Art Basel

‘Fly’s eyes’ are on Miami in domed sculptures designed by Buckminster Fuller

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This is the debut of a regular Miami Herald architecture column by Alastair Gordon, an award-winning architecture critic and author who has written about the built environment for many publications including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. His books include “Weekend Utopia” and “Naked Airport.”

The future officially arrived this week in Miami, and just in time. Not one, but two of Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller’s glittering “Fly’s Eye” domes have been unveiled for the Miami Art Week.

One is a 35-year-old prototype designed by Fuller and John Warren that now sits like a pristine art object at the Pérez Art Museum Miami on Biscayne Boulevard. The other serves as sculptural counterpoint (and functioning skylight) in a luxury shopping complex 2.2 miles to the north in the middle of the Design District. The domes, both owned by Dacra developer Craig Robins, are thin-skinned and almost completely transparent but loaded with significance. While identical, the domes represent different visions of the future: One is analogue; the other digital. One is avowedly utopian, the other materialist.

They are like two giant bug eyes watching over Miami, 24-foot-diameter lenses brooding over Biscayne Bay and the blackened banks of the Miami River, the sprawling hinterlands to the west and the restless skyline of downtown Miami. If still alive, Bucky, who had terrible eyesight and wore thick-lensed spectacles, would see two cities in one, similar but separate, One is an environmentally fragile sandbar resting on the edge of the Everglades, with sawgrass sloughs and palmetto flatlands, vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes. The other is a city bursting at the seams with glossy new architectural schemes, cultural events and foreign investors who seem in denial despite dire warnings of climate change and sea-level rise. One Miami is inclusive, multicultural and poor, while the other is exclusive, heavily guarded, gated, pampered and maintained by special VIP services. One speculates in contemporary art and real estate, the other prays for safer communities.

As a concept, the “Fly’s Eye” represents one of the last utopian expressions in Fuller’s lifelong quest to create an autonomous dwelling machine, a “high-performance shelter” to help solve the world’s housing needs, one that could be cheaply mass-produced in a factory and delivered to building sites anywhere in the world by helicopter. Its load-bearing shell was made up of Y-shaped “saddles” from molded fiberglass. The bulging, lens-like portholes — hence the “Fly’s Eye” name — were originally intended to support energy gathering devices, solar collectors or wind turbines.

“There is no energy crisis, only a crisis of ignorance,” said Fuller, insisting he was not trying to copy nature in his work so much as seek out its fundamental principles, and the “Fly’s Eye” turns out to possess the same geometry as the Carbon-60 molecule that wasn’t even discovered until 1985, two years after Fuller’s death. (The scientists who made the discovery honored Bucky by calling the porous molecule a “Fullerene.”) While the “Fly’s Eye” may have never gone into mass production — only four prototypes were ever built — it may still serve as inspiration for what the future might have been had we heeded Fuller’s predictions about what he called “Spaceship Earth” and its diminishing resources.

The original “Fly’s Eye” prototype was designed by Fuller and John Warren in the late 1970s and fits nicely under PAMM’s roof canopy, on the western deck, engaging in a kind of spatial dialogue with the generously open architecture of Herzog & De Meuron’s museum. (It will be on view at PAMM through Art Basel.)

Fuller died in 1983 while still working on the “Fly’s Eye’s” conceptual development, but disciples like Daniel Reiser of DR Design have carried on the master’s mission and continue to refine his masterpiece as an ongoing work in progress. Working with Goetz Composites, a Rhode Island company that specializes in high-tech boat construction, Reiser used the exact same geometry and dimensions as the 1980 prototype but employed new methods of parametric design software to improve its structural integrity so as to meet Miami-Dade’s strict building codes. (It must be able to withstand 175-mph winds, for instance.) The fiberglass skin measures less than a quarter-inch in depth, all the way around, an example of Fuller’s belief in doing more with less, and when finished the entire structure was broken down and shipped to Miami inside a 20-foot container.

The Design District dome is now perched prettily on a plinth in the middle of a small reflecting pool, a few feet off the plaza floor, further enhancing the hovering, otherworldly quality of what Fuller would call its inherent “sphericity.” It holds its own among the palm trees and luxury shops, its bubble-like lenses glistening in the sea-flecked Miami light. By crossing a narrow bridge, you enter the dome and descend a broadly spiraling staircase to the subterranean parking lot, but the best part is coming back up, looking skyward through the dome’s high-impact polycarbonate lenses. It’s hard to explain, but something perceptual comes unhinged. The head feels lighter, almost giddy with a kind of reverse vertigo. The dome expands the mind as it breaks away from orthogonal geometry and mimics the geometry of the human eye and the Earth itself. There is hardly any sense of boundary, only an ever-expanding membrane. “When you walk inside it makes you feel connected to something larger than yourself,” says Elizabeth Thompson, director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, and this is true of all of Bucky’s domes, whether it’s the relatively diminutive dome in the Design District or the gigantic 250-foot-diameter “Bioshpere” in Montreal that once served as the U.S. pavilion for Expo ’67 but still looms over Île Sainte-Hélène like an artificial sky.

It would be easy enough to find fault in the Design District’s new dome, a blatantly commercial appropriation of a cultural artifact that speaks to planetary survival more than luxury branding. In this kind of poverty-proof context, the dome suggests a consumer utopia devoid of all social content, but the saving grace is the fact that the Palm Court is not, after all, a fully gated compound but a semi-public environment. There are pedestrian entry points from both 38th Street and 39th Street, and anyone, even those who can’t afford a Bulgari watch or a Prada handbag, can walk into the new courtyard to look at the Bucky dome or wander deeper into the complex, window shopping or venturing up the escalator to the second-level event space by Aranda/Lasch Architects — think Brazilian modern, Niemeyer or Costa, with cantilevered balconies and patterned imprints on its cast-concrete walls — or have a coffee in the soon-to-open outdoor cafe. I do wonder, however, if everyday pedestrians might otherwise be intimidated by the glinting logos of Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Valentino that stand guard at the entryway off 39th Street.

Craig Robins and SB Architects, who oversaw master planning, can be congratulated for resisting symmetry and placing the dome off-axis so that instead of sitting like a statue at Versailles in the middle of the long pedestrian axis that now extends from the Palm Court north to a pre-existing arcade on 40th Street, the dome peeks around the corner, just enough to lure passersby with its bulging but curiously welcoming form.

Bucky would have approved of the whole situation, the way his dome takes center stage, elevating the architecture around it while still serving the people, maybe even nudging wealthy shoppers towards cosmic consciousness. Reiser, who spent months working on the “Fly’s Eye” calls it a “quiet pedagogical tool” while comparing it to a magnifying glass for looking at the universe, and he may be right. Good architecture and design can take us beyond ourselves, beyond the immediate context and, however subtly, teach us something that’s more universal. It seems ironic, but in the end, the true jewel in Craig Robins’ crown is not Prada or Versace but a product conceived by the prophet of “ephemeralization,” doing more with less, and Miami may take note.

BUCKMINISTER FULLER IN MIAMI

Through his prolific writings, lectures and patented inventions, Buckminster Fuller set out to change the world from his pre-fabricated "Dymaxion" housing units of the 1920s and 1930s to his three-wheeled car, his geodesic domes and a comprehensive vision for global sustainability. While once on the cover of Time magazine, Fuller has been oddly overlooked in the past two decades, even though his message of environmental awareness — seeing the world as a single integrated entity — is more urgent now than ever.

Miami currently boasts four of Buckminster Fuller's constructions:

  • The original 1980 Fly's Eye dome at Perez Art Museum Miami PAMM, on view through Dec. 12.
  • The 2014 Fly's Eye Dome that will be a permanent fixture in the Design District, at 140 NE 39th Street
  • The 1960 Golden Dome at Miami Seaquarium
  • The 1967 Banyan Bowl geodesic dome at Pinecrest Gardens.

Learn more about Fuller at https://bfi.org/

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