25 Years After His Death, Visionary R. Buckminster Fuller Continues
to Inspire Efforts for a More Sustainable Planet
June 24, 2008
New York's Whitney Museum is opening an exhibition this week bringing
together the work of architect and visionary, R. Buckminster Fuller.
More than two decades after his death, Fuller continues to inspire
efforts for a more sustainable planet in the twenty-first century.
From his famous geodesic dome to his shunned electric car, Fuller
employed design to tackle problems including homelessness and
Jaime Snyder, filmmaker and co-founder of the Buckminster Fuller
Institute. He is Buckminster Fuller's grandson and studied and worked
with him until his passing in 1983.
Dr. John Todd, renowned biologist and pioneer in the field of
ecological design. On Monday, he was awarded the first-ever $100,000
Buckminster Fuller Challenge prize for a proposal to transform
strip-mined lands in Appalachia into a self-sustaining community. He
is currently a research professor at the University of Vermont.
Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and founder
and director of Natural Capitalism, which promotes entrepreneurial
and sustainable solutions to environmental problems.
AMY GOODMAN: With oil at over $4 a barrel, a lot of people are
talking nuclearnuclear power. John McCain has said he wants to build
a hundred new power plants; Barack Obama also supports the expanded
use of nuclear power, although he hasn't laid out a detailed plan on
building new plants. But there are also many who feel nuclear power
is the wrong way to go.
This week, New York's Whitney Museum is opening an exhibit bringing
together the work of an architect and visionary, R. Buckminster
Fuller. More than two decades after his death, Bucky Fuller continues
to inspire efforts for a more sustainable planet in the twenty-first
century. From his famous geodesic dome to his shunned electric car,
Fuller employed design to tackle problems including homelessness and
This is, well, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi introducing
Fuller in 1968.
INDIRA GANDHI: We have with us today an unusual person, rather
remarkable person. Mr. Fuller is described as an architect. He is
that because of his intense concern with living space. But he's
something more than an architect, because his obsession is with the
architecture of the universe.
We all have heard of Mr. Fuller's invention, the geodesic dome. It is
now seen all over the world. It is a brilliant use of space and
material. Then, the world map and other items. But what is far more
important, Mr. Fuller has shown how to get the maximum from the
minimum material by making the most intelligent use of the resources
available on earth.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk about Buckminster Fuller and his legacy today,
I'm joined now by three guests.
Jaime Snyder is a filmmaker, co-founder of the Buckminster Fuller
Institute. He is Buckminster Fuller's grandson. He studied and worked
with him until he died in 1983.
Dr. John Todd is a renowned biologist and pioneer in the field of
ecological design. On Monday, he was awarded the first-ever $100,000
Buckminster Fuller Challenge prize for a proposal to transform
strip-mined lands in Appalachia into a self-sustaining community. He
is currently a research professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
And I'm joined by Hunter Lovins. She is co-founder of the Rocky
Mountain Institute and founder and director of Natural Capitalism,
which promotes entrepreneurial and sustainable solutions to
Hunter Lovins, let's begin with you on the significance of Buckminster Fuller.
HUNTER LOVINS: Buckminster Fuller was in many ways the founder of
what we now call sustainability. He wrote about many of the issues
that we're now talking about twenty, thirty, forty years ago. And it
is appropriate that we award the inaugural Buckminster Fuller Award
to Dr. John Todd, who is also one of the founders of this area that
we call sustainability.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to this remarkable project that Dr. John
Todd will embark on, Jaime Snyder, give us a snapshot of your
grandfather, of Buckminster's life, if that is at all possible.
JAIME SNYDER: Well, I certainly can'tI think I can tell you the
essence of what he was concerned about easily, and that is
AMY GOODMAN: Where was he born?
JAIME SNYDER: He was born in Milton, Massachusetts.
AMY GOODMAN: And he died at the age of…?
JAIME SNYDER: Eightyalmost eighty-eight, thirty-six hours before his
wife of sixty-six years.
AMY GOODMAN: And he was an architect?
JAIME SNYDER: I don't think
AMY GOODMAN: Of a sort?
JAIME SNYDER: Well, others called him an architect. He considered
himself a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. He was
interested in solving problems, not by trying to change people's ways
of thinking or trying to convince them to do different things. He
felt if you built a bridge over a roaring gorge and it worked, people
would begin to use it, because it solved a problem, effectively. And
so, he concerned himself with solving and addressing himself to the
vexing problems facing our society, in terms of how do we provide
life support on a sustainable basis for 100 percent of humanity and
how do we tackle the impediments that are facing us now.
AMY GOODMAN: His inventions? The geodesic dome, electric carwhen did
he invent the electric car?
JAIME SNYDER: Actually, it was not electric. It was a three-wheeled
car. It was quite an outstanding car. It was in 1933 that he built
it. He built three prototypes. And he wasyou know, his inventions
were really exploring and prototyping solving problems. So he would
invent things. He didn't then get into getting too involved with the
business side of it. He kind of went on, OK, what's the next problem
that's important to tackle?
AMY GOODMAN: And the geodesic dome?
JAIME SNYDER: And the geodesic dome.
AMY GOODMAN: What is it?
JAIME SNYDER: Well, it was invented in the mid-'50s. And again, his
concern throughout his life, an overarching theme, was, how are we
really going to be able to use our resources effectively when it
comes to shelter, so that we can actually provide a way of providing
adequate shelter for a large number of people who don't have it?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Buckminster Fuller himself. A major
theme in his writings and speeches was integrity. He's speaking here
in 1983, just months before his death.
R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER: When I was born, humanity was 95 percent
illiterate. Since I've been born, the population has doubled, and the
total population is now 65 percent literate. That's a gain of
130-fold of the literacy. When humanity is primarily illiterate, it
needs leaders to understand and get the information and deal with it.
When we are at the point where the majority of humans themselves are
literate, able to get the information, we're in an entirely new
relationship to universe. We're at the point where the integrity of
the individual counts and not what the political leadership or the
religious leadership says to do. It's a matter now of humanity
getting to the point where it's now qualifying to make some of its
own decisions in relation to its own information. That's why we've
come to a new moment of integrity.
AMY GOODMAN: Buckminster Fuller, just months before he died. Hunter
Lovins, this whole discussion about nuclear power: oil and gas, too
expensive, let's go to nuclear power. Barack Obama and John McCain
agree, perhaps, on that point, though not exactly clear where Obama
wants to go with this. What are your thoughts about nuclear power and
where Buckminster Fuller would stand?
HUNTER LOVINS: Actually, I think Bucky and I stand in about the same
place. We both liked nuclear power, remotely sited 93 million miles
away will do just fine, thank you. He was a big fan of using
renewable energy. And we can meet all of our energy needs, first of
all, by using energy very efficientlythat's the cheapest thing to
dosecond, by getting the remaining supplies that we need from the
already available cost-effective renewables. And in fact, this is
Nuclear power, the two units outside of Tampa now, are at $17 billion
and rising. New nuclear plants will probably come on at something
like $12 billion. Neither McCain nor Obama have done the numbers. We
simply can't afford it. If you want very pricy energy, nuclear is a
AMY GOODMAN: So why is it being pushed?
HUNTER LOVINS: Because peopleas Dale Bumpes once said, it's better
to do something big, even if it's wrong. They think, "Oh, big. Good."
Again, wind last year came onwe brought on fifteen gigawatts. A
gigawatt is roughly a nuclear-sized chunk of electricity. Fifteen
gigawatts. If we'd have built fifteen nukes, you would have noticed.
Nobody noticed. Wind is simply sweeping the market. It is either the
first- or second-fastest growing energy supply, followed or led by
solar photovoltaics, which are coming on equally rapidly.
In Germany now, more new jobs are being created by the renewables
industry than by any other industry in Germany. If we want a vibrant
economy, unleash the new energy economy. Have people fixing up
buildings in our communities, putting solar on the roofs, building
wind, urban turbines that are now going on the San Francisco PUC
building, that will be a net-zero building. It will be producing more
electricity than it needs, when the wind is blowing.
AMY GOODMAN: Hunter Lovins, if you can introduce, as you did
yesterday at the ceremony, Dr. John Todd and why he has been chosen.
You were on the jury of the first $100,000 Buckminster Fuller Award.
HUNTER LOVINS: It was a unanimous decision by the jury, and we
received many fabulous proposals. What John is doing is setting forth
to not only bioremediate the damaged coal lands in Appalachiaand
there are damaged lands around the world that are in need of his
technologies, which can bring back life, community, vibrancy in these
areashe is setting forth a new ecological theory of design, which is
completely consonant with what Bucky was talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: That theory of design, Dr. John Todd, if you could you
speak about it, what you're planning to do, who you're working with?
DR. JOHN TODD: Well, my plan is to take the million-plus acres of
Appalachia that have been absolutely devastated by surface coal
mining and try and restore those lands to create a new economy,
perhaps a new kind of economy that's never been seen before, one
based on renewable energies, including the sun and the wind and
biomass, and an economy that's also based on going back to the great
legacy of Appalachia, namely its biological basis. And so, my plan
basically calls for restoring the soils and restoring the forests and
doing these in a highly integrated way that's never been seen before.
AMY GOODMAN: How?
DR. JOHN TODD: But which willsorry?
AMY GOODMAN: How?
DR. JOHN TODD: Howwell, first of all, it's integrated, in that
various kinds of economic activities will take place as the land is
transformed from bare rock and polluted water over time, measured in
decades, to a diverse economy that has forestry and agriculture and
many other elements built into it.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you clean up the polluted land? How do you fix
the strip-mined mountains, the mountaintop removals?
DR. JOHN TODD: Well, one of the first things you have to do is create
soilsrich, world-class soils. And fortunately for us, over the last
two or three decades around the world, scientists and others have
learned how to create soils in years and decades that previously
might have taken thousands of years. So these are ecological
concepts, which taken in concert can result in this transformation
that I'm proposing.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you create the soil?
DR. JOHN TODD: Well, you start, first of all, with the right kinds of
minerals, which you apply. And these are fine rock powders that are
ground up. Some of them might be even left over from mining. And then
youfrom there, you begin to work with various kinds of
microorganisms and composting, and you also sequester or getyou take
organicyou take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which is a
problem, and you introduce it into the soils through the medium of trees.
AMY GOODMAN: And the people of Appalachia? How do you work with them?
DR. JOHN TODD: The people of Appalachiathe plan is quite radical. It
basically allows for the transformation of ownership from a large
land trust into giving back ownership of the land of Appalachia to
the people who are actually working on the land, the people who are
working in the forest, on the farms, in the biomass plantations, in
the game ranching areas, all of these things. And so, critical to my
plan is giving the people of Appalachia a genuine stake and a genuine
ownership in the new economy which will be created. It's the opposite
of what is there today. And our plan also is intended to involve the
miners of today being part of the restorers of tomorrow. Even some of
the machinery that they use to destroy mountains could be used to build soils.
AMY GOODMAN: John Todd, the first recipient of the $100,000
Buckminster Fuller prize. I want to end with Buckminster Fuller's
grandson, Jaime Snyder. In thirty seconds, how you want your
grandfather to be remembered, his work carried on?
DR. JOHN TODD: Well, I remember driving with him to the airport not
long before he passed on. We had a short ride in Los Angeles, and we
got in the car. We're driving down. He said, "Jaime, what's the most
important thing we can be talking about right now?" He was a person
who lived his life very much in touch with the critical survivability
of the planet and believed that individuals are the key to fixing
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you all for being with us,
Jaime Snyder, Buckminster Fuller's grandson; Dr. John Todd, professor
at the University of Vermont; and Hunter Lovins, head of the Natural
The visions of Buckminster Fuller.
by Elizabeth Kolbert
June 9, 2008
One of Buckminster Fuller's earliest inventions was a car shaped like
a blimp. The car had three wheelstwo up front, one in the backand a
periscope instead of a rear window. Owing to its unusual design, it
could be maneuvered into a parking space nose first and could execute
a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn so tightly that it would end up
practically where it had started, facing the opposite direction. In
Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the car was introduced in the summer
of 1933, it caused such a sensation that gridlock followed, and
anxious drivers implored Fuller to keep it off the streets at rush hour.
Fuller called his invention the Dymaxion Vehicle. He believed that it
would not just revolutionize automaking but help bring about a
wholesale reordering of modern life. Soon, Fuller thought, people
would be living in standardized, prefabricated dwellings, and this,
in turn, would allow them to occupy regions previously considered
uninhabitablethe Arctic, the Sahara, the tops of mountains. The
Dymaxion Vehicle would carry them to their new homes; it would be
capable of travelling on the roughest roads andonce the technology
for the requisite engines had been worked outit would also (somehow)
be able to fly. Fuller envisioned the Dymaxion taking off almost
vertically, like a duck.
Fuller's schemes often had the hallucinatory quality associated with
science fiction (or mental hospitals). It concerned him not in the
least that things had always been done a certain way in the past. In
addition to flying cars, he imagined mass-produced bathrooms that
could be installed like refrigerators; underwater settlements that
would be restocked by submarine; and floating communities that, along
with all their inhabitants, would hover among the clouds. Most
famously, he dreamed up the geodesic dome. "If you are in a shipwreck
and all the boats are gone, a piano top . . . that comes along makes
a fortuitous life preserver," Fuller once wrote. "But this is not to
say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a
piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in
accepting yesterday's fortuitous contrivings." Fuller may have spent
his life inventing things, but he claimed that he was not
particularly interested in inventions. He called himself a
"comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist"a "comprehensivist,"
for shortand believed that his task was to innovate in such a way as
to benefit the greatest number of people using the least amount of
resources. "My objective was humanity's comprehensive success in the
universe" is how he once put it. "I could have ended up with a pair
of flying slippers."
Fuller's career is the subject of a new exhibition, "Buckminster
Fuller: Starting with the Universe," which opens later this month at
the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition traces the long,
loopy arc of his career from early doodlings to plans he drew up
shortly before his death, twenty-five years ago this summer. It will
feature studies for several of his geodesic domes and the only
surviving Dymaxion Vehicle. By staging the retrospective, the Whitney
raisesor, really, one should say, re-raisesthe question of Fuller's
relevance. Was he an important cultural figure because he produced
inventions of practical value or because he didn't?
Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jr.Bucky, to his friendswas born on
July 12, 1895, into one of New England's most venerable and, at the
same time, most freethinking families. His great-great-grandfather,
the Reverend Timothy Fuller, a Massachusetts delegate to the Federal
Constitutional Assembly, was so outraged by the Constitution's
sanctioning of slavery that he came out against ratification. His
great-aunt Margaret Fuller, a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, edited
the transcendentalist journal The Dial and later became America's
first female foreign correspondent.
Growing up in Milton, Massachusetts, Bucky was a boisterous but
hopelessly nearsighted child; until he was fitted with glasses, he
refused to believe that the world was not blurry. Like all Fuller
men, he was sent off to Harvard. Halfway through his freshman year,
he withdrew his tuition money from the bank to entertain some chorus
girls in Manhattan. He was expelled. The following fall, he was
reinstated, only to be thrown out again. Fuller never did graduate
from Harvard, or any other school. He took a job with a meatpacking
firm, then joined the Navy, where he invented a winchlike device for
rescuing pilots of the service's primitive airplanes. (The pilots
often ended up head down, under water.)
During the First World War, Fuller married Anne Hewlett, the daughter
of a prominent architect, and when the war was over he started a
business with his father-in-law, manufacturing bricks out of wood
shavings. Despite the general prosperity of the period, the company
struggled and, in 1927, nearly bankrupt, it was bought out. At just
about the same time, Anne gave birth to a daughter. With no job and a
new baby to support, Fuller became depressed. One day, he was walking
by Lake Michigan, thinking about, in his words, "Buckminster
Fullerlife or death," when he found himself suspended several feet
above the ground, surrounded by sparkling light. Time seemed to stand
still, and a voice spoke to him. "You do not have the right to
eliminate yourself," it said. "You do not belong to you. You belong
to Universe." (In Fuller's idiosyncratic English,
"universe"capitalizedis never preceded by the definite article.) It
was at this point, according to Fuller, that he decided to embark on
his "lifelong experiment." The experiment's aim was nothing less than
determining "what, if anything," an individual could do "on behalf of
all humanity." For this study, Fuller would serve both as the
researcher and as the object of inquiry. (He referred to himself as
Guinea Pig B, the "B" apparently being for Bucky.) Fuller moved his
wife and daughter into a tiny studio in a Chicago slum and, instead
of finding a job, took to spending his days in the library, reading
Gandhi and Leonardo. He began to record his own ideas, which soon
filled two thousand pages. In 1928, he edited the manuscript down to
fifty pages, and had it published in a booklet called "4D Time Lock,"
which he sent out to, among others, Vincent Astor, Bertrand Russell,
and Henry Ford.
Like most of Fuller's writings, "4D Time Lock" is nearly impossible
to read; its sentences, Slinky-like, stretch on and on and on. (One
of his biographers observed of "4D Time Lock" that "worse prose is
barely conceivable.") At its heart is a critique of the construction
industry. Imagine, Fuller says, what would happen if a person,
seeking to purchase an automobile, had to hire a designer, then send
the plans out for bid, then show them to the bank, and then have them
approved by the town council, all before work on the vehicle could
begin. "Few would have the temerity to go through with it," he notes,
and those who did would have to pay something like fifty thousand
dollarshalf a million in today's moneyper car. Such a system, so
obviously absurd for autos, persisted for houses, Fuller argued,
because of retrograde thinking. (His own failure at peddling
wood-composite bricks he cited as evidence of the construction
industry's recalcitrance.) What was needed was a "New Era Home,"
which would be "erectable in one day, complete in every detail," and,
on top of that, "drudgery-proof," with "every living appliance known
to mankind, built-in."
Not coincidentally, Fuller was working to design just such a home.
One plan, which never made it beyond the sketching stage, called for
ultra-lightweight towers to be assembled at a central location, then
transported to any spot in the world, via zeppelin. (Fuller
envisioned the zeppelin crew excavating the site by dropping a small
bomb.) A second, only slightly less fabulous proposal was for what
Fuller came to call the Dymaxion House. The hexagonal-shaped,
single-family home was to be stamped out of metal and suspended from
a central mast that would contain all its wiring and plumbing. When a
family moved, the Dymaxion House could be disassembled and taken
along, like a bed or a table. Fuller constructed a scale model of the
house, which was exhibited in 1929 at Marshall Field's as part of a
display of modern furniture. But no full-size version could be
produced, because many of the components, including what Fuller
called a "radio-television receiver," did not yet exist. Fuller
estimated that it would take a billion dollars to develop the
necessary technologies. Not surprisingly, the money wasn't forthcoming.
Fuller was fond of neologisms. He coined the word "livingry," as the
opposite of "weaponry"which he called "killingry"and popularized
the term "spaceship earth." (He claimed to have invented "debunk,"
but probably did not.) Another one of his coinages was
"ephemeralization," which meant, roughly speaking,
"dematerialization." Fuller was a strong believer in the notion that
"less is more," and not just in the aestheticized, Miesian sense of
the phrase. He imagined that buildings would eventually be
"ephemeralized" to such an extent that construction materials would
be dispensed with altogether, and builders would instead rely on
"electrical field and other utterly invisible environment controls."
Fuller's favorite neologism, "dymaxion," was concocted purely for
public relations. When Marshall Field's displayed his model house, it
wanted a catchy label, so it hired a consultant, who fashioned
"dymaxion" out of bits of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion." Fuller was
so taken with the word, which had no known meaning, that he adopted
it as a sort of brand name. The Dymaxion House led to the Dymaxion
Vehicle, which led, in turn, to the Dymaxion Bathroom and the
Dymaxion Deployment Unit, essentially a grain bin with windows. As a
child, Fuller had assembled scrapbooks of letters and newspaper
articles on subjects that interested him; when, later, he decided to
keep a more systematic record of his life, including everything from
his correspondence to his dry-cleaning bills, it became the Dymaxion
All the Dymaxion projects generated a great deal of hype, and that
was clearly Fuller's desire. All of them also flopped. The first
prototype of the Dymaxion Vehicle had been on the road for just three
months when it crashed, near the entrance to the Chicago World's
Fair; the driver was killed, and one of the passengersa British
aviation expertwas seriously injured. Eventually, it was revealed
that another car was responsible for the accident, but only two more
Dymaxion Vehicles were produced before production was halted, in
1934. Only thirteen models of the Dymaxion Bathrooma single unit
that came with a built-in tub, toilet, and sinkwere constructed
before the manufacturer pulled the plug on that project, in 1936. The
Dymaxion Deployment Unit, which Fuller imagined being used as a
mobile shelter, failed because after the United States entered the
Second World War he could no longer obtain any steel. In 1945, Fuller
attempted to mass-produce the Dymaxion House, entering into a joint
effort with Beech Aircraft, which was based in Wichita. Two examples
of the house were built before that project, too, collapsed. (The
only surviving prototype, known as the Wichita House, looks like a
cross between an onion dome and a flying saucer; it is now on display
at the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan.)
Following this string of disappointments, Fuller might have decided
that his "experiment" had run its course. Instead, he kept right on
going. Turning his attention to mathematics, he concluded that the
Cartesian coördinate system had got things all wrong and invented his
own system, which he called Synergetic Geometry. Synergetic Geometry
was based on sixty-degree (rather than ninety-degree) angles, took
the tetrahedron to be the basic building block of the universe, and
avoided the use of pi, a number that Fuller found deeply distasteful.
By 1948, Fuller's geometric investigations had led him to the idea of
the geodesic domeessentially, a series of struts that could support
a covering skin. That summer, he was invited to teach at Black
Mountain College, in North Carolina, where some of the other
instructors included Josef Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John
Cage, and Merce Cunningham. ("I remember thinking it's Bucky Fuller
and his magic show," Cunningham would later recall of Fuller's
arrival.) Toward the end of his stay, Fuller and a team of students
assembled a trial dome out of Venetian-blind slats. Immediately upon
being completed, the dome sagged and fell in on itself. (Some of the
observers referred to it as a "flopahedron.") Fuller insisted that
this outcome had been intentionalhe was, he said, trying to
determine the critical point at which the dome would collapsebut no
one seems to have believed this. The following year, Anne Fuller sold
thirty thousand dollars' worth of I.B.M. stock to finance Bucky's
continuing research, and in 1950 he succeeded in erecting a dome
fifty feet in diameter.
The geodesic dome is a prime example of "ephemeralization"; it can
enclose more space with less material than virtually any other
structure. The first commercial use of Fuller's design came in 1953,
when the Ford Motor Company decided to cover the central courtyard of
its Rotunda building, in Dearborn. The walls of the building, which
had been erected for a temporary exhibit, were not strong enough to
support a conventional dome. Fuller designed a geodesic dome of
aluminum struts fitted with fibreglass panes. The structure spanned
ninety-three feet, yet weighed just eight and a half tons. It
received a tremendous amount of press, almost all of it positive,
with the result that geodesic domes soon became popular for all sorts
of purposes. They seemed to spring up "like toadstools after a rain,"
as one commentator put it.
The geodesic dome transformed Fuller from an eccentric outsider into
an eccentric insider. He was hired by the Pentagon to design
protective housing for radar equipment along the Distant Early
Warning, or DEW, line; the structure became known as a radome. He
also developed a system for erecting temporary domes at trade fairs
all around the world. (Nikita Khrushchev supposedly became so
enamored of one such dome, built for a fair in Moscow, that he
insisted that "Buckingham Fuller" come to Russia "and teach our
engineers.") Fuller was offered an appointment at Southern Illinois
University, in Carbondale, and he had a dome-home built near campus
for himself and Anne. In 1965, he was commissioned by the United
States Information Agency to design the U.S. Pavilion for the
Montreal Expo. Though the exhibit inside was criticized as
uninspiring, Fuller's dome, which looked as if it were about to float
free of the earth, was a hit.
As the fame of the domeand domes themselvesspread, Fuller was in
near-constant demand as a speaker. "I travel between Southern and
Northern hemispheres and around the world so frequently that I no
longer have any so-called normal winter and summer, nor normal night
and day," he wrote in "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth." "I wear
three watches to tell me what time it is." Castro-like, Fuller could
lecture for ten hours at a stretch. (A friend of mine who took an
architecture course from Fuller at Yale recalls that classes lasted
from nine o'clock in the morning until five in the evening, and that
Fuller talked basically the entire time.) Audiences were enraptured
and also, it seems, mystified. "It was great! What did he say?"
became the standard joke. The first "Whole Earth Catalog," which was
dedicated to Fuller, noted that his language "makes demands on your
head like suddenly discovering an extra engine in your car."
In "Bucky," a biography-cum-meditation, published in 1973, the critic
Hugh Kenner observed, "One of the ways I could arrange this book
would make Fuller's talk seem systematic. I could also make it look
like a string of platitudes, or like a set of notions never
entertained before, or like a delirium." On the one hand, Fuller
insisted that all the world's problemsfrom hunger and illiteracy to
warcould be solved by technology. "You may . . . want to ask me how
we are going to resolve the ever-accelerating dangerous impasse of
world-opposed politicians and ideological dogmas," he observed at one
point. "I answer, it will be resolved by the computer." On the other
hand, he rejected fundamental tenets of modern science, most notably
evolution. "We arrived from elsewhere in Universe as complete human
beings," he maintained. He further insisted that humans had spread
not from Africa but from Polynesia, and that dolphins were descended
from these early, seafaring earthlings.
Although he looked to nature as the exemplar of efficient design, he
was not terribly interested in the natural world, and mocked those
who warned about problems like resource depletion and overpopulation.
"When world realization of its unlimited wealth has been established
there as yet will be room for the whole of humanity to stand indoors
in greater New York City, with more room for each human than at an
average cocktail party," he wrote. He envisioned cutting people off
from the elements entirely by building domed cities, which, he
claimed, would offer free climate control, winter and summer. "A
two-mile-diameter dome has been calculated to cover Mid-Manhattan
Island, spanning west to east at 42nd Street," he observed. "The cost
saving in ten years would pay for the dome. Domed cities are going to
be essential to the occupation of the Arctic and the Antarctic." As
an alternative, he developed a plan for a tetrahedral city, which was
intended to house a million people and float in Tokyo Bay.
He also envisioned what he called Cloud Nines, communities that would
dwell in extremely lightweight spheres, covered in a polyethylene
skin. As the sun warmed the air inside, Fuller claimed, the sphere
and all the buildings within it would rise into the air, like a
balloon. "Many thousands of passengers could be housed aboard
one-mile-diameter and larger cloud structures," he wrote. In the late
seventies, Fuller took up with Werner Erhard, the controversial
founder of the equally controversial est movement, and the pair set
off on a speaking tour across America. Fuller championed, and for
many years adhered to, a dietary regimen that consisted exclusively
of prunes, tea, steak, and Jell-O.
The Dymaxion Vehicle, the Dymaxion House, "comprehensive,
anticipatory design," Synergetic Geometry, floating cities,
Jell-Owhat does it all add up to? In conjunction with the Whitney
retrospective, the exhibition's two curators, K. Michael Hays and
Dana Miller, have put together a book of essays, articles, and
photographs"Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe." Several
of the authors in the volume gamely, if inconclusively, grapple with
Fuller's legacy. Antoine Picon, a professor of architecture at
Harvard, notes that the detail with which Fuller's life was
recordedthe Dymaxion Chronofile eventually grew to more than two
hundred thousand pageshas had the paradoxical effect of obscuring
its significance. Elizabeth A. T. Smith, the chief curator at the
Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, writes that Fuller's influence
on "creative practice" has been "more wide-ranging than previously
thought," but goes on to acknowledge that this influence is
"difficult to pinpoint or define with certainty." In their
introduction, Hays and Miller maintain that Fuller helped "us see the
perils and possibilities" of the twentieth century. They stress his
"continuing relevance as an aid to history," though exactly what they
mean by this seems purposefully unclear.
The fact that so few of Fuller's ideas were ever realized certainly
makes it hard to argue for his importance as an inventor. Even his
most successful creation, the geodesic dome, proved to be a dud. In
1994, Stewart Brand, the founding editor of the "Whole Earth Catalog"
and an early, self-described dome "propagandist," called geodesics a
"massive, total failure":
Domes leaked, always. The angles between the facets could never be
sealed successfully. If you gave up and tried to shingle the whole
damn thingdangerous process, ugly resultthe nearly horizontal
shingles on top still took in water. The inside was basically one big
room, impossible to subdivide, with too much space wasted up high.
The shape made it a whispering gallery that broadcast private sounds
Among the domes that leaked were Fuller's own home, in Carbondale,
and the structure atop the Ford Rotunda. (When workmen were sent to
try to reseal the Rotunda's dome, they ended up burning down the
Fuller's impact as a social theorist is equally ambiguous. He
insisted that the future could be radically different from the past,
that humanity was capable of finding solutions to the most
intractable-seeming problems, and that the only thing standing in the
way was the tendency to cling to old "piano tops." But Fuller was
also deeply pessimistic about people's capacity for change, which was
why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place. "I made
up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform manthat's much too
difficult," he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. "What I
would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get
man moving in preferred directions." Fuller's writings and speeches
are filled with this sort of tension, or, if you prefer,
contradiction. He was a material determinist who believed in radical
autonomy, an individualist who extolled mass production, and an
environmentalist who wanted to dome over the Arctic. In the end,
Fuller's greatest accomplishment may consist not in any particular
idea or artifact but in the whole unlikely experiment that was Guinea
Pig B. Instead of destroying himself, Fuller listened to Universe. He
spent the next fifty years in a headlong, ceaseless act of
self-assertion, one that took so many forms that, twenty-five years
after his death, we are still trying to sort it all out.
Can Fuller be rehabilitated as a 21st century design hero?
By Alice Rawsthorn
Published: June 20, 2008
His "simple aim in life," or so said Fortune magazine in 1946, was
"to remake the world." He did not quite pull that off, but not for
lack of trying. Indeed, he was so prolific that 20 years later The
New Yorker billed him as "an engineer, inventor, mathematician,
architect, cartographer, philosopher, poet, cosmologist and
comprehensive designer." By then, R. Buckminster Fuller had adopted
the shorter job descriptions of "comprehensive anticipatory design
scientist" and "astronaut from Spaceship Earth."
Bucky (as almost everyone called him) was 70 years old when The New
Yorker interviewed him on the tiny island off the Maine coast with no
electricity, telephones or running water where he spent each summer.
His most successful project, the geodesic dome, has provided
emergency shelter for many thousands of people, but other designs,
including a flying car and floating city, had flopped, and he had yet
to complete a long promised book on his theory of
Hailed as a visionary by the 1960s hippie movement, Fuller, who died
in 1983, was dismissed as an eccentric by the design and architecture
establishments. (This assessment was shared by their peers in
mathematics, cartography and other disciplines he had challenged.)
The critics and curators who defined 20th century design history
tended to prize materialistic achievements, preferably
corporate-friendly ones, such as Mies van der Rohe's monumental
buildings, and Charles Eames's opulent office furniture. Iconoclastic
dreamers were relegated to the margins, especially if, like Fuller,
they were self-taught, befuddlingly verbose and uncompromising
altruists with a string of spectacular failures in design and business.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is now reassessing
Fuller's achievements - and his contribution to design history - in
"Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe," an exhibition
opening Thursday. "In some ways his 'comprehensive, anticipatory
design science' is more relevant for design today than it was even in
his own time," said K. Michael Hays, a curator of the show. "He
thought of the world in terms of flows of information and energy that
interact and exchange in a complex totality. This is why it is
relevant for scientists and artists, as well as designers."
Can Fuller be rehabilitated as a 21st century design hero? Are his
theories really relevant today? Or is it wishful thinking to consider
him as more than an endearingly nutty maverick?
Some facts: Born in 1895 into a patrician New England family, Bucky
was among the fifth generation of male Fullers to be admitted to
Harvard, but the first not to graduate. (He was expelled twice.)
After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he embarked on the first of many
commercial flops, mostly ill-fated attempts to play the
inventor-entrepreneur by setting up companies to manufacture his
designs, such as the cheap but unstable Dymaxion House, and doomed
Dymaxion car. His biggest success, the geodesic dome, was less a
building, than a blueprint for designing one. It has sheltered
hundreds of thousands of people in desperate circumstances, as well
as housing the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, despite being
prone to leak. The diminutive Fuller (just 5-foot-2, or less than 1.6
meters) also aired his seemingly endless theories on universal
patterns, dwindling natural resources, the virtues of prefabrication
and the tetrahedron, and the nutritional merits of Jell-O in
notoriously long, frequently incomprehensible books and lectures.
One argument for his rehabilitation is that he anticipated the recent
growth of interest in humanitarian design. The geodesic dome alone
clinches the case. Leaky or not, it is an inexpensive, speedily
assembled model of utilitarian design that is still used today. The
Barefoot Architects of Tilonia in India recently built over a hundred
domes from recycled farming equipment in Africa, and Fuller's design
provided temporary housing for Hurricane Katrina refugees.
"Of course he's an influence," said Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of
Architecture for Humanity, which collaborated on the Katrina domes.
"I was personally inspired by his idea that we had the means, talent
and technology to provide affordable and dignified buildings for
every person on this planet."
Equally convincing are Fuller's credentials as a pioneer of
sustainable design. His riposte to Mies van der Rohe's "less is more"
mantra of luxurious simplicity was to advocate designing "more for
less," and his understanding of the need to conserve natural
resources by developing sustainable design solutions was pioneering.
"Designers have seized on the issues of ecologically sustainable
design, and the use of alternative materials, fabrication methods and
distribution systems, as well as the responsibility of design for an
environment now understood as a global continuum," Hays observed.
"Fuller brought these issues into his thinking as early as 1928."
Fuller's vision of the designer as an agent of change, striving to
solve the world's problems by translating scientific and
technological advances into useful innovations, also resonates
strongly today. This was the message of the recent Design and the
Elastic Mind exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Several exhibits, notably Ben Fry and Casey Reas's software, echoed
Fuller's view of the world as a relentless flow of interrelated
systems, where design helps us to make sense of extremes in size and speed.
His aesthetic philosophy is equally appealing to artists, especially
the current crop of cross-disciplinarians, who emerged in the
relational-aesthetics movement of the 1990s, which assessed art in
terms of its social impact. Artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Loris
Gréaud have created pieces inspired by Fuller, and draw on principles
of science and design in their work.
At a time when design and artistic practice is increasingly
collaborative, open-ended and fluid, Fuller looks a lot less nutty,
and more purposeful. So do his emphasis on concept, rather than the
finished product, and his capacity to embrace failure as a learning
experience and a step toward success. "You only succeed when you stop
failing" was a favorite motto. "It is amazing that Bucky gets his day
in the sun at the Whitney," said Cameron Sinclair. "Part-genius,
part-altruistic-visionary - what's not to admire?"
The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller
By JAMES STERNGOLD
Published: June 15, 2008
PALO ALTO, Calif.
AS the designer R. Buckminster Fuller liked to tell it, his powerful
creative vision was born of a moment of deep despair at the age of
32. A self-described ne'er-do-well, twice ejected from Harvard, a
failure in business and a heavy drinker, he trudged to the Chicago
lakefront one day in 1927 and stood there, contemplating suicide. But
an inner voice interrupted, telling him that he had a mission to
discover great truths, all for the good of humankind.
That was the pivot on which, he claimed, his life turned. The onetime
loser entered a period of such deep reflection that he was struck
silent, then emerged bursting with creativity as he developed the
"Dymaxion" inventions: technologies that he promised would transform
housing, transportation, urban organization and, eventually, the
human condition. From 1927 on, Fuller seemed utterly self-assured,
even messianic, as he developed innovations like the geodesic dome,
equal parts engineering élan and poetry.
Those pioneering creations will go on display next week in
"Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe," a sprawling show at
the Whitney Museum of American Art that testifies to the wide-ranging
intellectual curiosity of Fuller (1895-1983), who inspired several
generations with his quixotic vision and his zeal for the liberating
power of technology.
But recent research has shed new light on Fuller's inner life and
what really drove him. In particular, it now appears that the suicide
story may have been yet another invention, an elaborate myth that
served to cover up a formative period that was far more tumultuous
and unstable, for far longer, than Fuller ever revealed.
That is one of many insights gleaned by researchers who have begun
exploring the visionary's personal archives, deposited in 1999 at the
Stanford University library by his family.
Because he believed his ideas and life would hold enduring interest,
Fuller collected nearly every scrap of paper that ever passed through
his hands, including letters that raise questions about the suicide
story. At 45 tons, it is the largest personal archive at Stanford,
according to Hsiao-Yun Chu, a former assistant curator of the papers
and co-editor of a book, "Reassessing R. Buckminster Fuller," to be
published by Stanford University Press next year.
Barry Katz, a Stanford historian who wrote one of the studies in Ms.
Chu's book, said, "If you really look for the details of his life at
the time, it's easy to see that the suicide story was a creation."
"There was nothing even remotely in the archives suggesting feelings
on the scale he later described" in 1927, he said.
In 1927 Fuller, living in Chicago, and his wife, Anne, in New York,
exchanged almost daily letters and telegrams. Not a single one makes
reference either to thoughts of death or to an epiphany. In addition,
Mr. Katz said, he found references to lectures that Fuller gave and
other evidence that he was far from silent.
Mr. Katz said he found instead signs of depression and anxiety
stretching from the time his first daughter, Alexandra, died in 1922,
through his financial failures and, finally, the collapse of a torrid
extramarital romance in 1931. Still, he said, the suicide story
seemed to serve a purpose.
"That's why I now call it a myth, but it was an effective myth. It
gave a trajectory to his career. The story was constructed after the
fact to show how he suddenly developed these new ideas. I think he
came to believe the story himself."
On a recent day in the library Ms. Chu gave a sort of guided tour of
the personality known as Bucky, rummaging through boxes of his
letters, overdue bills, drawings and writings. Over the course of the
visit a detailed inner portrait emerged of a man known for his
pioneering designs for inexpensive, prefabricated houses suspended
from masts, a highly efficient teardrop-shaped auto and then a series
of structural designs that were strong yet lightweight and remarkably graceful.
Ms. Chu held up a crinkly letter written by Fuller in 1931, when he
was a regular at Romany Marie's cafe in Greenwich Village and
intriguing friends like Isamu Noguchi with prophecies on how his
automotive and housing technologies would help usher in a new era of
plenty. "He used to drink like a fish," Noguchi would recall years
later in an interview with Time magazine.
What his friends did not know was that Fuller was becoming unhinged
because of the collapse of an affair with Evelyn Schwartz, or Evy.
Fuller was 36, with a wife and 4-year-old daughter, Allegra; Ms.
Schwartz had just turned 18. The two exchanged letters almost daily,
with Fuller writing that their relationship was "completely my
realization of the ideal of love."
He wrote of marrying her, of her apparent efforts to get pregnant,
and insisted, "Evy you and I bear a universal responsibility of
forward thinking for which we are extraordinarily gifted."
But when she decided she had "gotten over" him, as he related it,
Fuller unleashed a cascade of desperate letters. He admitted to
stalking her at her Brooklyn home "so that you may have no feeling of
In the most revealing note, feverishly scribbled in heavy block
letters across four large sheets of onion-skin drafting paper, Fuller
confessed that he had suffered a "nervous breakdown" in 1931 not
1927 because of the romantic tumult. "Later in his life, when he
was lecturing all the time, people loved him, he made them feel very
special," said Ms. Chu. "He was an oracle, a guide, and he was so
confident. But when he was writing those early letters, he didn't
know who he was."
Jay Baldwin, a designer who helped to edit the Whole Earth Catalog
(which was inspired by Fuller) in the 1960s, knew Fuller and wrote a
book about him, said that he learned of the affair during his own
search of the archives but chose not to mention it.
"To a lot of us he just seemed so much the master of his emotions,
but I read those letters, and he just lost it," Mr. Baldwin said. "It
wasn't the only thing like that. He wrote one paper about his ideas
early on that sounds like a raving maniac."
In Mr. Baldwin's view those episodes missed the point. "Focusing on
the affair is like spending all your time thinking about van Gogh's
ear instead of his paintings," he said. "It's very off track."
Mr. Katz disagreed, saying that the seemingly crazy writings were
important because they showed that in recurrent dark periods Fuller
was not trying only to persuade others his ideas were important, but
to persuade himself that he mattered. The letters, Mr. Katz
suggested, were a form of self-encouragement as Fuller struggled to
find a reason for going on.
Supporting that view is Evelyn Schwartz Nef. "Those days were really
quite exciting because he was so convincing that he was trying to
save the world," she said in an interview. Now 94 and a retired
psychotherapist, she recalled Fuller vividly. "The question I had is
whether he was as convinced as we were. He was trying to reassure
himself that he was something."
Fuller's daughter, Allegra Fuller Snyder, a retired professor of
dance at the University of California, Los Angeles, said she was not
surprised to learn that the 1927 epiphany may not have been literally true.
"It was a kind of parable of his interior thinking, really," Ms.
Snyder said. Because he had such a powerful personality and was so
well known for his unshakable self-confidence, few understood, as she
did, that he had interludes of real doubt, often because of concern
for his family's financial well-being, she said. "That was part of
Daddy, always," she said.
She recounted another occasion on which her father seemed to find
inspiration at an especially dark moment. Fuller had tried to turn
his prefabricated housing idea into a business after World War II by
teaming with the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kan., and other
investors. But in 1946, after prototypes were built, the project collapsed.
Ms. Snyder distinctly recalled her father coming home to their small
apartment utterly despondent. She said she went to bed then got up in
the morning only to find that he had been up all night working at a
small wooden table.
"I remember very well that he was talking about this new thing, the
geodesic dome," she said. "That's what he said to me. He'd been
working on what he called synergetic geometry before that, but
suddenly he saw the fusion of that with the structure. That was when
the idea came together for him."
By 1948 Fuller developed his first dome prototype; in 1954 he had
perfected the structure and took out a patent on the dome, one of his
more memorable, and profitable, designs.
For all his creative energy, Fuller's legacy is slippery. By
conventional measures he accomplished little. The efforts to
mass-produce his houses, though written about widely, failed. His
project to develop his efficient three-wheeled autos collapsed after
an accident killed the driver of one. His soaring geodesic domes,
built with a distinctive pattern of triangles, have been used
memorably for the United States pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal but
never for the large-scale projects he envisioned, like the dome he
hoped would cover most of Manhattan.
But Fuller had great influence through his design principles and his
almost endless series of lectures and writings. His book "Operating
Manual for Spaceship Earth" helped make him a symbol of the
counterculture. He even influenced some Silicon Valley pioneers.
For Ms. Chu one of the great insights of the archives is the sheer
number of letters Fuller received and wrote. He nearly always
responded personally to every note. (When a former collaborator in
his design work, Kenneth Snelson, wrote angrily in 1979 that Fuller
was unfairly claiming credit for what Fuller called the tensegrity
structure, Fuller responded with a 51-page rebuttal.) "He didn't just
write this incredible number of letters, he saved them all," she
said. "It was almost like they proved he existed, that he mattered.
The files were almost like the proof he needed."
As Mr. Katz put it, "Fuller's greatest invention was not a house or a
car or a dome. It was himself."