The Flying Cities of Buckminster Fuller

By: Christian Sager  | 

Bucky Fuller standing in front of a giant geodesic dome
The legendary American architect, inventor, and futurist Buckminster Fuller raises his arms as he poses in front of a massive geodesic dome in Long Beach, California, on April 21, 1983. Fuller was widely known for popularizing the use of the domes. Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images

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 smartphones for ears.

As it turns out, engineers have been envisioning cities that float since long before "Star Wars" ever hit theaters. In fact, the gifted 20th-century visionary and architect 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 the structures hold their 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."

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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 looks like a sphere cut in half, composed of triangular supports. To be clear, Bucky didn't invent these domes, as Walther 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, Fuller held the U.S. patent to this design and popularized the futuristic looking structures.

Geodesic domes don't just look cool, they're economical. This stems from another idea that Fuller 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 now we have this out-there architect who popularized dome structures that were highly durable for less material expense. How does this get us to flying cities?

Fuller 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 that was once 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 Earth.

It sounds like science fiction, but here's how Fuller 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 Fahrenheit (0.56 degree C) shift over the external temperature to make the sphere float. Since the internal air would get denser when it cooled, Fuller 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.

Fuller regarded 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 actually would be constructed until the far future. It's been more than 50 years since Fuller 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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Originally Published: Aug 7, 2013