The Eden Project Built a Rainforest Ecosystem Inside Buckminster Fuller-Inspired Geodesic Domes

Buck­min­ster Fuller had a dif­fi­cult time as an inven­tor in his ear­ly years. “Hav­ing been expelled from Har­vard for irre­spon­si­ble con­duct,” notes The Guardian, “he strug­gled to find a job and pro­vide a liv­ing for his young fam­i­ly in his ear­ly 30s.” Despite lat­er suc­cess­es, and a lat­er rep­u­ta­tion as leg­endary as Niko­la Tesla’s, he was often, like Tes­la, seen by crit­ics as a utopi­an vision­ary, whose visions were too imprac­ti­cal to real­ly change the world.

But his body of work remains a tes­ta­ment to an imag­i­na­tion that ris­es above the trends of indus­tri­al design and engi­neer­ing. After a peri­od of decline, for exam­ple, Fuller’s geo­des­ic domes expe­ri­enced a revival in the ear­ly 2000’s when “aging baby-boomers across Amer­i­ca” began “build­ing dream homes in the shape of geo­des­ic domes.” Mean­while in Corn­wall, Eng­land, a few years ahead of the curve, Dutch-born busi­ness­man and archae­ol­o­gist-turned-suc­cess­ful-music-pro­duc­er Sir Tim­o­thy Smit broke ground on what would become a far more British use of Ful­lerist prin­ci­ples.

In the late 90s, Smit start­ed work on an enor­mous com­plex of geo­des­ic bio­mes called the Eden Project, a facil­i­ty “akin to a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Vic­to­ri­an cre­ation: the Eng­lish green­house,” which reached its apex in the famed “Crys­tal Palace” built for the Great Exhi­bi­tion in Hyde Park in 1851. These were build­ings “born out of a play­ful, deca­dent imagination—yet in their archi­tec­ture and design they often opened new path­ways for the future.” So too do Fuller’s designs, in an appli­ca­tion meld­ing Vic­to­ri­an and Ful­lerist ideas about cura­tor­ship and sus­tain­abil­i­ty.

Look­ing like “clus­ters of soap bub­bles” the Eden Project slow­ly rose above an exhaust­ed clay pit and opened in 2001 (see a short time-lapse film of the con­struc­tion above). Each of the two huge cen­tral domes recre­ates an ecosys­tem. The Rain­for­est Bio­me allows vis­i­tors to get lost in near­ly 4 acres of trop­i­cal for­est and includes banana, cof­fee, and rub­ber plants. The Mediter­ranean Bio­me hous­es an acre and a half of olives and grape vines. Small­er adjoin­ing domes house thou­sands of addi­tion­al plant species. There is a per­for­mance space and a year­ly music fes­ti­val; sculp­tures and art exhi­bi­tions in both the indoor and out­door gar­dens. The facil­i­ty has host­ed well over a mil­lion vis­i­tors each year.

Pho­to via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In 2016, the Eden Project began plant­i­ng red­woods, intro­duc­ing a for­est of the North Amer­i­can trees to Europe for the first time. Next year, it will begin drilling for a geot­her­mal ener­gy project to turn heat from the gran­ite under­ground into pow­er, an under­tak­ing that, unlike frack­ing, will not release con­t­a­m­i­nants into the water sup­ply or addi­tion­al fos­sil fuels into the air and could pow­er and heat the facil­i­ty and 5000 addi­tion­al homes. In 2018, the project began con­struc­tion on Eden Project North, in More­cambe, Lan­cashire, with build­ings designed to look like giant mus­sels and a focus on marine envi­ron­ments.

Eden Project Inter­na­tion­al aims to build unique facil­i­ties all around the world, “to cre­ate new attrac­tions with a mes­sage of envi­ron­men­tal, social and eco­nom­ic regen­er­a­tion” and “to pro­tect and reju­ve­nate nat­ur­al land­scapes.” None of these ambi­tious expan­sions use the geo­des­ic domes of the orig­i­nal Eden Project, but that is not a reflec­tion on the domes’ struc­tur­al sound­ness. Many oth­er trans­par­ent uses of Fuller’s design have encoun­tered dif­fi­cul­ties with water tight­ness and heat flow. The Eden Project’s domes use inno­v­a­tive inflat­able, tri­an­gu­lar pan­els instead of glass to solve those prob­lems. Fuller sure­ly would have approved.

The project also rep­re­sents a poignant per­son­al vin­di­ca­tion for the Fuller fam­i­ly. Fuller “vowed to ded­i­cate his life to improv­ing stan­dards of liv­ing through good design,” The Guardian writes, after his daugh­ter Alexan­dra died in 1922. In 2009, his only sur­viv­ing child, Alle­gra Fuller Sny­der, then 82 and Chair­woman of the Buck­min­ster Fuller Insti­tute, vis­it­ed the Eden Project. “Of all the projects relat­ed to my father’s work,” she remarked after­ward, “I would say that this is the one I am most aware of as being a pow­er­ful, com­pre­hen­sive project…. My father would have been just thrilled. He would feel that it is a mar­vel­lous appli­ca­tion of his think­ing.”

Learn more about the Eden Project, which reopens Decem­ber 3, here. And learn how to “cre­ate Eden wher­ev­er you are” with the project’s free resources for gar­den­ers at home.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Buck­min­ster Fuller Rails Against the “Non­sense of Earn­ing a Liv­ing”: Why Work Use­less Jobs When Tech­nol­o­gy & Automa­tion Can Let Us Live More Mean­ing­ful Lives

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Inno­va­tion that Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Map Design (1943)

The Life & Times of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Geo­des­ic Dome: A Doc­u­men­tary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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