This is the seventh essay in a collection of twelve written by Byron Ferris for the "Design Sense" feature of the Sunday Northwest Magazine insert of The Oregonian during 1984 and 1985. – Ed.
Recently on a pleasant California weekend in Palo Alto, we visited Stanford and had a look at the electronics firms of the "Silicon Valley." This area where so much of the computer industry started is not really much of a geographic valley; rather, it's an area south of Stanford University where new electronics-age companies began developing near the school's science departments.
In Oregon, we're seeing a similar growth of new companies spreading out from Tektronix in an area around Beaverton and Hillsboro, an area that's becoming known as the "Silicon Forest." The area is not much of a true forest – it has trees, of course, and plenty of greenery, but the region, which is west of Portland where the air flowing from the Pacific Coast is fresh and clean, is mostly buildings, with homes and plants. It offers good living and a good environment for the manufacture of electronics, which requires clean conditions.
The "Silicon" part of the "Silicon Forest" name comes, of course, from the mineral material that is the base of computer chips, the small "glass" squares that can contain thousands of patterns to control electronic charge paths that make our computers and little calculators work. The "Forest" part of the name tells the world that the new development is in Oregon, the forest state.
Comparing the two "silicon" areas, we couldn't help comparing the air. From the south San Francisco peninsula, we flew up through a heavy yellow haze and thought, "One of Oregon's finest natural resources is good air."
In the design sense of living the good life, Oregon is well-designed. As the world turns under its layer of air, Oregon gets its supply after a long journey over the Pacific Ocean, a journey that allows all the dust and other particulates to fall into the sea. The air is so clean when it reaches our weekend house on the Oregon Coast that we need to dust only twice a year – and we're not lazy housekeepers. The forests of the Coast Range oxygenate that same air, and by the time it flows over Oregon's "Silicon Forest," it must be some of the finest in the nation.
I like to think of that air as it moves eastward. By the time it gets to Denver, it is somewhat used. Chicago breathes it over and blows it with dust, and when it gets to New York, it's fairly thick. New Yorkers, used to that kind of atmosphere, are said to get a bit nervous when visiting Oregon because they can't see the air.
Buckminster Fuller, one of America's most inspirational design philosophers, thought about air and proposed a solution to a better life in New York. He dramatized his invention of the geodesic dome, an upside-down-bowl kind of building frame composed with the tensile strength of triangular forms, by suggesting a 2 mile-wide, air-conditioned bubble cover for central Manhattan. The geodesic triangles create a structure so strong that it needs no interior walls or support columns; Fuller's design of triangles can be seen as the roof of Seattle's King Dome.
Fuller's invention of the geodesic dome as a lightweight covering of large areas was part of his search to "nurture and sustain a growing world population by Spaceship Earth doing more with less."
Although Fuller started his ideas for the geodesic dome as long ago as the 1920s, his half bowl structures show up today in nearly every drawing of proposed space-age colonies on the moon.
Fuller's main task for himself was to rethink what the changes of a new technological age mean to all of us, how we live on this Earth and how we use the materials we have to work with. He introduced the term "spaceship Earth" and the idea that we live in a closed ecological system – on a small planet traveling through space with limited resources.
He researched the ecology of the forest, how trees, plants and animals live together in balance with the soil, the sun, the rain and the seasons. Then he translated this idea of the Earth's natural ecology to include the effects of human activity on our planet's environment. His lectures, I suspect, started the uproar of the "environmentalist" movement. I know that I first heard the term "ecological environment" in the 1960s from Fuller's talk at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado.
Perhaps his intellectual nagging about Earth as a closed ecological system might not have had much chance to influence the world's thinking – but then, in 1969, the Apollo manned spaceflight to the moon sent back pictures of Earth as a globe floating in space – Fuller's "spaceship."
Fuller spent his last years at the University of Illinois, Urbana, spearheading a major cataloging of the world's resources. I've not heard what he thought of Oregon, but I think he'd have been proud of us. We use our main income-producing resources wisely, replanting our trees as we produce wood for homes and paper. Unlike petroleum deposits, which are gone once used, our trees grow back for future income-production. And our second important money-earning activity is agriculture, also based on renewable resources.