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Fuller, Buckminster (1895-1983)

Fuller, Buckminster (1895-1983)

Best known as the inventor of the Geodesic Dome, engineer, architect, inventor, and philosopher Buckminster Fuller epitomized old-fashioned American know-how, and was an apostle of the democratizing possibilities of technology. Convinced his inventions and designs might prove the salvation of the human race, for more than 50 years the diminutive autodidact talked a blue streak, tirelessly lecturing to audiences around the world, all the while churning out a seemingly endless procession of designs and elaborations on earlier designs. Circumnavigating the globe twice in the year of his death, he went to his grave convinced of the efficacy of these beliefs—that one day, his inventions would revolutionize human life.

Born to an illustrious New England family, Richard Buckminster Fuller (nicknamed Bucky as a child, an appellation he would never outgrow) was an awkward child with poor eyesight and mismatched legs requiring the insertion of a lift in one shoe. His physical defects were countered with a precocious intelligence and startling perspicacity, abetted, in fact, by his poor eyesight, which taught him not to trust overly the verity of physical appearances. A late bloomer, Bucky twice was sent down from Harvard, and at nineteen his family apprenticed him to a Canadian cotton mill.

In 1922, Fuller was again out of work when his four-year-old daughter, Alexandra, died, victim to the postwar influenza epidemic. Fuller would later credit this event with sparking his interest in housing, becoming obsessed with the part drafty houses played in spreading the contagion. As a salesman for his father-in-law's company, selling a new building technique, he rose to vice president before his father-in-law sold his shares and Fuller was let go. Contemplating suicide on the shores of Lake Michigan, a "private vision" spoke to Fuller, saying, "You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe." Like Saul's vision on the road to Damascus, this experience galvanized Fuller into action.

He removed his small family (a second daughter having been born in 1927) to a Chicago tenement, beginning a year of intense introspection. Fuller devoured books at a fantastic rate and emerged from his year of unceasing cerebration the author of an impenetrable thirty-thousand-word essay alternately titled "4-D" or "Timelock," and designer of a mass-produced house, also called 4-D. The former was privately published and sent out to two hundred notables, many of whom professed incomprehension. The latter, whose patent application had been turned down, was presented as a gift to the American Institute of Architects, who imperiously rejected it, saying they could not endorse "pea in a pod" designs.

Fuller was nothing if not resolute. He spent the 1930s refining his Dymaxion house design—interrupted by three years devoted to a revolutionary but flawed vehicle called, fittingly enough, the "Dymaxion car." Frequently, he wrote about technology for Fortune magazine and published his own journal, Shelter. During World War II, Fuller served under Henry J. Kaiser on the Board of Economic Warfare and used his position to promote the Dymaxion house. In 1944, he submitted a proposal to Kaiser in which he craftily combined the exigencies of economic conversion with the anticipated housing shortage brought on by the legions of returning vets. His solution was to refit aircraft manufacturing to mass-produce his house, using the same light-weight duralumin used to manufacture planes. Kaiser thought enough of the idea to finance its development. The 1946 Wichita house, produced at Beech Aircraft's Wichita facility, was the first successful application of Fuller's precepts, anticipating the mass-produced suburbs of the 1950s. Some 60,000 houses were ordered, but Fuller insisted on further refinements, and in his intransigence, he lost his backers; Fuller Houses, Inc., dissolved into nothingness.

This failure drove him into the world of academia. Always loquacious, the job of lecturer was perfectly suited to Fuller and gave him the opportunity to refine his ideas without the fickle backing of industry. He moved from university to university, and while in residence at the now-famous experimental Black Mountain College, Fuller built his first Geodesic Dome. It was made from vinyl louvers and collapsed within seconds of erection. But in 1949, Fuller received a patent for the Geodesic Dome and founded Geodesics, Inc. He received royalties for each dome built, so for the first time in his life, Fuller was free from economic woes. He could devote more time to what he called "thinking out loud." Traveling incessantly, circling the globe so often he was given to wearing five watches at a time, Fuller would talk to audiences for four or five hours at a stretch.

By the 1960s, he had become a counterculture legend, the messiah of modern technology, and film exists of the diminutive Bucky, with his thick glasses, close-shorn white hair, and conservative, three-piece suits, lecturing to auditoriums full of ecstatic hippies. His commission for the 1967 Montreal Expo, and perhaps his crowning achievement, was a magnificent seventy-six-meter-wide dome encased in transparent plastic tiles; it was photographed endlessly, gracing magazine covers worldwide. One visitor wrote: "Inside the dome the walls start going away from you … suddenly you realize the walls are not really there … And it was not done according to the aesthetics of architecture as it had been practiced up to then. It was done simply in terms of doing the most with the least."

For the rest of his life, Fuller refined and expanded upon the implications of this idea. Martin Pawley writes, "Fuller had converted the Bauhaus epigram 'Less is more' into its Dymaxion derivative 'More for less."' The domes themselves were the first link in this thought-chain; tensegrity, a building application utilizing continuous tension/discontinuous compression, was a further refinement. Tensegrity made building structures of enormous size and tensile strength—for instance, a three-kilometer dome that could enclose a part of Manhattan—a possibility. Fuller published elaborate schemata for these and other ideas verging upon science fiction. He envisioned enormous housing developments, self-sufficient islands set offshore, or kilometer-high pyramids, one of which he imagined as replacing a blighted Harlem. Fuller had logged out a logarithm of human need, and he would follow its varied implications to their logical conclusions. In 1983, he collapsed and died at his wife's bedside; she died thirty-six hours later.

From his "silent year" in Chicago onward, Fuller had worked ceaselessly for the betterment of mankind, seeing in his creations the means to realize a more equitable society. But outside of certain limited applications, (the Geodesic Dome house enjoyed a brief vogue with hippies, although industrial applications have proved more enduring), Fuller's inventions failed to revolutionize modern culture. The philosophical underpinnings of his inventions (altruism, ephemeralization, mass housing) remained unpopular ideas—if intermittently expedient. But Fuller saw his creations as part of the evolutionary process, envisioning that his revolutionary designs would inevitably supplant conventional architecture. One day history may prove him correct.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Fuller, R. Buckminster, and Robert Marks. The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. Garden City, Anchor Press, 1973.

Kenner, Hugh. Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller. New York, Morrow, 1973.

Meller, James, ed. The Buckminster Fuller Reader. London, Jonathan Cape, 1970.

Pawley, Martin. Buckminster Fuller. New York, Taplinger Publishing Company, 1990.

Ward, James, ed. The Artifacts of R. Buckminster Fuller. Vols. I-IV. New York, Garland Publishing, 1985.

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