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Looking back on Climatron at 50

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 27, 2010 - There's 3-D on the big screen (Avatar), soon 3-D on the smaller screen (ESPN) and now 3-D images of a local landmark that rest on your lap.

Flip to the back of the commemorative book "The Missouri Botanical Garden Climatron 50: A Celebration of 50 Years," put on the red-and-blue glasses that are attached to the book, and watch the flora, fauna and forest animals that live inside the celebrated greenhouse pop off the pages.

These 3-D photographs help illustrate the story of the half-century-old Climatron, the world's first geodesic dome to be used as a conservatory. Originally intended to be a center of scientific research on plant growth under controlled climatic conditions, the building ended up being better suited as a place where Missouri Botanical Garden visitors can view rare tropical plants.

More than 2,800 plants, including 1,400 tropical species, grow inside the dome, which is kept at rainforest-like temperatures by a computerized climate control system. The catchy name "Climatron" is intended to emphasize the indoor climate-control technology, but the building was almost called by other names -- "Plantosphere" or "Floradome," for instance.

Inspired by the work of R. Buckminster Fuller and designed by the St. Louis architectural firm Murphy and Mackey, the Climatron rises 70 feet high in the center, reaches 175 feet in diameter at its base and encloses more than half an acre of tropical rainforest. In 1976, the American Institute of Architects named the Climatron one of the most important buildings in American architectural history, a tribute to its mid-century modernist design.

The structure originally had an aluminum frame and a Plexiglas surface. During renovations in the late 1980s, the Plexiglas panels were removed, the aluminum stayed, and a new steel-and-glass structure was built beneath it. When the Climatron reopened in 1990, among its features was a newly landscaped interior.

Thirty years earlier, several thousand people showed up for the dome's official opening. On Friday, nearly 50 years after that dedication, more than 100 people are expected to attend a sold-out Fontbonne University/KMOX Book Club event at the Botanical Garden. They will celebrate the dome's half century of existence by discussing "Missouri Botanical Garden Climatron 50" ($19.95, Missouri Botanical Garden Press), hearing from its authors and touring the facility.

The book, with a forward from Botanical Garden president Peter H. Raven, includes a range of colorful archival photos and historical information about the dome. Eric Mumford, a professor of architecture at Washington University and an expert on the history of modern architecture, wrote the historical sections of the book and spoke to the Beacon about the significance of the Climatron. Here's a condensed version of our conversation:

Let's start first with the basics: What does a geodesic dome mean, what was the reason for the triangular and hexagonal pieces that made up the Climatron's aluminum frame, and why was it important that there be no columns inside the dome?

Mumford: The geodesic dome refers to a straight line on a curved surface. The idea is to find the shortest distance between two points. The triangular forms were [Fuller's] way of creating what he thought was the most efficient structure to support the largest possible surface area. As far as the columns go, Frits Went (the garden's director at the time and an influential plant scientist) had the idea for a greenhouse that would be a place to study plant growth. He wanted as few obstructions as possible so plants could get equal sunlight.

Looking at the big picture, what was so innovative about Fuller's geodesic design concept?

Mumford: It's important to the history of mid-century modernist architecture, which focused on avoiding ornament and using technology to create new forms rather than copying older buildings. Fuller was truly an innovator and an inventor. He hoped to mass-produce these things, which he knew were super-efficient structures that used very little materials. The idea was that they could be shipped easily and assembled quickly - it was a vision of a mass-produced future that never came to be. The Climatron is a nice example of his architectural vision put to use.

What prevented his structures from being widely replicated?

Mumford: For one, they weren't mass-produced because it was expensive to build a structure out of aluminum. Fuller himself is a controversial figure and perhaps overly idealistic. His original idea was a housing concept, to provide structures that could be rapidly constructed for people to live in. There was a strong resistance from organized labor to the idea of prefabrication (because it meant quick factory assembly and thus fewer hours for workers to log on a construction site). The Climatron in particular didn't get replicated because it turned out to be difficult to maintain climates in that space. It really had to do with limited climate control technology, which is better now, and also with the discoloration of the Plexiglass panels, which reduced light to the plants. 

My sense from the book is that even though Fuller's plans for mass production didn't come to fruition, his architectural mind is still celebrated - particularly in St. Louis

Mumford: He's certainly associated with this period of St. Louis architectural history when there was a very ambitious effort to modernize the city. It's around the time when the Arch was built and when the airport's main terminal was constructed.

In most cases, that vision of remaking St. Louis into a modernist city didn't work out well, but things like the Arch and the Climatron were successful parts of this movement.

There's lots of interest in Fuller's work lately, and especially his ideas about prefabrication. I wouldn't say that people are reviving his work, but his concept was widely applied in the 1950s and 1960s. Lots of concert halls, zoo structures and other venues are built in a way that borrows from Fuller's ideas. There was also a popular dome home movement inspired by his work and his own house in Carbondale, Ill.

How would you assess the Climatron's role in helping to revive what was in the middle of the 20th century a struggling Botanical Garden?

Mumford: It was very successful in drawing visitors. But keep in mind that Went started to get into a conflict with the Garden's board of trustees and left in 1963, soon after the Climatron went up. (He had commissioned the building.)

Peter Raven came in about a decade later, and a lot of what you see there now is his vision. The Garden, when Climatron opened, was smaller, not as accessible to the public and noticeably run down. Raven opened up more of the grounds to visitors, and the Climatron continually proved to be a popular destination.