The dome is doomed. The Astrodome, once an icon of America’s ambition to create and go to another world, will most probably be torn down now that voters in Houston have rejected a bond issue that would have enabled the city to spend up to $217 million to turn it into a convention center. Meanwhile, the shiny new behemoth where the Houston Texans have lost three home games in a row sits otherwise empty next door in all of its overwhelming mediocrity. Our priorities today are even more messed up then when we created the largest air-conditioned room in the world.
Opened in 1965, the Astrodome was—and is—a marvel. Though we have bigger buildings now, that space inside, inspired by Buckminster Fuller (who consulted with the architects, Hermon Lloyd and W.B. Morgan, on the design) is still the largest room in the world. What is more important is the clarity and simplicity of the design. It is a perfect, round object at a vast scale, with almost no protuberances or additions. A line of slender columns surrounds it, creating a shallow, shaded portico. The detailing is not particularly elegant, nor are any of the subsidiary spaces. But that arena is glorious, and must have been even more so in the first few years, when a skylight bathed it with light. (Apparently, too much of it: The Lucite panels in the ceiling blinded Houston Astros players. The panels were subsequently painted over, but that killed the grass. Hence: AstroTurf.)
The Astrodome’s name evokes the space race headquartered there in Houston. But the associations are even larger the proximity to NASA. The Astrodome belongs with Microwaves, plastic, and high-tech armaments as accoutrements of a culture that was expanding the concept of exploration from the furthest reaches of the planet to the depths of outer space. The Astrodome was the very emblem of making an artificial piece of perfection in the middle of Houston’s oppressive heat and humidity. It was no coincidence that it was a site of gladiator-like battles that glorified the competitive ideals at the core of the space-age dream of conquest.
I only visited the Astrodome once, when the architect Michael Bell, AIA, took me to a tractor pull there. It was one of the many big shows, from rodeos to circuses, which took place in the Astrodome. The place was somewhat run down, and, truth be told, it did not impress me as much as it might have if I had not been to so many other overgrown stadia. But its simplicity, and the way that set off the action within, did amaze me. It was a pure, concentrated experience.
Yesterday's bond referendum would have paved the way to convert the Astrodome into a convention center. I am not sure it would have served well in that capacity. I once went to a trade show so big that it took over not only the Atlanta Convention Center but also the domed football stadium next door—and the combination of booths and roof made both look awful. I wish we could have come up with something more imaginative to do with the Astrodome: a giant greenhouse, housing along the sides, some other form of spectacle, perhaps? They would have known what to do with it—the un-self-conscious purity of America's space-age drive, the Eighth Wonder of the World— back in LBJ's day.
Aaron Betsky 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.