Christian Sager

The Flying Cities of Buckminster Fuller

The Flying Cities of Buckminster Fuller
Buckminster Fuller with models. Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

The first time I ever imagined a city could fly was when I saw Bespin's Cloud City in "The Empire Strikes Back." If you've never seen it, imagine a hovering gas mining factory teaming with pug-faced workers, run by administrative assistants who had smart phones for ears. As much as I love that fantasy, it turns out engineers have been envisioning cities that float since long before "Star Wars" ever hit theaters. In fact, Buckminster Fuller theorized that if we could build a spherical structure large enough, it could potentially float into the sky with some simple temperature adjustments. Not only would it hold its own weight, but these spheres could house people, their belongings and an entire infrastructure of buildings inside. Let's quickly explore Fuller, his geodesic domes and how they evolved into the floating city idea he called "Cloud 9."

Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller was an American architect/engineer whose height of invention was between the 1930s and the 1950s. He envisioned structures that we would refer to today as "green," meaning they attempted to address environmental and social issues in their design. One of his most famous patents is for the geodesic dome, a building that looked like a sphere cut in half, composed of triangular supports. To be clear, Bucky didn't invent these domes, as Walter Bauersfeld had already designed one for a planetarium in Jena, Germany in 1926. Bucky just got the paperwork done first. Even though geodesic domes follow Bauersfeld's method, Bucky held the U.S. patent to this design and popularized the futuristic looking structures.

Geodesic domes don't just look cool, they're also quite economical. This stems from another idea that Bucky may have appropriated elsewhere, an architectural concept called "tensegrity." Kenneth Snelson claims that he actually invented this idea for mobile sculptures he built while he was a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. At the time, Snelson studied under Fuller, who subsequently coined the term tensegrity as a portmanteau of "tension" and "integrity." The relationship between those two forces allows these small structures to support comparatively great weights, regardless of whether Snelson or Fuller discovered it first.

So we've got this visionary architect who popularized dome structures that were highly durable for less material expense. How does this get us to flying cities?

Well Bucky was later challenged by a wealthy Japanese patron named Matsutaro Shoriki to design a community that could float on Tokyo Bay. Shoriki wanted a solution for Japan's crowding and imagined boats joined together to make a floating city, not too dissimilar from the Freedom Ship currently under development. Bucky responded to Shoriki's challenge with the Spherical Tensegrity Atmospheric Research Station (STARS), also called "Cloud Nines." Though never constructed, these massive, buoyant, geodesic spheres would be filled with hot air and float over the Earth.

I know it sounds like science-fiction, but here's how Bucky proposed a Cloud Nine would work. A half mile (0.8 kilometer) diameter geodesic sphere would weigh only one-thousandth of the weight of the air inside of it. If the internal air were heated by either solar energy or even just the average human activity inside, it would only take a 1 degree shift in Fahrenheit over the external temperature to make the sphere float. Since the internal air would get denser when it cooled, Bucky imagined using polyethylene curtains to slow the rate that air entered the sphere. He wanted to build Cloud Nines and anchor them to mountains, or let them drift so their inhabitants could see the world. One of the more practical uses he proposed for them was as disaster sites for emergencies.

Bucky Fuller only thought of his Cloud Nine idea as an "exercise to stimulate imaginative thinking." While he believed the technique was possible, he didn't think these flying cities would actually be constructed until the far future. It's been more than 50 years since Bucky first patented the geodesic sphere. We're certainly capable of strapping computers to our heads like Lobot did on Cloud City. Do you think we're far enough in the future now to make Fuller's exercise into a reality?

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