Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe

September 4, 2008

This book was published to coincide with the exhibition organised by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in association with the Department of Special Collections of the Stanford University Libraries, which opened on 26 June 2008 in New York, and is to proceed to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in the summer of 2009.

Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was an American inventor. Among his creations in the late 1920s were the Dymaxion House (suspended from a central vertical structure and evolved from techniques used in aircraft and motor-car construction) and the prefabricated modular bathroom. While he was much concerned with the design of cheap mass-produced living-units, he also developed means of covering extremely large areas by means of geodesic "domes" (half-spherical, constructed on the space-frame principle, made of linked lightweight elements arranged in hexagonal figures). These structures (they are not domes in the accepted sense of the word) did not require elaborate foundations as their structural integrity was such that they needed only to be anchored to the ground. His US Pavilion at the International Exposition in Montreal in 1967 was an exemplar. The system facilitated the construction of huge clear-span structures, and therefore, theoretically, whole cities could be roofed over, with possibilities for environmental control and saving of energy.

Fuller courted global fame, and, as a peripatetic entrepreneur and proselytiser, he delivered lectures that lasted from three to six hours: his writings were as breathless, and some found them profound, while others, irritated by his disdain for punctuation, found them tiresome. One of the problems of obfuscatory prose, of course, is that it in itself often creates, by its impenetrability, an aura of mystery, and therefore attracts disciples.

Adam D. Weinberg, for example, in the Foreword, quotes from Fuller's little volume "with a riveting silver and black cover" entitled I Seem to be a Verb, and sets the tone for this book.

Fuller wrote that he lived on "Earth at present", and he did not know who he was: he knew that he was "not a category". He was "not a thing - a noun". He seemed to be, he wrote, "a verb, an evolutionary process - an integral function of the Universe". This $1.65 book, classified as sociology, was, Weinberg writes, "proof to a teenage boy that a little book could be a powerful tool". Well, quite.

Fuller's contemporary Philip Cortelyou Johnson (1906-2005), an American architect with an aloof disdain for the opinions of the masses, who insisted that architecture is not about social engineering or "making life better", denied that Fuller could ever be seen as an architect, and indeed said that he "was not interested in architecture", which is probably correct.

Fuller is on record as calling architects, engineers and scientists members of "slave professions": his drawings were unattractive and crude (there are plenty of them in this hagiography), yet Johnson observed that Fuller "kept pretending" he was an architect, which was "very annoying". Irritating, too, was exposure to "an hour or more of Fuller's conversation", and listeners were often so "taken aback" by a "torrential outpouring of ego" that they heard nothing he said, and went "away in a state of shock". One is almost exhausted reading about it.

So who will read this book in which we find inelegant phrases such as "they dig his humor"? Fuller found a new audience towards the end of his life among environmentalists who espoused his principles on the use of natural systems and ideas of self-sufficiency: his "domes", for example, lent themselves to environmental control and the conservation of resources, and it is perhaps in those fields that his future influence will remain.

Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe

By K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller. Whitney Museum of American Art, in conjunction with Yale University Press. 224pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780300126204. Published 14 August 2008

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