Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A show in Montreal focuses on the province’s forgotten history with the geodesic dome leading up to Expo 67.
Around the world, if you’re talking about geodesic domes, you’re talking about Buckminster Fuller. But in Quebec, that conversation should also include Jeffrey Lindsay.
A new show at the University of Quebec at Montreal’s Center of Design dives into the province’s history with the distinctly postwar architectural form and centers it around the Montrealer who founded and directed the Fuller Research Foundation Canadian Division.
“Montréal's Geodesic Dreams” (and a corresponding new book) shows visitors the roots of a regional movement that started with Linsday and the first self-supporting, large-span geodesic dome ever built according to Fuller’s designs before finding international fame through Fuller’s U.S. Pavilion for Expo 67.
The show’s curator, architectural historian Cammie McAtee, first became interested in Lindsay when one of his domes, a geodesic barn, was threatened with demolition in 2011. That barn later came down, but it kindled McAtee’s curiosity about its designer, whose broader contributions to the story of Fuller’s geodesics are little known, she says. McAtee eventually found Lindsay’s archives through his aunt and discovered connections between him and celebrated Canadian architects Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey.
The story of Quebec’s geodesic domes starts with Fuller, who moved to the province briefly in 1913, after his first of two expulsions from Harvard. There, he worked with a distant cousin who had a contract to build a new mill, and he discovered a passion for the mechanical process and the research behind it. Fuller’s attention shifted to geodesic domes in 1947, after he developed various mass-produced housing types for domestic and military use.
Fresh from a stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II, Lindsay joined a special seminar at the Chicago Institute of Design conducted by Fuller in 1948. Having developed an interest in geodesics, he then followed Fuller down to Black Mountain College in North Carolina as one of the famed inventor’s “Twelve Disciples.”
In 1949, so taken by Fuller’s ideas, Lindsay proposed to return to Montreal to open Fuller’s only foreign branch. Fuller agreed to it and by Christmas of 1950, Lindsay had a breakthrough; he and his friends successfully erected “Weatherbreak” a 49-foot dome made of aluminum and plastic out in the western suburbs of Montreal. “Fuller could not have been happier,” says McAtee. “It gave credence to all of his theories. It was a famous structure, featured on a cover of Architectural Forum and put into a show at MoMA.” After that, Lindsay designed “Skybreak” in Beaurepaire (1951); “Skigloo,” a chalet in Morin Heights (1952); and the aforementioned Hackney Barn in Senneville.
McAtee’s show also tracks the march of geodesic domes across the province, from a polar bear enclosure at the Granby Zoo by Paul O. Trépanier and Victor Prus (who designed multiple metro stations in Montreal), to Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s U.S. Pavilion. Both are still standing and repurposed. “In our show we paint a picture of the phases,” says McAtee. “There’s the tech fascination that comes with it in the ‘50s into the ‘60s. By the time Fuller did his dome here, it wasn’t passé, but geodesic domes were going in another direction with a focus on space-like forms with minimal vertical supports.”
Lindsay died in 1984 at the age of 60. Fuller died one year earlier at 87. Geodesic domes became associated with DIY counterculture in the 1970s, but never proved practical for widespread residential use, thanks to the challenges in constructing, waterproofing, and partitioning them. Canada was graced with two more geodesic icons—not quite on the scale of Fuller and Sadao’s—in Toronto (Eberhard Zeidler’s “Cinesphere,” 1971) and Vancouver (Bruno Freschi’s “Expo Center,” 1986).
Using photos, books, and other objects from the University of Calgary’s Canadian Architectural Archives (as well as life-size models and a geodesic dome prototype), “Geodesic Dreams” puts Fuller’s and Quebec’s most famous geodesic dome in a new context. In a city currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fuller’s biggest commission, it’s perhaps the best time to learn about the local who worked in his shadow.
“Montreal Geodesic Dreams” is on exhibit at the University of Quebec at Montreal’s Center of Design through December 10. The book, Montreal's Geodesic Dreams: Jeffrey Lindsay and the Fuller Research Foundation Canadian Division is on sale now.