Welcome To The Kabul Dome

In 1956, USIA exhibitions director Jack Masey had a problem: the Soviets and the Red Chinese and their big pavilions usually had a lock on the International Trade Fair in Kabul [that's the capital of Afghanistan, you know]. The US Commerce Secretary had decided America should be all over those non-aligned/third world trade fairs, but the US had, like, a few animatronic chickens, and a television, that's it. Then Masey called Buckminster Fuller. The story--and many, many more of Masey's expo exploits--is told in his 2008 book, Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and their Role in the Cultural Cold War, but I'll let Thomas Zung's Buckminster Fuller: anthology for a new millennium tell it.

Actually, let me paraphrase my way to the specs and the punchline. Sometimes you don't realize how badly something's written until you try to retype it yourself:

One week of engineering; one month of construction and packing; one dome and one engineer flown to Kabul on one DC-4; untrained Afghan workers assembling color-coded parts getting the thing built in 48 hours. 100-ft diameter, 35-ft tall, 8,000 sf uninterrupted floor space made it the largest Geodesic structure in the world at the time. Made from 480 3-inch aluminum tubes, weighed 9,200 lbs, nylon skin: 1,300 lbs.

And it totally killed at the fair. Afghans loved the US had them building it themselves. It reminded them of a yurt. It basically kicked Commie ass. Zung, are you ever gonna come through?

The Department of Commerce had now become interested in the kudos value [sic] of Geodesic domes. The Geodesics, it was argued, dramatized American ingenuity, vision, and technological dynamism; as structures to house American trade exhibits they would be tangible symbols of progress. Fuller's three-way grids were better propaganda than double-meaning speeches broadcast to regions in which radios were scarce. Domes as large as the Kabul dome, and larger, were flown from country to country, girdling the globe; and many of these also set attendance records. Within a short space, Fuller's domes were seen in Poznan, Casablanca, Tunis, Salonika, Istanbul, Madras, Delhi, Bombay, Rangoon, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Osaka.
Mhmm. News reports of the time cite the television and large projection screens as the big draws, actually, but I'm sure it was the dome's awesomeness.

Hard to say from the photographs, though, because I can't find a single image of the Kabul Dome in Kabul, or any of its other tour stops. As with so many other aspects of Fuller's visual/cultural legacy, original photos and archival documentation are on lockdown, and many of his acolytes seem content to just marvel at the mathematical elegance of the Geodesic schematics.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: March 10, 2010.

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