If it looks like a dome, and you think it’s a dome, then it probably is a dome!

This post was contributed by Ruth Harriss, a student on Birkbeck’s MA History of Art.

“When it comes to domes, don’t define too carefully!” advised Professor Peter Draper, whose paper opened up the symposium Domes:  Past, Present and Future.  This proved to be excellent advice as what followed was a far-reaching, stimulating and wonderfully bizarre tour of the dome from its beginnings as a practical temporary shelter and grave marker, to its identification with futuristic engineering and the utopian metropolis. 

The topic inspired a diverse response and during the course of the afternoon the four speakers addressed the audience on aspects of religion, cosmology, urban renaissance, fictional structures, Victorian soap bubbles, biospheres, the V2 rocket, inflatable planetariums, a Neolithic camera obscura and dome sickness amongst many others!

My own studies and interest in architecture so far hasn’t led me to encounter the dome in all its complexities therefore Peter Draper’s introductory paper was, for me, a perfect start.  By charting the initial development of the dome in the West, Draper brought to the fore complex questions of typology and symbolism, pertinent to the practice of dome building throughout all periods and cultures.  Caspar Pearson continued with a critique of the dome as a potent cultural symbol of the Renaissance.  Epitomized by Fillipo Brunelleschi’s dome for of Santa Maria de Fiore (1461), the dome can be understood as a statement of progress and faith in human ability to remake and rebuild the world.  This powerful rhetoric is still used today and is manifest in the fictional architectural schemes impregnated in vivid ink on the Euro bank notes.  Yet Pearson questioned the possibility for architecture to embody cultural historical ideals in light of a new knowledge economy and suggested the collapse of the progress myth is evident in the catastrophic failure of the Millennium dome. 

Moving forward a few centuries we picked up again with the Cold War and the dome in the context of global war.  Primitive self-sufficiency and cutting edge science and technology converged in Barry Curtis’ unique exploration of the dome that had been inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his ‘Spaceship Earth’.  In what seemed to be one breath, Curtis raced from the turn of the century and the interfacial science of the humble soap bubble to the visionary design of the geodesic dome, and from the novels of Thomas Pynchon to the first glimpse of the earth seen as a dome-like body from outer space.  Curtis highlighted how utopian domes not only offered physical protection from a hostile future world but also a psychological escapism: the possibility to immerse one’s self in an artificial environment.  It was the latter that formed the basis of the final paper, delivered by Nick Lambert, who considered the dome and the development of fully interactive 3D environments.  In particular how early planetariums and the desire to experience virtual objects moving around us, has more recently resulted in the ‘full dome’ experience being considered an artistic medium in its own right.

My only thought for improvement upon the afternoon would have been an extended time for discussion at the end on the symposium as even in the brief time there were many interesting questions raised by the attendees. 

Needless to say I will look forward to the next event from the Architecture, Space and Society Network!

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