MCA's show on Buckminster Fuller opens window onto inventor's creative mind
March 13, 2009
We prefer our prophets to be noble, like Moses with his flowing
beard, but the prophet of design called R. Buckminster Fuller (or
just plain "Bucky") was a bit of a kook. The eminent philosopher,
architect and futurist was twice kicked out of Harvard, stuffed his
correspondence and doodles into 847 bound volumes and delivered
marathon lectures that reportedly ran as long as 16 hours. In a taped
1985 interview, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Philip Johnson
pronounced him "impossible."
Yet Fuller was the nutty uncle you ignored at your peril. He saw
things in prescient ways that resound loudly in our day of rising
temperatures and plummeting profits. He was an environmentalist ahead
of his time, introducing the term "Spaceship Earth" in 1963 and
seeing the world as single ecological entity with limited resources.
He invented the geodesic dome, which flowered as the American
pavilion (above) at the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal and
exemplified his idea of obtaining maximum impact from minimal materials.
"Do more with less," Fuller preached, in contrast to Ludwig Mies van
der Rohe 's maxim of "less is more."
These are gleanings from the captivating traveling exhibition
"Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe," which opens
Saturday at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. The show is by
turns amusing, informative, a visual pleasure and too easy on its
subject, as one-man shows are wont to be. There also is at least one
important object missing from this version, which originated last
year at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. But so what?
Go see the show. It opens a window onto a creative mind, a true
It is fortuitous that the exhibition has landed in Chicago because
its itinerant subject, who was born in Massachusetts in 1895 and
died in Los Angeles in 1983, spent some of the most formative and
colorful chapters of his life in the Midwest.
At the Chicago's World's Fair of 1933-34, for example, Fuller
unveiled a teardrop-shaped, three-wheeled concept car (left)only to
see its driver killed in an accident that also shattered the car's
reputation. In 1959, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale made
Fuller a research professor, and Fuller built a geodesic "dome home"
there that preservationists are now trying to restore.
So the MCA deserves credit for not simply taking this show from the
Whitney but tailoring it to Illinois with the addition of more than
100 items related to Fuller's years in Chicago and southern Illinois.
The exhibition now consists of more than 340 objects, including
drawings, models and photographs, that fill most of the museum's
fourth floor. But as organized by MCA chief curator Elizabeth Smith
and curatorial coordinator Tricia Van Eck , the material does not
seem crammed. It encourages us to discover the discoverer.
Fuller, who left Long Island for Chicago in 1926 to start the
short-lived Midwestern branch of a supply and construction
company, referred to his field as "anticipatory design science." And
the first section of the show, largely devoted to his housing schemes
from the 1920s to 1940s, has a madcap, mad-scientist quality.
In one cartoonish drawing from around 1928, Fuller depicts one of his
proposed lightweight, multi story residential towers strapped to the
underside of a Zeppelin blimp. The blimp drops bombs on an
uninhabited landscape, creating a crater. It then lowers the tower,
which will be planted in the ground like a tree. Today, it is not
considered cool to "parachute in" generic architecture without regard
to climate or physical context. Fuller thought it was very cool. He
was thinking about isolated buildings, not about making real places.
The dominant object in this section of the show is a gorgeous, shiny
aluminum model of Fuller's Dymaxion House project of 1927 (left),
which was to be a lightweight, industrially produced home with a
six-sided floor suspended from a central mast. The model, a 1987
recreation of the original, offers a dazzling image of the future.
Yet how forward-thinking was it, really? It's simply a repackaging of
the American dream: A stand-alone, single-family home in
car-dependent, energy-wasting suburbia.
Fuller's best-known architectural legacythe geodesic dome, whose
self-supporting triangulated exterior required no interior
columnshad its roots in Chicago, where in the late 1940s he taught
at the Institute of Design, the contemporary design school started by
Bauhaus refuge Laszlo Maholy-Nagy .
There, after observing the lack of housing available to returning war
veterans, Fuller developed a "Standard of Living Package," a set of
portable of furniture and appliances for a family of six that could
be unpacked inside a climate-controlled geodesic dome (left). When
Fuller and students at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in
1948 tried to build the first large-scale geodesic dome with aluminum
venetian blinds, it collapsed like a botched cake.
But Fuller eventually got the dome to stand up, and corporations and
the military started using it. The Brooklyn Dodgers asked Fuller to
design the first domed stadium (it was never built). He designed
domes for American pavilions at international exhibitions and the
domes popped up on playgrounds. By 1964, when Fuller made the cover
of Time, he was so synonymous with geodesic domes that the
illustration portrayed his head as one (below).
In today's celebrity-laced parlance, Fuller was a "starchitect" and
the dome was his "icon." Yet was it fabulous or fool's gold? Writing
in The New York Review of Books last year, the critic Martin Filler
summed up the dome's drawbacks, including a large amount of unusable
interior space, persistent leaks and "the difficulty of controlling
temperature and ventilation inside what is essentially a greenhouse."
Fuller's lasting influence was more cultural than architectural, as
the show reveals in a section devoted to his revolutionary global
mapping techniques and his desire to distribute the
earth's resources in a way that was both more sustainable and more equitable.
To the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, he was a hero,
celebrated on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog . Yet, in a
telling measure of his appeal to both sides of the American cultural
divide, a deeply conservative president, Ronald Reagan, in 1983
presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
Unfortunately, the show doesn't have a surviving prototype of
Fuller's ill-fated concept car, as the Whitney exhibition did. And
the museum explored, but didn't realize, the opportunity to build a
full-scale mock-up of a geodesic dome in its outdoor sculpture
garden. Yet those are quibbles.
Even though Fuller's revolutionary notion of "starting from the
universe" was a terrible way to build actual buildings, he
constructed a new way of viewing the world, one that transcended
national borders and informs today's drive for green architecture and
the fight against global warming. Of course he failed more than he
succeeded. All inventors do. But if the show inspires a new
generation of architects to complete Fuller's unfinished
projectsand leaven them with a whiff of practicality and
place-makingit will leave a legacy as rich as Bucky's.
"Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe " is on exhibit at
the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Ave., through June 21.
POSTSCRIPT: For your viewing pleasure, here is a link to a fabulous
YouTube clip showing Fuller's Dymaxion car. Why didn't the MCA think
of this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlLZE23EJKs