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Architecture Through Emerald Glasses

By Michelle Louise Watson SID 309248590

ABSTRACT The rise of global warming has resulted in the commodification of sustainability, and consequently created a captive market for eco-utopian architecture. This essay seeks to determine the influence of utopian architecture on generating a sustainable future through analyzing the architectural legacy of Buckminster Fuller. In particular, this essay will be concerned with the comparison of two key buildings: the American Pavilion by Buckminster Fuller, and the Eden Project by Nicholas Grimshaw. These buildings represent two eco-utopian monuments that subvert the archetype of the geodesic dome as a symbol of eco-sustainability. Programmatically, education is used as a driver to connect the public to ideas about sustainable living. This provides a limited direct impact on creating a more sustainable future. The futuristic architectural experience and utopian image presented by both buildings reveals that the core motivation for such projects is for the client organization to gain international standing in the sustainability market. This essay argues that both the Montreal Biosphere and the Eden Project have merits in terms of their educational programs. The promotion of unrealistic utopian visions through unnecessarily expensive superstar architecture, however, overwhelms many of these merits and is ultimately harmful. Architecture that promotes a false eco-utopia encourages sustainability as an image or commodity, rather than a driver for change in lifestyle and understanding of the general population. It encourages us to see the world through emerald glasses.


PRELUDE I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green. "But isn't everything here green?" asked Dorothy.
Image 1 (left): Coles Envirobag by Planet Arc. Source:

"No more than in any other city," replied Oz; "but when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you. (Baum, 2001) Global warming has pushed sustainable design to the forefront In of current the last architectural discourse. Image 2 (right): Im Green! Bag by Bulk-Bags. Source:

It was my experience with the now infamous green bag that formed my first impression of sustainability as image. On the train home from school, I opened my then favorite teen magazine to a doublespread of celebrities toting the popular reusable shopping bags. (Image 1) I did not realize at the time, that this was my first encounter with green as fashion. The envirobag provides a prime example of emerald glasses. The bags promote a green image, but do not measure up sustainably. A reader from The Age Newspaper wrote: Doesn't anyone realise these bags are made of'almost happens indestructible' when these materialswhat (SMH, 2005) Many architects and their clients similarly strive to promote a sustainable image. This essay seeks to examine influence of eco-utopian or green architecture on generating a sustainable future. This will be accomplished through the analysis of the architectural legacy of Buckminster Fuller, in particular the comparison of Fullers American Pavilion to the Eden

decade, the sustainable design revolution has transformed sustainability from an idea to a commodity. There is an inherent danger in this. In order to discuss the impact of sustainability as commodity and image it is crucial to define two notorious terms: sustainable and green. Sustainable development was coined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 to mean development that: meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (United Nations, 1987) This discussion shall adapt the above definition, whereby sustainable design should refer to design that meets the ecological needs of the present without compromising needs. The term green has become a the ability of future generations to meet their own ecological

'cool' bags reach their use-by date?

catchphrase for the 21st century and is strongly associated with environmental sustainability. In the context of this essay green refers to the image of sustainability as perceived by the general public.

Project by Nicholas Grimshaw. Are these designs promoting sustainable cities or merely cities viewed through emerald glasses?


A HISTORY OF ECO-ARCHITECTURE The turn of the 20th century marked the rise of ecology in discourse, and so created the foundations for todays concept of sustainability. Buckminster Fuller was born into this dynamically evolving school of thought. The

These early projects exhibit significant exploration sufficiency, into the ideas of selfand mass production,

structural efficiency that underpin Fullers entire body of work. In the mid 20th century Fuller began to develop these concepts in line with ecological sustainability. Whether he was aware of the currently developing discourse is difficult to say. Regardless, Fuller found himself at the forefront of dialogue and design, linking ecology and architecture. In 1948 Fullers work underwent a

development of discourse linking science and architecture is reflected in Fullers body of work where space age ideas are fused with environmental enthusiasm. In 1904, when Fuller was a mere 10 years of age, Arthur Tansley, the editor of a biology journal pronounced: Ecology may now be considered a fashionable study (Anker, 2002) This moment marks the beginning of a slow and steady chain of reaction that would result in our modern notion of sustainability. infiltrated Gradually, as a ecology means to discourse

paradigm shift. The first prototype of the geodesic dome corresponds to Fullers integration of an ecological sustainable image, with his well-developed notions of structural efficiency and mass production. This concept would be refined and revisited again and again, both using the geodesic publications dome including and the numerous well-known

understand a host of disciplines including politics, economy, law, history, and most significantly architecture. (Anker, 2002)

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. In 1961 Fuller became one of the first

Fullers earliest works were ignorant to these notions of ecology. His initial projects were influenced strongly by the second industrial revolution. They utilized industrialization and mass production as devices to establish a philosophy on shelter. One such project is the 4D Prefabricated House of 1928. (Image 3)

designers to advocate eco-sustainability as a path towards better design. Fuller not only offered utopian vision but additionally practical recommendations, suggesting: the architectural departments the of all be




encouragedto invest the next ten years in a continuing problem of how to make the worlds resources humanity through (Conrads, 1975) Fuller recognized He the necessity of that of for serve 100% of design. competent

intelligent resources. transcending

management believed the

global through past


generations and utilizing the resources of the Earth as carefully as those of a

Image 3: Model of the 4D House by Buckminster Fuller Source:

spaceship the world could indefinitely


sustain a modern standard of living. It was in this atmosphere of revolutionary thought that Fuller designed the American Pavilion. At the close of the 20 century, discourse linking ecology and architecture finally burst into the mainstream. By 1987 the term Sustainable Development had been coined, and the idea of sustainable architecture was on the rise. This was marked by the publication of Anthologies such as The Architecture of Science, edited by Peter Galison and Emily Thompson in 1999. (Anker 2010) The Eden Project, opening in 2001, provided reinforcement of the recently

The 1967 International and Universal Exposition was part of an initiative by Montreal to establish itself as a world metropolis. The American Pavilion (Image 4) commonly referred to as the Expo 67 Dome, was a monument not only to Fullers utopian values but also to the utopian vision of Montreal.

Image 4: Minirail Entering American Pavilion Source: Front pages of Paris Match, April 20, 1967, and Life, April 28, 1967. (Fulford, 1968).

established green design ideals. The project is not revolutionary, but rather pushes the boundaries of accepted ecoutopian architecture to achieve a dramatic, modern eco-utopian image. The context surrounding each building in question is deeply intertwined with the rapidly developing understanding of ecosustainability in architecture. As such, it is impossible to reasonably analyze one building without reference to the other. The following two sections seek to provide an insight into the complex relationship between these two buildings and ecoutopian discourse in architecture. THE LIFE, DEATH, AND REBIRTH OF THE AMERICAN PAVILION The American Pavilion has a complex history of its own. The life of the structure is divided into three key stages: a building symbolizing Montreals utopian vision during Expo 67, decline following the close of the exhibition, and rebirth as the pavilion is refitted The as the Montreal of Biosphere. changing images

Fond recollections of Richard Jackson from the Ottawa Journal reinforce the prominent position that the pavilion held in establishing an image of Montreals future. Following the opening day of the Expo Jackson wrote: Nowhere at Expo is the feeling of the futuremade more tangible than in the American pavilionIt glitters in the sun by day. Softly glows at night with a golden gleam that is truly entrancing (Jackson, 1967) While Expo 67, and the American Pavilion in particular were successful in drawing short-term attention to the future vision of Montreal, in less than 10 years the enchantment of the Dome appeared to have depleted. Ravished by fire in 1976 the Dome was reduced to nothing more than a steel frame. The pavilion for some time was a forgotten remnant of Montreals ambition an image of the future that had past its used by date. Discourse on Expo 67 reflects

utopia represented by the Dome in each stage correspond to the shifting ambitions and ideals of Montreal.


this decline.

In the Vancouver Sun of






October 1997 a journalist remarked: The optimistic national mood that gave Expo its vitality, the faith in the future that embraced modern architecture and the compassion the supported the worldwide social programlhave faded away (Ward, 1997)

perception for the Biosphere. Seventeen million dollars was spent on the exhibit that focuses on the significance of the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence River system, covering environmental topics such as sustainable development, ecotechnologies and climate change. While this promotes environmental awareness, many environmentalists such as Daniel Green lamented that Biosphere officials decided against a more concrete role for the former pavilion, such as analyzing water samples. (The Globe and Mail, 1995) The choice of program supports a widereaching and highly public, eco-utopian vision of the future, yet limits potential for quantifiable sustainable development.

Image 5: Expo 67 Dome In Flames Source: Designing for Mobility. Gorman (2005)

During the 21 century green ideals took hold worldwide. Montreal needed a The architectural symbolism of the dome strikingly denotes its monumentality as an eco-utopian image for Montreal. By the time the Montreal Biosphere opened to the public in 2007 the geodesic dome had become a worldwide eco-utopian symbol through developments including the Shaw Botanic Gardens (Image 6), Spaceship Earth at the Disney EPCOT Centre (Image 7), and the Eden Project (Image 9). monument to its sustainability and so the American Pavilion was reborn as the Montreal Biosphere. Like Expo 67 Dome, the Biosphere sought to place Montreal at the forefront of design in order to establish itself as a world metropolis. The Dome would represent an eco-utopian vision to reinforce the support of Montreal for establishing a sustainable future. In order to gauge the success of the Biosphere, particularly in comparison with the Eden Center, a criterion for discussion should be established. The eco-utopian image presented by each image will be analyzed experience. The Biosphere seeks to change the sustainable habits of society through education. Following refurbishment of the American Pavilion, it could have been used for nearly any conceivable program. The selection of an interactive museum
Image 6: Interior of Geodesic Dome, Shaw Botanic Gardens, St Louis, Missouri Source: Designing for Mobility. Gorman (2005)






architectural symbolism and architectural


The interior of the Biosphere does indeed provide an inspiring space for visitors to learn more about the Great Lakes, global warming and sustainability. Overall, the Montreal Biosphere powerfully represents an eco-utopian vision for the future of Montreal. While this vision is
Image 7: Night Photograph of Disney Spaceship Earth (EPCOT). Source:

convincing as an image of the future, in parallel with Expo 67 the aspirations of establishing an eco-utopian image are rooted more deeply in politics than sustainability. The Biosphere is a tool of inspiration for the present, with a limited impact through community education, but it is not a visionary architecture for the future. THE EDEN PROJECT

The adaptive reuse of the American Pavilion provided Montreal an easy opportunity to compete in a global market of eco-utopian landmarks that flaunt a bold geodesic structure. Yet, the focus remains on drawing attention to Montreal, rather than on what progress is accomplished by the green ideas. The architectural experience of the

The Eden Project was both influenced by and provided influence on, the Montreal Biosphere. Constructed more than 30 years after the Expo 67 Dome, and Grimshaws design re-uses the geodesic archetype. Program, symbolism architectural experience provide the three criteria that will be used to evaluate the projects eco-utopian image.

geodesic dome provides some relief from the structures attention-seeking emphasis. Upon entering the geodesic dome, the surroundings are obscured by the steel framework and glass panels (Image 8). The viewer is immediately distanced from the surrounding world. The enormous dome creates an overarching sense of protection, safety, and preservation. The building structure experientially evokes the notion that the exhibits contained within represent something that requires protection, that is, the environment.

Image 9: The Eden Project visitors center with biomes in the background. Source: /images/content/come-and-visit-visitor-information_000.jpg

Grimshaw has subverted the archetype of the geodesic dome, and in doing so has altered its symbolic connotations. In the Montreal Biosphere, Fullers three-quarter dome stood as a strong monument: proud and alone.
Image 8: Interior of the Expo 67 Dome Designing for Mobility. Gorman (2005)

Contrastingly, the domes of

the Eden Centre are hemispherical, and look more akin to the sci-fi domes

imagined by astronomer and sciencefiction author Patrick Moore in his book The Domes Of Mars (Image 10). If the Montreal Biosphere is the spaceship, the Eden Centers Biomes are the spacehouses. While there is a different undertone, there is no doubt that the project has strong futuristic connotations. Again, the architectural symbolism is primarily grounded in establishing a global image for the project, and drawing tourists to visit the center.






biomes is further dramatized through materiality. Rather than glass, the domes are clad with pillows of EFTE a strong, transparent and lightweight plastic. A piece of EFTE when compared with a piece of glass of equal volume provides superior insulation, superior UV weathering resistance, and weighs less than 1 percent that of the glass. (Harris, 2011) The EFTE pillows provide a significantly distorted view of the outside world compared to the glass panels of the Montreal Biosphere. This heightens the sense of disconnection between the utopian world inside the Biome, and the real world of visitors to the facility.










The Eden Project is not only a mediator for

Image 10: Cover of The Domes of Mars by Patrick Moore. Source:

education, but seeks to be an interactive, immersive and futuristic experience that imparts its eco-utopian vision onto each visitor. Overall, the Eden Project is highly

The utopian experience of the facility differs significantly from the Montreal Biosphere when considered in terms of program. The two biomes house tropical and temperate plants. (Image 11) Unlike the Montreal Biosphere, which seeks to generate sustainable ideas through an interactive display, the Eden Project has physically inside, the preserved biomes the natural easily be environment inside the Biomes. From could mistaken for an Eden in the wasteland of the deserted quarry.

successful in creating an eco-utopian image. This image is used to educate and inspire a more sustainable generation, however it also serves to create a global reputation, attract visitors and thus generate income. Similarly to the Montreal Biosphere, this project strives to generate an image and raise awareness, but does not tackle the much harder challenge of making a tangible contribution to a more sustainable future.


Image 13: Eden Project Site Plan. Source: The Eden Project Brochure by Hadid, J.

OUR CURRENT POSITION It is now the year 2012. While green ideas are commonplace and sustainable discourse is at a record peak, there remains a long path ahead to truly sustainable architecture. In 1981 Fuller believed that the world was headed towards impending crisis that despite his own efforts, Spaceship Earth was moving ever deeper into crisis with little hope of getting back on course. In the three decades since Fuller resigned the world to crisis, the understanding and appreciation for sustainable design has grown exponentially. The great knowledge business of green design where profit and image is given priority over progress. This is a dilemma facing architects of today and the future. Is it morally correct to continue designing buildings, which propagate false utopian images of a sustainable future? Both the Montreal Biosphere and the Eden Project are part of a league of buildings that use the geodesic archetype to promote a vision of sustainable utopia. The powerful images are motivated primarily by the desire to appear a leader in the global market of and understanding of a select few, however, is counterbalanced by the







have a very limited impact on creating a sustainable future. The millions of dollars spent on creating very impressive utopian images could no doubt have a much greater impact on our societies sustainability if spent differently. If society were freed from the vision of these unrealistic eco-utopias, the sustainable future would not appear so green or idyllic as many would like to think. Yet, sooner or later, it will be time for society to take off their emerald glasses.

secondarily motivated by the desire to make an indirect impact on a sustainable future. There are of course many architectures not discussed in this article that take a significantly more humble, and ultimately realistic approach to green design, however buildings such as these are rarely experienced by the masses. On the whole, buildings such as the Montreal Biosphere and the Eden Project

Image 14: View to the Emerald City of Oz. Source:


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