Monday, May 10, 2010

Dome Town

Covered Corners

My Dome Town, For and Against

By John Taylor; 2010 May 10, Jamal 12, 167 BE


Domed Corners, Domed World
Counterpoint to Domed Cities


Domed Corners, Domed World

We have been discussing the architecture that will come about when permanent peace is declared. The inauguration of a constitutional world government will initiate what Immanuel Kant called a "cosmopolitan condition." Under such conditions, city planners can be much more audacious, for they will have at hand wealth now dissipated in a trillion-dollar-plus a year military-educational-industrial complex. As soon as the folly of nationalism ends, planners will be in a position to build domes to cover entire cities, or at least enclose the street corner "palaces" that we have been discussing. The most immediate possibility is to cover vehicle-free intersections with pneumatic plastic structures.

In the spring of 2009 researchers at the University of Toronto announced that they had calculated that it is possible to build an elevator to near space on a mountain-top using the same techniques that are used to make bouncy pneumatic play structures found at carnivals, fairs and festivals. A platform at the top of a plastic tower on a mountain peak would give observers a panorama almost as impressive as what astronauts see from the International Space Station. They have patented the idea and hope to make it profitable as a tourist attraction. The mountain towers could also be used as launch pads for rockets or as an elevator to space. All this can be done with present materials, without any need to invent the exotic materials required by older designs for a space elevator.

Compared to these ambitious goals, covering over crossroads with pneumatic structures seems positively mundane. But there is no need to stop there.
In the 1960's Buckminster Fuller proposed that a large part of Manhattan be covered over by his patented invention, the geodesic dome. He calculated that once such a structure passes a certain size, the air inside, heated by the sun, holds it up. A difference of a degree or two of warmth can allow it to take off into the wild blue yonder. Geodesic domes would thus enable flying cities to soar like clouds overhead. He also worked on floating cities that would ply the oceans. In his research, Fuller found that after it gets to a certain size, a geodesic dome would be transparent, allowing the full spectrum of light into the city below.

Fuller argued that such covers over cities would pay for themselves within a couple of years with savings in heating, insulation and roofing. A domed city would offer residents a stable shirt-sleeve environment year round, with complete protection from rain, wind and extremes of heat and cold. Around its perimeter, the dome would collect clean rainwater runoff, reducing dependence of the city on outside reservoirs. Fuller even suggested that a domed-over city would be impervious to nuclear fallout, if not direct thermonuclear attack. As he pointed out, a dome was the only building left standing after the nuclear bomb destroyed every other building in Hiroshima.

Today, Buckminster Fuller might also mention climate change as an argument for dome covers. Climate de-stabilization and warmer oceans threaten to increase the severity of storms and the danger heat waves. Rising oceans could inundate large areas of New York and other coastal cities. Deserts are spreading, making large regions too dry to support their already small populations. Plus, recent natural disasters have shown that the danger from volcanoes and tsunamis may more imminent than previously imagined. Domes could protect the refugees of such upheavals from the elements and allow them to build permanent homes, neighbourhoods and cities In Situ.

While the advantages for comfort and security of covering over large urban areas are clear, whether from an engineering point of view it is possible remains an open question. As the Buckminster Fuller Internet FAQ points out, as long as such mega-projects have not been tried nobody really knows whether they are feasible. As to whether the cost of construction will remain exorbitant depends on advances in robotics and, especially, materials technology. The invention in recent years of much stronger materials, some appropriately named Buckyballs and Buckytubes, could make domed cities practicable sometime soon.


Counterpoint to Domed Cities

In a recent essay I briefly discussed the idea of covering over vulnerable city spaces with domes, either permanent geodesic domes or temporary pneumatic domes. I suggested that streets be built in the style of the ancient Greek Stoa, a long porch that would mediate public walkways with shops and private living areas. The stoas would also house the efficient means of transport, tube transit, while allowing the pedestrian to dominate open spaces.

At least one reader of the Badi' Blog found the whole idea of domed towns objectionable.

"I hate to burst your bubble - but I would hate to live in a city with a plastic dome over it. Give me the opportunity to experience weather - beautiful sunny days, sometimes with a light breeze (even wind), some rainy days and even snowy ones - especially in the freedom of walking beside water and some lovely gardens ... Sorry, but I can't conform to the kind of Utopia that you dream about."

I replied that we need high-density construction in order to take the burden off the environment while housing seven billion souls on this planet without iniquity. The present infrastructure of cities is unsustainable because it is highly wasteful. Having a roof over urban areas would help make a high density lifestyle more attractive to most people, not less. Those who wish to experience a variety of weather conditions would not need to travel far to get out from under the dome. My reader replied,

"Thanks for your explanation.  When I said that I would hate to live in a city with a plastic dome over it, what I really meant to imply is that there must be thousands of others who would not like this enclosed type of living. However, your thoughts about trying to bring about a more equalized world are worth studying."

Clearly, there are disadvantages to living in crowded conditions. A poorly designed dome can be noisy. And indeed, if all we knew were domed over places, it might be tedious never to have changes in the weather. We would miss something if we never experienced inclement weather.
Nor can everybody stand city life. Ideally, people would have a choice. It should be cheap and easy to move from country to city and back again. This sets up competition between large and small towns, between urban and rural planners in making their respective lifestyles more pleasant. Ultimately, I think high-density living will prove to be more natural, since this is what humans have experienced longest during our evolutionary upbringing. With experience of both country and city living, most would find the city a more vibrant, exciting place to live in. The alternative is unthinkable. We would just keep spreading human habitation into more and more land until there were no natural areas left. This would be extremely destructive to the environment and would threaten species diversity.

It has been very difficult for me to decide which to treat first, the physical structures of the cosmopolitan condition or the many invisible, mental changes that will enable the physical changes to come into being. One cannot be understood without the other.

In the end for entirely personal reasons I decided to concentrate first on the streets and buildings that the cosmopolitan condition will bring about. This is because hope, as Emily Dickinson said, has feathers. It fills me with hope to imagine myself flying like a bird over a properly designed world, where humans are happy and plants and animals have room to prosper in a natural harmony.

I recognize that mega-projects will not happen until we improve democracy, devise more sophisticated property laws, make up a universal education, and on and on. All these will come up later. In the meantime, there are hopeful signs. A consensus is growing that we have no choice but to switch to renewable energy, local agriculture and less wasteful transport. The thesis of this book is that it is not enough to treat these problems separately. We must take the approach of the Latin saying, "Tres unu contudit ictum," I struck down three with a single blow.

As for the comment, "Sorry, but I can't conform to the kind of Utopia that you dream about," I just watched a 1990's dystopian movie, Demolition Man, that addresses that very question. In this future, everybody must obey the design of a single individual. Uttering a swear word triggers a buzzer and an announcement that a fine of one credit has been levied. Kissing, sex and eating meat are all illegal. The smallest detail of personal discretion is regulated.
Let me tell you, I do not dream of a utopia where any individual, no matter how gifted, can collect that kind of power or influence into his own two hands. I dream of the reverse, an order where power resides in the people, but a people who refuse to tyrannize individuals. I dream of a people who submit to the resolutions and dictates of wisdom, not of any one man or one set of ideas.

This is why I started off in the introduction talking about wisdom. Clearly, I need to talk about it more, so I will set the physical structures of the cosmopolitan order aside and talk about wisdom one more time in the next essay.


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