July 1, 2008
The Fuller Effect
Buckminster Fuller’s colleagues and admirers talk about his legacy as an inventor, a technocrat, and a sustainable pioneer.
“I am a perfectly ordinary man,” Buckminster Fuller liked to tell audiences in the 1970s, when he was an international celebrity and a coveted speaker. He wasn’t fooling anyone. Fuller was a genuine American character: the product of an elite New England background, he flunked out of Harvard (twice), served in the Navy, worked as a meatpacker, and briefly contemplated suicide before reinventing himself as an engineer, inventor, philosopher, lecturer, and poet. Now, 25 years after his death, Bucky is back in the limelight. This summer there is a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, titled Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, accompanied by a book and a series of events around the city. The first annual Buckminster Fuller Challenge recently bestowed $100,000 on a proposal to turn Appalachia into a self-sustaining community . Suddenly, Fuller seems more relevant than ever.
Looking back, it’s hard to embrace his entire career. Some of his ideas now seem dangerously naive: the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car shuddered from side to side; the Instant Slum Clearance Project envisioned plunking down 15 “Skyrise” towers (resembling nuclear power plants) in the back alleys of Harlem. But much of Fuller’s thinking was ahead of its time. Long before An Inconvenient Truth, he searched for ways to protect “Spaceship Earth” and preached doing more with less. His World Resources Inventory was decades ahead of anything Bill McDonough has proposed. One of Fuller’s maxims—“Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting”—seems startlingly prescient today.
Of course, Fuller has had his share of detractors. The American Institute of Architects completely dismissed his idea for mass-produced prefabricated dwellings, even going so far as to pass a resolution: “[T]he American Institute of Architects establish[es] itself on record as inherently opposed to any peas-in-a-pod-like reproducible designs.” Philip Johnson called Fuller a “lousy architect,” and there’s a YouTube video making the rounds of Peter Eisenman trashing him: “He was a tinkerer who took great stuff and turned it into shit.”
None of this seems to faze Michael Hays, who co-curated the Whitney exhibition and studied architecture in the 1980s. “We were the generation that said everything is fragmented, that there’s no such thing as a whole,” he says. “But Fuller still insisted on thinking about total systems.” In an attempt to get a total portrait of Fuller, we talked to some of his family, colleagues, students, and admirers about the man and his multifaceted legacy.
Allegra Fuller Snyder
Fuller’s Daughter and chair of the Buckminster Fuller Institute
“I went to the Dalton School, in New York, and that’s when Daddy was beginning to become known. A lot of people would sort of pleasantly but laughingly call him the “Bucky Rogers of the twenty-first century,” after the science-fiction character. Labeling him an architect or engineer does not really interest me. I don’t know how early on he used the phrase “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” I suspect he didn’t use that when I was a child. Nevertheless, I sort of got that he wasn’t something like an architect or an engineer, that he was a thinker and doer. That’s what I understood him to be.”
Architect, former student, and collaborator on many geodesic domes, including Expo 67’s
“Paul Weidlinger was a great structural engineer who also taught at MIT as a
visiting critic. Someone once asked him, ‘What did you think of Bucky as an engineer?’ He replied, ‘I don’t think Bucky is an architect or an engineer. I think of him as a poet of structure.’”
Architect and partner of Fuller and Sadao
“The U.S. Pavilion at the Expo 67 World’s Fair was the first big commission for our firm, Fuller and Sadao. The initial concept was to do a World Game, a peaceful civilian version of a war game where you would attempt to make efficient use of world resources. But the truss we proposed was too advanced. So we said, ‘Let’s do a geodesic dome instead.’
Since then, every World’s Fair seems to have a dome or a sphere. In that sense, we were quite successful. I thought that after the expo we’d be inundated with work, but we only got one bread-and-butter project out of it. It made life difficult for us because we were doing these visionary projects that didn’t bring enough money to support a really good staff. ”
Adjunct curator of architecture at the Whitney Museum of American Art
“We thought about calling the exhibition “Shapes of the Universe” because Bucky thought that a geodesic dome was what the universe looked like in some diagrammatic way. And now we know that nanotechnology actually does use that kind of geometry. So the point is that it’s not just a structural problem; it’s actually a conceptual problem.”
Product designer, inventor, and illustrator for Fuller’s Synergetics
“I never felt that the dome in and of itself was particularly significant. What was significant was Fuller promulgating the idea that structural principles were scale-independent. For example, if you create a triangulated frame out of members that are one inch long or twenty feet long, it’s still the same stable triangle. And Bucky demonstrated that by building small domes, big domes, and even bigger domes based on those principles. That’s a very profound idea, even though he didn’t exploit it very much except in the domes—but he demonstrated it conclusively.”
“Bucky was a very good friend of George Nelson’s. He once came to our offices at George Nelson & Associates to give us one of his lectures with his bag of tricks—his Ping-Pong balls and his tetrahedra. George, Arthur Drexler from MoMA, and I were all sitting in the front row. Arthur just had absolutely no affinity for Bucky Fuller. He thought he was boring and was speaking a foreign language, and he just sort of nodded off. But I really loved the guy. He was very warm, a little bit nuts but very likable. He was a very harmless personality. You never thought he would ever get mad at anybody.”
Fuller’s grandnephew and a principal of Rogers Marvel Architects
“When I was applying to graduate schools, Bucky encouraged me to study aircraft design at MIT. I thought that was kind of cool, but I was hell-bent on studying architecture—there’s a stubborn trait that runs in the family. He felt that his kin should be more technologically bent and less formally driven, I think. Of course, he wasn’t disappointed that I went on to study architecture at Harvard, but I think that, since he had gotten kicked out of Harvard when he was a freshman, there was something about the school that didn’t quite sit right with him. I think he got the AIA gold medal before Harvard gave him an honorary degree—actually, I’m not sure Harvard ever even gave him an honorary degree.”
“Curiously enough, for me the resource and sustainability side of Fuller didn’t strike very strongly back in the sixties. I loved his ingenuity and the technical side of his work. But it’s the resource thing that you have to hand to Bucky, because he looked at the world big-scale, in terms of the number of people who didn’t have enough to eat. He talked about the really big issues, like food and water and shelter. And that’s really just coming home to roost. Everything he wrote then he could have written right now.”
Allegra Fuller Snyder
“Bucky had a very powerful feeling about children, so he would discuss things with me in a lot of depth and detail. He would tell me Goldilocks stories where the three bears and I had adventures throughout the universe. That was his way of explaining a lot of his ideas to me. The Tetrascroll started out as a Goldilocks story that he drew. He loved to do those on shirt boards—the cardboard that came in shirts from the cleaners. He would tell me a story and illustrate it at the same time. He en-couraged me to do that kind of freehand drawing, and then I got interested in dance early on. He was always extraordinarily supportive, encouraging me to do my own thing.”
Principal Designer, ESI Design, and collaborator on the World Game Workshop, in New York
“He would tell a story about how as a child in New England he had very poor eyesight; his family didn’t get him glasses until he went to school. Bucky said that he could get his cousins and friends to pay him money to describe the world because he saw it so weirdly. Now, Bucky was—in a good way—an incredible embellisher, so they may have actually paid him only once. But the idea of him being a kind of performer was from the very beginning an important part of him.”
Bucky was a visiting critic at Cornell University in 1952, when I was a student. He was doing a five-week course, and the project was to build a Geoscope—a twenty-foot-diameter sphere that was a mini-representation of the earth. Bucky broke the class into teams. I did the cartography, cutting patterns to lay out on the sphere.
When Bucky saw that I was a good cartographer, he asked me to work with him on the icosahedral projection. The challenge there was how to divide icosahedral triangles so that there would be no breaks in the continental contour. It’s Bucky’s idea of the one-world island in the one-world ocean. I said of course I’d be happy to work with him on it. When I graduated in 1954, the student publication down in North Carolina said they would like to publish the map and sell it, so Bucky said, “Come on down and work on it.” So I moved down to Raleigh after I graduated and worked on it, and that’s how the map got published.”
Student, collaborator, and founder of the sustainability laboratory
“In the early 1970s, we teamed up with a group called Charas to teach street gangs in New York to build cement-and-paperboard domes in different places around the city. Fuller decided to give them a piece of land that he had in Woodstock, New York, and he asked me to teach them how to build domes. What was supposed to be a month’s effort turned out to be a year and a half or two. We ended up building a number of very nice experimental structures—and then the city, of course, destroyed them. But the kids never moved out of the city, and in the seventies and early eighties, a few were instrumental in renovating dilapidated buildings on the Lower East Side.”
Former chief archivist for the Buckminster Fuller Archives
“Fuller established a unique organizational scheme for his archives to help others see it as a whole piece, the intersection of his personal, public, and product-oriented life. In about 1927, he decided to keep everything in terms of paper and letters in chronologically ordered bound volumes called the Chronofile. He even retroactively created Chronofile volumes that went back as early as his childhood. As a result, you can actually trace the evolution of his thoughts. We’re finding, for example, that his Dymaxion Map influenced the geodesic dome at a certain point. These are the exciting things you can’t find in
a normal archive, and that Fuller probably couldn’t see during his own lifetime. It’s a rare thing that we’re going to be unraveling for many years to come.”
Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Vascular Biology, Harvard Medical School & Children’s Hospital Boston
“Fuller was a miracle of nature: starting out as a terribly nearsighted child, he ended up becoming one of the most insightful men of the twentieth century. His vision of Design Science inspired me to develop an entirely new paradigm for how living cells are structured based on tensegrity. Thirty years later, I find that tensegrity is having an impact on fields ranging from nanotechnology and tissue engineering to space exploration, and that new approaches to producing energy inspired by nature may indeed save us from oblivion. Fuller’s vision was crystal clear; it was everyone else who needed inch-thick eyeglasses.”
“Fuller was almost like Muhammad Ali. He was able to move sideways and come in from totally new angles, and then shift again and say, ‘Let’s think about high-rise housing! Let’s look at how tensilating structures can make lightweight buildings!’ He was very agile. And that’s something I admire and aspire to: the ability to keep your legs loose so you can move sideways.”
Industrial designer and author of Bucky Works
“Fuller came to lecture when I was a student at the University of Michigan. He talked from seven until midnight, when the auditorium emptied out except for half a dozen of us. And Bucky said, ‘I’ve got six hundred more slides; would you like to see them?’ So that went way into the morning. Later, I met him, and he showed me a picture of his Dymaxion Car. I said that if the rear tire ever blew, you wouldn’t be able to steer, and a lot of bad things would happen. Furthermore, at a hard corner, that back tire wouldn’t have sufficient traction to maintain control. We went round and round about that. That was in 1951. In 1982 he invited me to have breakfast with him in San Francisco. About halfway through the breakfast, he said to me, ‘By the way, old man, you were right about that tire.’ And we laughed and laughed. After all that time, he remembered that argument.”
The thing that was so astonishing to me about Bucky was that it seemed as if none of the words he used and the ideas he thought were received wisdom—even from himself. As he was saying something, he was always thinking about the word and its meaning and whether or not it was the right word to use. Because of that, a lot of people when they hear him lecture or read think that he’s very odd in his use of language. But for me, having studied literature, he was probably at the core of his being much more of a poet than anything else.
He asked me to run his World Game Workshop, in New York. That was a big deal because World Game was an idea that he had wanted to put into the ’67 Expo Dome. The idea was basically a gigantic simulation environment where people could play in a way to optimize the world’s resources. So it was fantastic to work with someone who didn’t have a problem thinking on as big a scale as possible but who also thought of things incredibly small like the substance of mass and mattre. If you think about people being artists, meaning people who kind of imagine that they can recompose how they see the world and how to communicate this free composition, he was definitely a poet in one way through his use of words and an artist in another way.
His designs were always the purest, most minimal physical expressions of a practical solution. Even Mies was decorative for Bucky in that sense, because Mies was more about space-making and Bucky was about the implementation of the most elegant idea but with a real technological simplicity to it. Mies was not really about technology in any way, and Bucky really loved technology. He thought that you could change the world with technology far faster than you can change the world through social changes.
Inventor, designer, engineer, artist
Fuller was the original systems thinker, with regards to the ecology of a building and its relationship to the environment. When he asked, “How much does your building weigh?” it immediately put it into the realm of material usage and embodied energy, all of which are now very hot topics of discussion—not driven by stylistic concern, but simply by the need to make buildings more sustainable. His work framed a lot of those issues very early on.
MIT had a two-day event around the time of his centennial. That was an eye-opener to me, because it brought together a lot of the original people who were close to Fuller: these highly mathematical types, the architect/builder types. There was a whole strain of political activists as well. And somehow all these people sitting at the table, all of these different parts to his legacy, in a way only fused because of him and the force of his personality.
I think he’s been highly influential as an iconoclastic spirit, who never accepted that the boundaries between disciplines were anything other than something to be climbed over or circumvented in some way. To me that’s not so much a heroic stance as much as a very practical way to proceed in the world today. That’s also why he pre-staged a lot of what’s going on now. It has become almost common parlance to say, “You need a multidisciplinary team that looks at very complex problems.” Making a building is a very complex project, let alone designing cities. Fuller housed so many of these viewpoints within himself and then drew people around him who attacked these problems from different angles.