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Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

Behind the scenes of the Dymaxion World Map hides a 5 foot 1, cross-eyed and presbyopic Bucky who admits the military potential of the geodesic domes certainly helped to pay the bills

‘If we do more with less, our resources are adequate to take care of everybody. All political systems are founded on the premise the opposite is true.’ So began Bucky in his interview with Playboy in 1972. As usual it runs to many pages, but the kernel is right there. So, in telling us that we were running spaceship earth backwards, was he right?

Bucky hailed from a pioneering and illustrious, but also modest and unconventional New England family (his great aunt was Margaret Fuller, the famous transcendentalist and women’s activist), and he was kicked out of Harvard twice, the first time for entertaining a vaudeville troupe on campus, the second because he lost interest.

He was happier in the navy. Enjoying rigour, he trained himself to sleep only one half hour in six, and if you had half an hour to spare, he demanded you ask yourself ‘how big can I think?’ Meanwhile he was only 5 foot 1, cross-eyed, presbyopic, with one leg shorter than the other, was latterly deaf, and declared himself of ‘low-average’ intelligence.

Starting not so much from the representation of universal order (squares) but from Universe (circles) and equipped with the ‘more with less’ credo, Fuller joked he might have ended up with a pair of flying slippers. However Fuller’s earth falls neatly into the Dymaxion (1927-46) and the Geodesic periods (1947-83). Both were preempted by crisis, though Loretta Lorance suggests he was prone to opportunism, so jazzed things up a bit.

In 1922 his first daughter died, four days after he was carousing at a ball game. She’d asked him to buy her a cane. He’d forgotten. Maybe it was all his hanging out with Al Capone. In the same year wife Anne’s mother and her brother died in a car crash, Bucky fell out in business and said he found himself contemplating suicide on the banks of Lake Michigan. With a second daughter born in 1927 he ‘peeled off’ to devote himself selflessly to saving humanity from oblivion, admitting a martyrdom complex.

Bucky’s revelations began after this period of soul searching (the so-called year of silence) in the latter part of 1927. Now firmly in 4D, his flying Dymaxion Car (1933) flew when it wasn’t supposed to with unfortunate results − Norman Foster has built his own and can be seen on YouTube rather gingerly nursing it around an airfield. Looking at earth the wrong way, Bucky corrected us with the Dymaxion World Map (1943), a folded-out icosahedron that prophetically emphasised the importance of the icecaps, and by 1946 the radical Dymaxion House was set to make him the Henry Ford of a new housing industry. But somehow Bucky blew it.

‘He demanded you ask yourself “how big can I think?” Meanwhile he was only 5 foot 1, cross-eyed, with one leg shorter than the other, was latterly deaf, and declared himself of “low-average” intelligence’

He retreated to teach at Black Mountain College in the summers of 1947/8 where Elaine de Kooning described him as ‘a delightful nut’. Meanwhile he invented the geodesic dome. These would go on to enclose more space on Planet Earth than any other building form.

Prefiguring contemporary obsessions and apparently assuming the shape of thought itself (there were lots of irrelevant thoughts inside and others outside) with the domes the skin was the work. Fuller borrowed the term ‘tensegrity’ from sculptor Kenneth Snelson and thought the whole of Manhattan might be covered in a dome made up of members no fatter than the mast trimmings on the Queen Mary. The latter projects include giant airborne balls and giant floating cities (Foster also tried these).

Meanwhile throughout Bucky’s enthralling 21 books, history is generally reversed; the Spanish court is stooge for Columbus not the other way round. After all, without the gold plundered from the New World, the court couldn’t have existed. These feudal stooges condemned man to that Bucky anathema ‘specialisation’. Ancient writers tell us man needs to settle to bring civilisation, but Bucky displays antipathy for anything to do with home or soil.

Bucky’s critique of specialisation was not intended to deny our talents as top darts players or pole dancers; blinkered mediocrity is better understood by avaricious bankers, politicians and ambitious academics; the first being a business we should have grown out of, the second a phoney diversion and the third a contradiction in terms. To avoid oblivion man would improve his thinking, abandoning stooge-like religion, treasure, art, culture and much else besides. Sunrise and sunset would be replaced by ‘sunsight’ and ‘suneclipse’ and even ‘up’ and ‘down’ were controversial.

Firmly believing a home was not a house (and perhaps not in homes at all) and with declarations such as: ‘If humans pass their cosmic exam as local Universe problem solvers and continue on the planet in to the twenty-first century, there will be no thoughts whatsoever of earning a living. There will be no thought of, or even such words as business competition, money or lies for such phenomena will be historically extinct’, Bucky became popular with the more adventurous hippies.

However, he was simultaneously wildly unpopular with the more politicised strain, those who saw him as a capitalist provider of military ordinance to Vietnam. Bucky said he had never designed the domes with military purpose in mind, but it certainly helped to pay the bills.

Biography

Richard Buckminster Fuller
1895-1983
Key works
Dymaxion House (1928)
Dymaxion Car (1933)
Geodesic Dome (1954 patent)
Montreal Biosphère (1967)
Quote
‘There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly’

Military uses aside, Bucky’s domes proved tricky to furnish. Disney struggled with a communication theme at EPCOT, Montreal’s burnt down. The last time I saw the OmniMax Theatre at Caesars Palace it was being demolished to make way for Celine Dion’s Roman amphitheatre, however there are a myriad of variations in holiday parks and sports arenas across the globe.

Academics are shy of him. As Leonardo da Vinci crossed with Charles Lindbergh, Bucky attracts enthusiasts, romantic technocrats and children. But at least in a frontier-prone era of burgeoning futurians, Bucky was almost unique in saying that if we took to his synergetics seriously we would not end up mining rocks for food or seeing out our days on Aldebaran II.

And some of it was right. In ‘85 molecular physicists discovered what they branded the Fullerene, a geodesic structured molecule, or ‘buckyball’, which may have come from outer space to provide the seed for life on earth itself. It has a myriad of applications including cancer treatment. When the disease killed Anne in ‘83, Bucky died of a heart attack 36 hours later.

So illustrating the strength of his genes ‘Trim-tab’ was a preacher (doing more with less is pretty much loaves and fishes stuff), lawyer (a regular at the US patents office) and transcendentalist. Fuller is also Foster’s conscience. On the first page of the five-volume Works there’s a picture of Bucky with Foster, a boyish Tony Hunt, John Walker, James Meller (disciple and editor of The Buckminster Fuller Reader) and Michael Hopkins. The young Foster looks about as earnestly engaged as it’s possible to get; no wonder he made sure he knew the exact weight of the Sainsbury Centre.

But some of it was apparently wrong. A recent NASA funded study declared: ‘Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction.’

The stooges would say that. But as we watch the waters rise we may rue the day we didn’t listen harder to the delightful nut.

Illustration

Illustration by Mario Wagner

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