In 1960, architect Buckminster Fuller proposed one of the most ambitious designs of his career: a dome to cover Midtown Manhattan. Made of ultralight, wire-reinforced glass, the 3 km (1.86 mile) wide, 1.6 km (0.99 mile) tall dome could supposedly be constructed by a fleet of 16 helicopters in three months. The overall structure would be as light as the air it contained, and would require cable-tethering in order to prevent uplift during the summer. Why the dome? Fuller and collaborating architect Shoji Sadao, AIA, promoted its capacity to protect inhabitants from air pollution, as well as its climate-conditioning ability. Fuller also anticipated additional economic benefits, writing that "the cost of snow removal in New York City would pay for the dome in 10 years."

A recent proposal by design and architecture firm Orproject presents a scaled-down vision of the city dome, in this case designed to provide protection and environmental control for sensitive ecological contents, similar to Grimshaw's Eden Project in Cornwall, U.K. Bloggers have touted the so-called "Bubbles" project's benefits for smog-filled cities like Beijing, arguing that its delicate ethylene tetrafluoroethylene membrane enclosure would keep out harmful contaminants while maintaining largely transparent views for its occupants.

Credit: Orproject

Credit: Orproject

With respect to the architects, city dome schemes are socially cynical and environmentally defeatist. As last-ditch measures to ensure a suitable climate for a pragmatically select few, city domes project architectural visions of socioecological acquiescence. There are two implicit messages: one, that the social divide is intractable, and two, that humanity has failed to be a proper steward for the natural environment, so we must sequester ourselves further from it (and each other), expanding the technology of the hermetically sealed glass envelope to an urban scale.

The city dome idea may be viewed as an obvious (or extreme) end to one type of technological trajectory, and the sheer audacity of this vision is indeed impressive. Interestingly, however, what is laudable as an approach to building becomes troublesome as an urban application. Although the architects most certainly did not intend this outcome (and to Orproject's credit, they do not specifically mention applying Bubbles at an urban scale), these schemes undermine the very notion of public space. Unless such an idea can be applied on a geographic scale, such projects will inherently reinforce the socioeconomic divide, protecting the health of privileged insiders while allowing contaminated exiles and what is left of the natural world to languish.

City dome proposals reveal the trouble with the ambitious yet naive architectural vision: these schemes exhibit technical bravado, yet they are cowardly with regard to social and environmental justice. In this way, a utopian vision becomes inherently dystopian.

As architects are sought out for their increased leadership in an increasingly uncertain climate, we must advocate ideas that are courageous not only concerning design and technology, but also in terms of their sensitivity to broader social needs. Without this multifaceted advocacy, the notion of a selective sanctuary—and the social ills that accompany it—could proliferate with far-reaching consequences.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.