Geodesic Dome

Constructed in 1957, Cal Poly’s geodesic dome marks one of the first of its kind built on the west coast. Geodesic domes are remarkably strong and lightweight with a minimal amount of material, making them widely popular during the 1950s and 1960s. Five students built the dome from the design theory of R. Buckminster Fuller after a lecture of his the year before on these domes. The structure originally stood on campus as the entrance to the architecture building before being transported to Poly Canyon. Today it remains a campus landmark to remind students of a time when student projects were not limited to size or scale.

After an inspiring speech by renowned architect R. Buckminster Fuller at Cal Poly in 1956, a group of five architectural engineering students came together to build his patented “geodesic dome.” This would become the first permanent dome of its kind in the western United States. For several years after its construction, this student project was the largest dome west of the Mississippi for many years at 50 feet in diameter and 25 feet tall. Completed by students Richard Neill, William Roth, Donald Mills, Samuel Peterson, and Don Trunklage, the dome utilizes over 19,000 nuts, bolts, and washers, and over 1 mile of 1” diameter war surplus boiler pipe.

History of Geodesic Domes

 Students often climbed the geodesic dome to take a break from schoolwork.  Image from El Rodeo Yearbook, 1958The first geodesic dome was built shortly after World War I by Walther Bauersfeld, but it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that the structure became popular in the United States by Buckminster Fuller. Known as an “architect - author - philosopher - mathematician - engineer” by those who attended his 10-hour long lectures, Fuller patented the idea in 1954 and shortly after saw a boom in geodesic domes throughout the country in the following years, including the one built on campus in 1957. After World War II the United States suffered a shortage in housing. Geodesic domes were a brilliant solution to this problem, being easily-constructible from excess war materials and able to be built nearly anywhere in a short amount of time. These domes never grew widespread in the housing market despite their demand and interest, due to the constant negotiations between union construction workers, designers, and stockholders. Today they are used throughout the world as civic centers and public spaces. A few of the most popular domes are Spaceship Earth and the Walt Disney World EPCOT Center in Bay Lake, Florida, United States, the Zeiss Planetarium in Jena, Germany, and the Climatron greenhouse in the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, Missouri, United States.

Geometry and Structural Integrity

Geodesic domes are constructed with a series of triangles that form hexagons and pentagons. Most often the triangles form hexagons, and a triangle-formed pentagon is spaced between these hexagons at intervals between 2 and 8 struts, including those in the pentagon (see figure). These domes are unique in the sense that the larger they are, the stronger and more lightweight they become, uncommon to most structural systems. In comparison to rectangular- and square-framed structures, they enclose a larger volume of space with a smaller surface area.

 Geometry of a 4V geodesic dome. Struts are highlighted in red. Image from

Cal Poly’s Geodesic Dome

 Geodesic dome in its previous location near the Cal Poly architecture building. Image from University Archives The Geodesic dome is by far the oldest structure in the Experimental Design Structures laboratory in Poly Canyon, outdating the founding of the laboratory itself. Potential uses of the dome were discussed soon after its completion in 1957, including use for a chapel or a gathering space with a fully functioning HVAC system. Prior to its relocation, the structure stood as the entrance to the architecture building until October 1963 1963 (since replaced by the Clyde P. Fischer Science Hall and A-1 administration parking lot). In May earlier that year, a group of rowdy students moved the dome with sheer human strength from the architecture building to the cafeteria patio area as a prank on Poly Royal weekend. After months of deliberation and with the newly-founding outdoor laboratory space, the structure was finally moved to its permanent home in Poly Canyon. During events like Design Village this student project serves as a sound stage for disc jockeys because of its excellent acoustics, due to the geometry of domes. Today the structure functions as a symbol of the “learn by doing” philosophy.

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