Finessing a Unique Form
Thursday, July 10th, 2014
Photos by Zeke Ruelas, zekephotography.com
The geodesic dome, a spherical structure based on a network of intersecting triangles, was popularized by Buckminster Fuller in the 1950s. Today in Los Angeles, the dated dome structure lives on, granted new life as a community center for the Eagle Rock neighborhood.
Built from a kit in 1979, the dome first was used as a Montessori school in the 1980s, housing classes into the 1990s until the school expanded across the street. It went derelict from there and fell into disrepair—“rot, termites...it was in terrible shape,” according to architect McShane Murnane of Silver Lake creative studio Project M Plus.
“When I first walked in,” Murnane recalls, “I saw how amazing the exposed structural elements were and wanted to preserve that.” He convinced the owner not to tear down the dome but rehabilitate it instead, tasking himself and his team to re-energize the unique but defunct space. Using the structural patterning as a design element, Murnane exposed the original triangulation and cladded it with wood to help “keep the structural expression active.”
The architectural benefit of a geodesic dome, a form based on nature, is that its triangles create hexagons, forming a column-less space and a light-weight structure with small framing members that’s very structurally efficient. The downfall? A lack of flexibility in shaping it. “It’s a familiar building type that people recognize but one that is rarely used because of, if I had to guess, the lack of ability to manipulate its form,” explains Murnane. “You need to follow the geometric rules, no exception. There isn’t the freedom to add openings wherever you want—they must be strategically placed to maintain the structure.”
The challenge, then, was manipulating the very rigid form with new ideas. “There are four locations between the structural base that are a sort-of soft spot structurally,” Murnane explains. “Those soft spots are commonly used as doors and windows in a dome. They become triangular bump-outs that allow one to add a window or door in a vertical plane as the whole dome is otherwise triangulated.”
The design team saw this as an opportunity to manipulate the form without changing the purity of the dome structure fundamentally. They added large circular openings at the ground level to shift from the normal angled openings, floated a part of the base structure to capture a space for kids to sit and play, and shifted the angles of the front door to make the entry playful and more interesting shape-wise. “It’s a subtle change,” Murnane says, “but the angles produce a visual effect that is hard for your eyes to read and almost looks like it’s moving.”
Now the re-imagined space will be used as a classroom during the day and an event space on the weekends—an architectural blast from the past reinvented as a space for all to enjoy.