A Community Dwelling Machine

Old Man River City was to be a single community dwelling machine for 125,000 humans. It was designed by a team of architects led by Buckminster Fuller. The design process began in 1971, and the following description is excerpted from the book Critical Path published in 1981.

To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone. —RBF

R. Buckminster Fuller

Having undertaken the solution by artifacts of the world’s great housing crisis, I came to regard the history of cities. Cities developed entirely before the thought of electricity or automobiles or before any of the millions of inventions registered in the United States Patent Office. For eminently mobile man, cities have become obsolete in terms of yesterday’s functions-warehousing both new and formerly manufactured goods and housing immigrant factory workers. Rebuilding them to accommodate the new needs of world man requires demolition of the old buildings and their replacement of the new and now obsolete real estate, streets, water and sewer lines, and yesterday’s no longer logical overall planning geometries. I sought to take on this challenge and developed plans for an entirely feasible and practical new way for humans to live together economically. Old Man River’s City is one such design.

Old Man River’s City, undertaken for East St. Louis, Illinois, takes its name from the song first sung by Paul Robeson fifty years ago, which dramatized the life of Afro-American blacks who lived along the south-of-St. Louis banks of the Mississippi River in the days of heavy north-south river traffic in cotton. Cessation of the traffic occurred when the east-west railway network outperformed the north-south Mississippi, Mexican Gulf, and Atlantic water routes, which left many of its riverbank communities, such as East St. Louis, marooned in economic dead spots. East St. Louis is an American city overwhelmed by poverty. Its population of 70,000 is 70 percent black.

I originally came to East St. Louis to discuss the design and possible realization of the Old Man River’s City, having been asked to do so by East St. Louis community leaders themselves, being first approached by my friend Katherine Dunham, the famous black dancer. At the community leaders’ request I presented a design that would help solve their problem. It is moon-crater-shaped: the crater’s truncated cone top opening is a half mile in diameter, rim-to-rim, while the truncated mountain itself is a mile in diameter at its base ring.

The moon crater’s inward and outward, exterior-surface slopes each consist of fifty terraces-the terrace floors are tiered vertically ten feet above or below one another. All the inwardly, downwardly sloping sides of the moon crater’s terraced cone are used for communal life; its outward-sloping, tree-planted terraces are entirely for private life dwelling.

The private-home terraces on the outward circular bank are subdivided by trees and bushes to isolate them one from the other. This garden-divided exterior terracing hides the individual private-home terraces from one another while permitting each an unobstructed view outward to the faraway landscape. Thus landscape-partitioned from one another, the individual homes beneath the umbrella dome do not need their own separate weather roofs. The experience will be that of living outdoors in the garden, without any chance of rain and out of sight and sound of other humans, yet being subconsciously aware that your own advantage is not at the expense of others, zonal advantage.

The floors of the individual homes on the outward terraced slopes penetrate inwardly of the “mountainside” to provide an 85-percent-enclosed family apartment set back into the “mountain’s” surface. Each family’s apartment floor area totals 2500 feet, being 100 feet inwardly extended and twenty-five feet, one inch, wide at its outside terrace front line and twenty five feet at its innermost chord line. Each apartment occupies only one six-hundredth of the circle’s 360 degrees of arc. In addition there will be 1300 square feet of public space for each of the 25,000 families that Old Man River’s City will accommodate on the fifty interior, communal, terraced slopes of the crater city.

The city has a one-mile-diameter geodesic, quarter-sphere, transparent umbrella mounted high above it to permit full, all around viewing below the umbrella’s bottom perimeter. The top of the dome roof is 1000 feet high. The bottom rim of the umbrella dome is 500 feet above the surrounding terrain, while the crater-top esplanade, looks 250 feet radially inward from the umbrella’s bottom, is at the same 500-foot height. From the esplanade the truncated mountain cone slopes downwardly, inward and outward, to ground level 500 feet below.

The geodesic-sky parasol-umbrella protects the whole of Old Man River’s City from rain or snow. The sky dome is transparent. Its aluminum-and-stainless-steel-trussed structure will be covered in two alternate ways: (1) glazed with wire-reinforced glass-ergo, fireproof; (2) with a pneumatically filled, glass-cloth-pillowed umbrella. The dome will admit all biological, life supporting Sun radiation. The great umbrella is a watershed whose runoff is collected in a dome-level reservoir for a high-pressure fire sprinkler and service purification system, after which the reservoir’s overflow is piped downwardly to a dome-surrounding “moat” reservoir.

The interiormost, circular diameter ground level of Old Man River’s City is twice the size of the playing-ground area of any of the world’s large athletic stadia. This means that it has about four times the interior horizontal area of a regulation football stadium’s oval ground area.

The terraced (angle of repose) slopes of Old Man River’s City, both outside and inside, are very gradual slopes and are thus unlike the steeply tiered athletic stadium’s seating slopes. The angular difference is like that of a reclining chair versus an upright chair.

Many of the lower tiers of Old Man River’s City’s interior terraces have enough horizontal surface to accommodate groups of tennis courts, whole school and playground areas, supermarkets, outdoor theaters, etc. The terraces are of graduated widths. With the narrowest at the top, they become progressively wider at each lower level.

Inside-that is, below the moon crater’s three-and-a-half-mile-circumferenced, surface-terraced mountain mass-are all the communal services not requiring daylight: for instance, all the multilevel circumferential trolleyways, interlevel ramps, roadways, and parking lots, with numerous radial crosswalks and local elevators. There are radial crosswalk bridges at every four terrace levels. These provide bridges-never more than two decks up or down-for walking homeward, outwardly from the interior community bowl, to one’s individual, terraced, tree-hidden dwelling area. In addition to the foregoing interior structuring and facilities, the factory, office and parking space within the crater mountain is colossal-about ten million square feet. The city is as complete a living, working, studying, and playing complex as is a great ocean passenger ship-but without the space limitations imposed by the ship’s streamlined forming to accommodate swift passage through the seas.

Because its life-style will be so vastly improved over present-day living, Old Man River’s City has been designed to accommodate 25,000 families i.e., 125,000 humans-though East St. Louis has now only 70,000 humans grouped in 14,000 families.

There are many exciting consequences of Old Man River City’s community life being introverted and its private life extroverted.

Within the interior community bowl everyone can see what all the rest of the community is doing, as do the 125,000-member audiences of our present-day great “bowl” games see all the other humans present, though indistinctly at the farthest distances. The difference in Old Man River’s City experience will be that each of its 125,000 individuals will have an average of 260 square feet of communal-terrace roaming space versus the six square feet of seating space of the football stadium fan-i.e., the OMR citizen will average forty-three times as much free space as does the football fan.

From the individual, external home terrace on the crater’s outer slopes one can see no humans other than those within one’s own family’s hometerrace domain. People can look outwardly, however, from Old Man River’s City as far as the eye can see at the interesting Mississippi River scenery outside the moon crater’s umbrella limits. The Old Man River City’s home views are analogous to those of individuals living in dwellings on mountainsides, such as those of residents on the hills of Hong Kong Island or those above Berkeley, California. Such hillside dwellers overlook vast, mysteriously inspiring scenic areas, ever-changing with the nights, days, and weather.

The total roof surface area of the one-mile-diameter, quarter-sphere dome is only 2 percent that of the total roof and exterior skin surface area of all the buildings standing on an equal ground area in any large conventional city. The amount of external shell surface through which each interior molecule of atmosphere can gain or lose heat is thus reduced by 98 percent. Another energy-conservation factor is operative, for every time we double the sphere’s diameter, we increase its surface by four and its volume by eight. Therefore, the energy efficiency doubles each time we double the dome size. This means that the structural efficiency, useful volume, and energy conservation are all at optimum in the Old Man River’s City project. Throughout the year Old Man River’s City will have a naturally mild climate. With a large, aerodynamically articulated, wind-and-weather-controlled ventilator system atop and round the dome, together with the 500-foot-high vertical opening that runs entirely around the city below the umbrella, the atmospheric controllability will guarantee fresh air as well as energy conservation. The umbrella will jut out above and beyond all the outer-slope residential terrace areas as does a grandstand roof, so that neither rain nor snow will drift horizontally inwardly, being blocked from doing so by the mass inertia of the vast quantity of atmosphere embraced by the umbrella as well as by the vertical mass of the crater’s cone within the dome.

Optimum efficiency also characterizes the way in which Old Man River’s City is to be produced. The three-and-a-half-mile circumferential moon crater and its terracing will be developed entirely with modern, high-speed, highway-building equipment and earth-moving techniques as well as with suspension-bridge-building and air-space technologies. Construction will begin with installation of a set of concentrically interswitching railway tracks, with tangential shunting bypass tracks, on which great cranes and other machinery will travel. The mammoth, 500-feet-high and 2000-feet-wide-based, A-frame-shaped, circumferential segments of the crater become highly repetitive and economically producible. There will be 100 columns rising from the A-frame tops at the crater’s top-rim esplanade. These 100 columns will be 500 feet high and will be spaced forty meters apart, mounted above the A-frames. The tops of the 100 columns will be 1000 feet high and will be capped by a circumferential ring.

The whole terraced crater structure, inside and out, will be of thin-wall reinforced concrete. This terraced shell will be cast-mounted upon, and will thus encase, an inverted, kitchen-sieve-like, domical basket, consisting of an omni-triangulated, quarter-sphere geodesic, basket-bowl, suspension web of fine-diameter, high-tensile steel rods and wires. The spider-fine steel web basket will be suspended from the A-frame tops at the base of the 100 columns. The whole structure is, in effect, a circular, triangularly self-stabilizing, “suspension bridge”-principled, terraced, ferroconcrete bowl with the human occupants and their goods constituting only a small fraction of the stress loads of equi-magnitude highway traffic bridges.

The 1500-meter- (one-mile) diameter dome itself will be a horizontal wire wheel suspension consisting of an octahedral-tensegrity-trussed, one-quarter sphere geodesic dome suspended horizontally from the 100 circumferential columns. This method means mounting the dome one-quarter of a mile inwardly from the one-mile-diameter parasol dome’s outer rim. This results in an inner clear span of only one-half mile, a distance comparable to that of the Golden Gate Bridge’s central clear span between its two masts.

I said to the East St. Louisans at the outset that our first resolve must be not to compromise our design solution in order to qualify for any private foundation or government subsidy funds. Three-quarters of the United States national debt of almost $1 trillion and much of the private debt, which altogether transfers $25 billion a year “interest” from our nation’s pocketbooks to the banks and insurance companies, has been amassed through government building subsidies that were designed strictly as “money-makers” for bankers, real estate operators, and handcraft building-industry interests. The funds were not amassed in the interest of the individuals and the community. I advised the East St. Louisans that we must develop our design and its production and assembly logistics strictly in terms of the individual and the community’s best interests. I said that if we solve the human problem and do so in the most economical and satisfactory manner, independent of building codes, zoning restrictions, etc., while employing airspace technology, effectiveness, and safety, we will do that which no subsidized housing thus far has done. I pointed out that, with increasing socioeconomic emergencies, the economic support will ultimately materialize simply because we have what world-around humanity is looking for and needs. The money-making solutions of housing are exactly what humanity is not looking for but has had to accept, lacking any alternatives.

The East St. Louis school children are soon to be provided with a fifty foot diameter miniature OMR moon-crater city with which (and on which) to play, simulating actual living conditions. The children will furnish its terraces with miniaturized, scale-model equipment, landscape material, athletic facilities, interior transportation equipment, factories, and similar materials they will design and make. As the political leader of East St. Louis, who was formerly principal of its largest high school, says, “By the time Old Man River’s City gets completed, our present high school students will be its grown occupants, and they might just as well start right now using their imaginations in play living in and operating it.” Fabricating and assembling the model itself will be in strict conformity with the full-scale operation.

At the outset meeting of our OMR’s City’s development, I told the East St. Louisans that I would develop the design and models at my own expense and do so without fee. I said that what I would design must be so “right” that the entire community would fall in love with it … or it would be dropped. I said that if they did fall in love with it, I would carry on with all the development expense and that they must not allow the project to become a political football. It was fortunate that the East St. Louis community did fall spontaneously in love with the design. This held the project together through many critical moments of preliminary challenges of its validity and practicability. There were many critical meetings wherein skeptics, some of them powerful political activists, declared that this design, with its domedover interior community and exterior private-dwelling terraces, might be part of its social enemy’s conspiracy to entrap them. Fortunately the design gradually explained itself, until all the leaders of the community’s diverse factions-political, ethnic, and economic, as well as the city’s engineer-all agreed on its desirability.

I have been greatly aided in the Old Man River’s City development by a group of volunteer architectural students from Washington University in St. Louis and, above all, by Professor James Fitzgibbon, head of Washington University’s architectural school. As I am absent a great deal due to my world traveling, Jim, who is one of my best, lifelong friends, has been locally in command of the development. Most powerful support of the East St. Louisans has been provided by Wyvetter Younge, Carl Utchmann, and Bob Ahart.

Both the East St. Louis and St. Louis newspapers and radio and television stations have given good and favorable reception to the project. Now world-around interest in the Old Man River project is beginning to be manifest. As interest grows, more and more articles are being published about it, despite its having no public relations or advertising promotion. Quite to the contrary, I have asked the community to let the project gestate at a natural rate. Answer questions faithfully when they are asked, but otherwise be silently at work.

As the first favorable publicity occurred, it was inevitable that Illinois’s political representatives would quickly offer the East St. Louisans their aid in securing government funds, which funds, however, would involve so many restrictions and compromises as to utterly emasculate the OMR City’s design rationale. Thus it was a second victory for the project when I was able to dissuade the community from being tempted by the “millions” of dollars tendered them.

I have never engaged in a development that I have felt to have such promise for all humanity, while being, at the same time, so certain of realization, because its time is imminently at hand.

Epilogue: J. Baldwin writing in BuckWorks published in 1996, said:

These hazy photos are of a model showing the general layout of Old Man River’s City, a mile-diameter (1500 meter) megastructure providing the homes, workspaces, and recreation area for 125,000 people.The enormous dome is supported 1000 feet (3005 meters) above a “moon-crater” depression with a raised rim.The outer surface of the rim is terraced to provide 25,000 earth-sheltered garden homes, each with a view and a generous 2500 square feet (232.24 square meters) of floor area.

The inner surface of the crater is terraced for communal use. Millions of square feet of commercial space share the hollowed-out earth of the crater’s rim with parking lots and services, Weather under the dome would always be pleasant despite the sometimes-unpleasant East St. Louis climate. (I have not seen the calculations for tornado resistance.)

Old Man River’s City is intended to replace the poverty stricken, hopelessly obsolete city of East St. Louis, IL. Bucky specifically recommended that government money not be sought, for it always comes with a grievous burden of interest which eventually saps the local economy for the benefit of banks and other parasitic operators.To the organizers’ credit, they refused millions of dollars saddled with restrictions that would have compromised the project.

Bucky wanted the entire effort to come from the people involved. Decades have passed with no construction, but work continues. Organizers held a Syntegration in early 1995, Some real progress in financing was made. Enormous projects need a long gestation. Old Man River’s City may happen yet.