mastering the geometry to actually construct the dome, which wasn’t working, despite concerted efforts by the summer students. Until Fuller and Lindsay became friends with Kenneth Snelson.

Snelson was an innovative student of sculpture; his art centered on stitching together shiny aluminum tubes with wire and elastic bands to create cage-like assemblages, through which he explored the relationship between tension and compression, which he called “tensegrity.”

“Fuller absorbed Snelson’s ideas, which were immediately worked into the first proto-geodesic structures,” architectural historian Cammie McAtee wrote in the 2017 book Montreal’s Geodesic Dreams: Jeffrey Lindsay and the Fuller Research Foundation Canadian Division, a trove of original research into the dome that has helped guide subsequent scholarship.

In the summer of 1949, Fuller organized his students into teams dedicated to design, procurement of materials, assembly and manufacture. Eventually, through trial and error, the students succeeded in building a prototype dome with stainless steel tubing and steel wire.

“The prototype was deeply indebted to Snelson’s experiments,” McAtee writes. “When the steel wiring was put into tension, the structure became very rigid; when it was released, it could be quickly packaged and moved to another location.”

Fuller immediately adopted the word “tensegrity,” though he never fully credited Snelson for the concept.

The first construction of Weatherbreak in Montreal in 1950
The first construction of Weatherbreak in Montreal in 1950 Jeffrey Lindsay Fonds, Canadian Architectural Archives, Taylor Family Digital Library, Univ. of Calgary

In 1946, Fuller had founded the Fuller Research Foundation, a loose confederation of satellite offices where his students could continue his studies in their hometowns. Having graduated from the Institute of Design in the spring of 1949, Lindsay offered to establish an office in his hometown of Montreal that fall.

There, Lindsay worked fiendishly, renting a research office, researching machinery and tools, and liaising with the architecture faculty and scientists at McGill University. He visited Alcan’s aluminum laboratories in Kingston, Ontario, to find the most promising materials.

Lindsay made the effort in Montreal a family affair, bringing on friends and family to help. He taught his youngest sister how to use a slide rule, so she could work on the complex calculations for various elements of the dome. He later arranged for all three of his sisters, plus his mother, to collaborate on sewing a cover for the dome. By December 1950, having mastered the geometrical equations of the triangles and built the struts accordingly, he was finally able to assemble it with the help of some ski buddies on a field in the suburb of Baie-D’Urfé. When fully constructed, it sat 49 feet wide and 25 feet high and weighed nearly 1500 pounds.

Weatherbreak in 1960
Weatherbreak in 1960 © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Lindsay took a triumphant photograph of the completed structure on December 27, 1950, right after a snowfall, and sent it to Fuller. Lindsay called the dome Weatherbreak. Fuller responded ecstatically, saying the news was his “No. 1 Xmas present.”

Fuller never went to see the dome in Montreal, but when he applied for his first U.S. patent for geodesics in 1951, it was Lindsay’s drawings and schemes for Weatherbreak he used.

Over time, tensions grew between Fuller and Lindsay over proprietary rights to the domes, and by 1956 they ceased collaborating. Lindsay went on to design exhibition domes for trade fairs held by the Canadian government in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Jamaica and Trinidad. Like Fuller, he also sought military contracts, designing an exhibition dome for the Canadian military in Vancouver.

After Lindsay moved to Los Angeles to teach in 1954, he became friends with Bernard Judge, an architecture student at the University of Southern California who was captivated by Fuller’s geodesic domes. Lindsay offered to give Judge the now-dismantled Weatherbreak, and Judge accepted. In 1960, in a steep canyon in the Hollywood Hills, Judge erected Weatherbreak to enclose a small house for himself; he called it “Triponent House.”

It was the first practical full-scale example of geodesic geometry used for a domestic purpose—and it quickly captured the public’s attention after Life magazine ran a handsome spread about the house. Indeed, for a brief period, more geodesic homes sprouted up, particularly on the West Coast.

In the late 1970s, Judge disassembled the house and donated it to the Smithsonian as he was preparing to move to Europe. It lay in storage for six decades.

In 2020, when Saha came to the museum, he got excited about Weatherbreak and went about devising an exhibit.

“We knew we could do it, but we didn’t know how,” he recalls.

First, he and his team had to document the donation by counting the more than 1,000 struts and sprits—the rods that stand out from the dome like dandelion seeds—to see whether the inventory was mostly together and re-usable. It was.

Saha reached out to Tonya Ohnstad, a specialist in fabrication and architect with Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning. After the 2019 fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, Ohnstad worked with students to build, by hand, a historically accurate replica of a 13th-cenutury oak truss at the cathedral; a scale model of it is still on view at the school. She joined the dome project as a teacher and created a course for students and interns who wanted to be on the construction team.

Working on the dome, Ohnstad says, “you are in conversation with a dead visionary.”

Ohnstad also recruited Wyly Brown, an architecture professor at Washington University in St. Louis, to create a digital blueprint of the dome. Brown, a founding partner in Leupold Brown Goldbach Architects, has a background in lightweight structures and has studied geodesic domes of all sizes for years.

Triponent House in 1960
Triponent House in 1960 © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

“I know how to produce geodesic domes,” Brown says. “But there are different ways to break a sphere down into triangles. The spheres can be 20-sided or 12-sided. The key to this operation was to take a list of 750 struts in the Smithsonian and see if they could be fitted into a 12-sided dodecahedron [a solid figure with 12 flat faces].”

In the meantime, Saha visited the library of the University of Calgary to search its Jeffrey Lindsay archive for the designer’s original plans for Weatherbreak.

“By a stroke of luck, I came across a piece of paper showing a rough pencil sketch with a color-coded pattern to show how the struts fit together,” Saha says. “I’d found the Weatherbreak’s Rosetta Stone, so to speak.”

Saha and the students then compared the color-coded diagram with 16 different lengths of struts from the disassembled dome in the Smithsonian, eventually color-coding them for ease of construction, much as Lindsay originally did in his pencil sketch.

These breakthroughs finally allowed Brown to make a digital model that the students could use as a blueprint.

Says Ohnstad: “Brown solved the puzzle in reverse.”

After that, it was a matter of building a series of test models on the university campus using the computer-generated plans.

Weatherbreak under construction
The dome, 49 feet in diameter, will be on view through July 28. NMAH

This May, when it came time to rehearse constructing the dome in its original dimensions—25 feet high with a 49-foot diameter—Saha’s team couldn’t risk exposing the historic materials in an uncontrolled environment. Accordingly, they fabricated replicas for Weatherbreak’s 1,000-plus pieces by approaching companies to secure donated materials. Norsk Hydro, a Norwegian aluminum and renewable energy company, donated the crucial extruded recycled aluminum tubes.

“They gave us an entire dome’s worth and more,” Saha says. Hydro, in turn, reached out to Architectural Systems Inc., a Missouri-based fabricating company for the commercial construction industry, to make the struts and sprits.

While the original Weatherbreak had been fully covered with cloth, Saha chose to leave the geodesic dome being built this week out of original and fabricated parts uncovered, so visitors to the museum can better appreciate the elegant engineering.

He hopes the public will see the geodesic dome as a structure that can be resilient in an age of climate change, especially as extreme weather becomes more and more prevalent. “Domes can be made with sustainable materials,” Saha says. “They are easier to keep warm in winter and cool in summer.”

They could also be valuable shelters when catastrophes strike.

“Geodesic domes are easily transportable,” Brown says. “They use very little material for buildings with large spans. And they are remarkably easy to construct compared to other methods.”

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