MAY 4, 2009
By MICHAEL J. LEWIS
Even among the scraggly ranks of 1960s counterculture gurus,
Buckminster Fuller was an oddball: a rather elderly champion of
rational architecture (he was born in 1895) who was equally famous
for inventing the geodesic dome and for his day-long lectures. Yet,
like Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman, he offered a kind of
liberation. He proposed an architecture that had nothing to do with
American society, or any human society whatsoever, modeling itself
instead on the impersonal engineering of beehives and spider webs. It
was also an architecture that could be put in the service of other
liberations. More than a few California communes learned the
advantages of a durable geodesic shelter that could be hitched
together in a matter of days.
By then, Fuller was already the relic of another age. He had been a
celebrity since 1929, when he unveiled his visionary Dymaxion House,
a six-sided living platform impaled on a central mast and hoisted
into the air. It looked rather like a moored futuristic airship and
seemed to promise a "rational" rethinking of every aspect of the
traditional house, even as it made it as affordable to consumers as
Detroit's mass-produced cars.
The Dymaxion House never advanced beyond the prototype stage, nor did
its quirky offshoots, the Dymaxion Car (1933) and Dymaxion Bathroom
(1937) -- also designed along ostentatiously functional lines. All
three were woefully impractical -- the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car
rolled over at its demonstration, killing the driver. But they were
also exhilarating emblems of possibility, teaching young architects
and designers that formal conventions were nothing more than
imaginary lines to be crossed at will.
Fuller's story is widely known, not least because he kept exhaustive
scrapbooks of everything he did. In 1939, he wrote an account of his
life that has served as the basis of all later scholarship. But that
account was something of a fiction, contrived by Fuller to conceal
discreditable episodes and polish his credentials as a visionary.
Such is the claim of Loretta Lorance's determinedly revisionist
"Becoming Bucky Fuller."
Ms. Lorance is the first to compare systematically the authorized
biography with the actual documents in Fuller's scrapbooks. Her focus
is the critical interlude between 1927 and 1930, when Fuller
conceived the Dymaxion House and first presented it to the public.
Her chief insight is that if Fuller was a futurist prophet, it was
only inadvertently. He should rather be seen as a failed entrepreneur
who recast himself as a bold visionary only after the Dymaxion
project collapsed ignominiously.
Inspired by the success of Henry Ford's Model A, which debuted in
1927, Fuller intended the house to be mass- produced in assembly-line
fashion. When this proved impossible, given the constraints of
current technology, he made its very unbuildability an asset, proof
that he was far ahead of his time. He thereafter liked to refer to
himself and his projects as part of a grand and comprehensive
futurist enterprise, glossing over his commercial ambition and his
failure to meet the most basic practical tests.
To Ms. Lorance, such selective storytelling amounts to a kind of
fraud, the core mythology of Fuller's long guru status (he died in
1983). But she is not only concerned with Fuller's self-serving
myths. One of the rewards of "Becoming Bucky Fuller" is the light it
sheds on Fuller's erratic youth, which gave him a broad range of
useful life experience. After being expelled from Harvard in his
freshman year (he chose a weeklong party in Manhattan over his
midterm exams), he worked at a number of rather humble jobs -- e.g.,
installing textile machines in Quebec, carting meat for Armour & Co.
During World War I, he entered the Naval Academy, but he resigned his
commission after a year because he "did not want to be away from his
family on assignment for long periods of time."
His jobs exposed Fuller to a variety of industrial processes, and he
evidently relished his engineering courses in the Navy. But his
decisive experience came in 1922, when he went to work for his
father-in-law, James Monroe Hewlett. A prominent New York architect,
Hewlett had devised a construction system based on cheap, lightweight
bricks, each made with two round holes through which concrete could
be poured while the bricks were being laid, making a strong internal
frame. He called it the Stockade Building System. Fuller worked for
the Stockade corporation for five years, improving the system with
some patents of his own.
By the time Fuller and Stockade parted ways in 1927, Fuller had
familiarized himself with every step of the process by which an
invention is created, refined, manufactured and mass-marketed. All
that remained was for him to take the process to its logical
conclusion: to let new technologies determine their own novel forms
rather than using them to make traditional forms like the
gable-roofed cottages that Stockade built. In the event, his effort
proved premature, as Ms. Lorance shows, but he never lost his
unfettered imagination and his indifference to any orthodoxy.
While "Becoming Bucky Fuller" brilliantly exploits Fuller's archives,
it is compromised by too little secondary research. The eminent
architect Harry Sternfeld appears repeatedly without any suggestion
of his importance as one of the last great lights of American
Beaux-Arts classicism; he is referred to merely as "Mr. Sternfeld,"
because this is how Fuller's papers cite him. And the account of
Fuller's experience running the magazine Shelter, in 1932, is
unacceptably short (given that the magazine's archives survive). It
is a crucial episode in Fuller's career, in which he sought to make
Shelter the mouthpiece of the Dymaxion enterprise.
By focusing on problems in Fuller's own song of himself, Ms. Lorance
tends to move from discrepancy to discrepancy rather from event to
event, and much is simply left out -- such as when Fuller married (it
was 1917). One has the sense of reading a teacher's comments on a
student paper without being able to see the paper itself. This makes
for a useful piece of scholarship but not a satisfying read.
That Fuller airbrushed his official portrait is hardly surprising;
most readers may find his "improvements" rather minor, surely not the
conclusion that Ms. Lorance intended. In the end, her revisionist
Fuller is not terribly different from the one we have always had
before us -- a vivid example of the inventor/salesman/messiah type
that America seems to produce every generation or so.
Mr. Lewis is the author of "American Art and Architecture."