The Biosphere: a futuristic architecture

The Original Building

The symbol of Expo 67, Buckminster Fuller's sphere is a landmark in the history of contemporary architecture and the most important building of its kind in the world. Its structure reproduces more than 97% of a sphere. In 1964, the United States Information Agency asked Fuller to submit an architectural plan for the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67.

This enormous ball is 62.8 metres (206 feet) in height, 76.2 m (250 ft) in diameter and has a volume of 189,724 cubic m (1,700,000 cubic ft). Its trellis-like frame is made up of steel tubes welded at each end to steel joints. The structure's total weight is 600 tonnes. The structure consists of two spheres, one inside the other, with about one metre between them. The outer sphere is made up of triangles with 2.4-m (8-ft) sides while the inner sphere consists of hexagons with 1.5-m (5-ft) sides. The two frames are connected to each other by steel tubes welded at their joints. The resulting nodes support ten tubes on the outer joints and six tubes on the inner joints. The entire structure is a multitude of tetrahedrons with each component attaining maximum efficiency.

The original structure was covered with 1900 transparent acrylic panels. A system of motors driven by solar energy controlled the interior temperature. The building's complete transparency created an almost invisible barrier between the inside and the outside. In 1976, while the structure was being repaired, a fire broke out and completely destroyed the acrylic skin. Only the tubular frame remained intact.

The outer shell of the Biosphere was awarded to Buckminster Fuller, but the design of the U.S. pavilion's inner structure was given to Cambridge Seven Associates Inc., a group of Harvard University architecture and design professors. The original building thus has two signatures.

The original inner structure consisted of four large platforms divided into seven levels and connected by escalators, bridges and elevators. During Expo 67, the gigantic structure included a 37.5-m (123-ft) escalator. The longest escalator ever built, it was the equivalent of eight floors. A monorail also crossed the pavilion.

The Architectural Concept of the New Biosphere

The Biosphere

Photo: © Denis-Carl Robidoux, CC BY-SA 3.0, 2013

The challenge facing Montréal architect and designer Éric Gauthier, who was commissioned to redevelop the Biosphere, was nothing less than to build a ship in a bottle. Mr Gauthier's plan was selected in an architectural competition held in 1992.

The precepts of sustainable development imply respect for a building's history and the contributions of previous generations. The Biosphere had two signatures: Buckminster Fuller for the outer shell (the Biosphere itself) and Cambridge Seven Associates for the inner structure. It was known around the world and was part of Montréal's architectural heritage. Its survival and the preservation of its unique character were absolutely essential.

The architectural plan selected reflects the Biosphere's needs. The space has been organized to maximize the amount of natural light and living contact with the sphere. The Biosphere's original character lies in the transparency between inside and outside.

In addition, the new space, which is 4000 square metres in size (43 000 square feet), had to take into account the Biosphere's public mission. It would be laid out like a ship and be in constant contact with water, its theme. The building's three floors would serve an essentially marine function, corresponding to a ship's hold, bridge and crow's nest.

Since the Earth, is made up mainly of water, the Biosphere is reflected in an outdoor pond. On the inside, an interior garden lends the building a contemplative note.

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