Every city has its iconic architecture: London has Big Ben, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and New York’s got the Empire State building. This begs the question, what is Montreal’s most iconic building? Many would point to the Olympic Stadium; however, as any true Montrealer will tell you, the Big-O (as it is called) has been nothing but a headache since day one. Originally budgeted at $134 million, the project ballooned to $1.61 billion with a roof that caves in every so often. Since the expos left in 2004, the structure sits largely unused, reminding us of one of Montreal’s largest debacles.
So if not the Big-O, then which building is most emblematic of Montreal? According to this writer, the prize sits firmly with another edifice from Montreal’s elegant past; Buckminster Fuller’s Expo ’67 Geodesic gem, the Biosphere. Originally built as the American Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, this iconic beaut is one for the ages.
Montreal was one of the biggest cities in North America at the time, and man was it the place to be. The World Expo galvanized the city and construction boomed. The metro system, the underground city as well as numerous high-rise buildings transformed our fair town in a buzzing metropolis. Bucky’s Biosphere, the doll of the ball, was originally meant to be dismantled after the Expo, but it was cheaper to weld than bolt, giving American President Lyndon B. Johnson no choice but to bequeath it fully to la Belle Province. In the space of six months, the Biosphere received over 5 million visitors, making it the most popular pavilion at Expo ‘67. Buckminster Fuller’s America Pavilion embodies, to this day, sustainable design, scientific exploration and architecture’s ability to amaze and inspire.
The Biosphere is the brainchild of Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895- 1983), an American engineer, architect, inventor, poet, philosopher, author and visionary, not to mention the second president of Mensa (no big deal). To say he lived an interesting life is an understatement. He had the distinction of being expelled from Harvard on two occasions: firstly for blowing all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, and then for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest.” For a while he struggled to hold a job and went broke. But after losing his young daughter to polio, he had a revelation. He determined to construct his life around “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”
The Biosphere is a Geodeisic Dome that is 250 feet in diameter, 200 feet tall and is a Class 1, Frequency 16 Icosahedron. An Icosahedron, in laymen’s terms, is a volume with twenty faces created of duplicate triangles. Each of the triangles is made with slightly tailored angles, to produce a curved surface, which gives the finished structure its iconic spherical shape.
Built from triangles, which “Bucky” (as he liked to be called), considered the perfect form, the Biosphère is the synthesis of his design philosophy: he demonstrated that it was possible to create a livable space using only a fraction of the materials normally used in a conventional architectural design, the ultimate in “doing more with less.” The triangle proves to be a wondrous form that provides maximum efficiency with minimum structural effort.
The spherical form of the aptly-named Biosphere is derived from the combination of many, many, many, triangles is also incredibly dynamic. The sphere encompasses the largest volume of interior space with the minimum amount of surface area, saving on materials and cost. What’s more, the structure redistributes tension and stress throughout by directing the forces in different directions, making the sphere unbelievably efficient; in fact, Geodesic domes are the most efficient structures ever made relative to their material weight. In addition, because air and energy are able to circulate without obstruction, the sphere creates an incredibly economical space for thermodynamic control by allowing heating and cooling to flow effortlessly. Geodesic shelters have been built all around the world in an array of environments and have demonstrated they are the most efficient man made shelter on earth – today there are now over 300,000 domes around the planet.
Long before Al Gore enlightened all of us to the perils of global warming, before the Kyoto Accord and LEED “green” buildings, Bucky was espousing the values of sustainable design, recyclable materials, and how we could make the best use of our technology while bettering the world. As with many revolutionary minds, he was before his time, and realized that humankind’s survival demanded that we stopped wasting the earth’s finite resources.
Montreal is blessed to have a building that is at once iconic, forward thinking, and so tied to our city’s history. After years of disuse the Biosphere was converted into a museum dedicated to waterways, such as the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes ecosystem, and sustainable development. While this is an incredibly important educational mission, this writer cannot help but think there are other potential uses out there for such a grand and exciting structure – imagine: Bono at the Biosphere?
You can visit the biosphere at:
Jean-Drapeau Park, 160 Chemin du Tour-de-L’Isle, St. Helen’s Island
October 1 to May 31: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
June 1 to September 30: daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.