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Agent MattPosted: Jan 12, 2011 - 21:51

Genuine American Monster

Level: 70
CS Original

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) invented the geodesic dome, sort of. He was not the first to use the icosahedron for construction. Walter Bauersfield in 1922 in Jena, Germany built a planetarium that had suspiciously geodesic aspects.

Moral: Whatever it is, if you do not give it a name and publicize it, it is not yours.

Artist Kenneth Snelson, a student of Fuller's at Black Mountain College, made the first "tensegrity" structure, in which metal poles that did not touch are suspended by wires. Fuller thought up the term and took full credit for the innovation.

Moral: If you claim it and name it, it's yours.

In honor of "Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe" (Whitney Museum, through Sept. 21), here are some additional factettes:

Margaret Fuller, transcendentalist and early feminist, was Fuller's great aunt.

As a student, he was thrown out of Yale twice.

Our Uncle Bucky - everyone called him Bucky -- believed that meat was the best way for us earthlings to get good nutrition, and for long periods of time he ate only steak, prunes, Jell-O and strong tea three or four times a day.

He made a habit of napping for 30 minutes after every six hours of work, falling asleep instantly.

That Uncle Bucky managed to overturn his sleek, three-wheeled Dymaxion car is not noted in his 45-ton "chronofile" or in any public statements and writings. Nor was it ever revealed that, although parallel parking was a snap, moving out from the curb required backing up into traffic.

The 3,500 standing orders for Uncle Bucky's 1946 Dymaxion Dwelling Machine or Wichita House miraculously morphed in one of his interminable lectures into 35,000.

Vis-à-vis the DDM, he claimed the motorized accordion doors not only took up less space, but also "reduced the spread of germs by doorknob contact."

He often called architects "exterior decorators."

Our Uncle Bucky - beloved by John Cage and other luminaries - was not modest: "I have discovered the coordinates of Universe."

He also rewrote the Lord's Prayer, claiming that his version offered direct proof of God's existence and ... "constitutes a scientifically meticulous, direct-experience-based proof of God."

Oh god, our father -
our further
our evolutionary integrity unfolder
who art in heaven--
who are in he-even
who is in everyone
hallowed (halo-ed)
be thy name
(be thine identity)

But he also said: "The next most dangerous thing to the atomic bomb is organized religion."

Our Uncle Bucky believed that the decline of the traditional family and the apparent increase of homosexuality and bisexuality were merely the result of a reduction in the need for the species to reproduce.

On the other hand, Bucky, obviously not a Darwinian, believed humans "arrived from elsewhere in Universe as complete human beings." To clarify: "Man as prime organizing/ 'Principle' construct pattern integrity/ Was radiated here from the stars--Not as primal cell, but as/ A fully articulated high order being."

I was once persuaded to attend one of Uncle Bucky's marathon lectures. How could I not have been intrigued? I thought the Dymaxion Car and then the Geodesic Dome at Expo 67 in Montreal were swell, in a Popular Mechanics kind of way. Bouncing around the stage, as advised by his dancer daughter, Bucky seemed more Barnum than beatific, more gasbag than gallant. Blather by any other name is still blather. Baloney is baloney. He gave a new meaning to Wall-of-Sound. I stuck it out for two hours and, deciding it was double-talk, and headed home to Hegel.

I have nothing against free association (surprise!) but Bucky, in spite of his free-verse "poems," was not a poet. He merely broke up prose with poetrylike line breaks. Here is a quote at random from his Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization:

The post-graduate M. A.s - Ph.D.s, Engineers,
and Science Docs of all kinds
now outnumber two fold
the American Expeditionary Forces of 1917.

All three major strands
are now being braided into cables,
into fatigueless, non-crystallizing
infinitely flexible cables
of the invisible suspension bridge
of the mind
between man and his destiny
high over the waters of exploitable matter
save over the Hell Gate of political doubt.

What? Could you play that again?

Oh, yes. Now I get it. Artopia likes the braiding, but dislikes "the Hell Gate of political doubt," whatever that is.

But then again, Intuition, another book-length "poem," less full of filler, boasts a reproduction of a handwritten text from Ezra Pound on the frontispiece: To: Buckminster Fuller/friend of the universe/bringer of happiness /liberator./with affectionate admiration/ Ezra Pound/Spoleto/June 29th 1971.

And what exactly was Pound autographing? A copy of The Cantos? Or perhaps a soiled napkin?

Oracularmaniacal Neologistics?

A sure sign of the unhinged, along with unusual capitalization and hyphenating, is the invention of new terms and made-up words to cover data or meanings already adequately answered for by existing words and phrases.

Neologisms can make you see things in a different light, but they can also cloud the brain, puff-up the inventor, and gain credit where credit may not be due. Neologisms can make something not-so-new or not-so-complicated seem newly discovered and wonderfully complex.

I am not talking about puns or comic turns, as in Lewis Carroll or Gilbert and Sullivan. I do not mean witty portmanteau words, such as Carroll's snark. I am referring to what can only be called Fullerisms.

"Mind wind," dreamed up by Fuller, is supposed to mean the feeling of "imminentness" when an idea is in the air. Or does it really mean mental flatulence and/or hot air?

"Allspace Filling"? Here is Bucky's definition in Synergetics, a tome perpetuated in 1975. It not only illustrates the way his mind worked (or, I fear, did not work), but also his turgid way of writing and, alas, his public speaking, both of which could be characterized as persiflage or persiflogical:

"... The multiply [adverb] furnished but thought-integrated complex called space by humans occurs only as a consequence of the imaginatively recallable consideration of an insideness-and-outsideness-defining array of contiguously occurring and consciously experienced time-energy event."


But how can you hate someone who actually coined the word debunk (in 1927) and came up with "Obnoxico" as his very own imaginary multinational corporate nemesis?

I am not sure that allows us to forgive his grandest invented word synergetics, born of a forced marriage between "synergy" and "energetic." It means, according to Fuller, "the performance of the whole unpredicted by an examination of the parts or a subassembly of the parts." The word synergetics sounds meaningful, but the meaning doesn't. It would be a great name for an oil company.

Nor should we excuse him for the silliness of "ignore-ance." Or for using "ephemeralization" when he really meant "dematerialization" or perhaps -- in his own words, "not less is more, but more with less."

The helpful Whitney handout bravely offers definitions of Fullerisms such as "Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science," "Lightful" and "Octet Truss." But please note that the subtitle of the exhibition places the article "the" in front of "Universe," whereas Uncle Bucky always insisted upon "Universe," capitalized and article-free.

Buckminster Fuller, that geomanic geocentric, believed (1) that the tetrahedron could solve all problems and (2) that the earth really is the center of Universe. He was an industrialistic engineerist who was mathemaniacally geometristic.

He was ultimately globalistic, understanding that we are passengers on (his term!) Space Ship Earth, but blind to how to dispose of those doing the steering. He was the Pied Piper in a business suit. He was, in the name of the greatest good, an elf infected with predictomania and oracularitis. He was infected by neologorrhea, demonstrating that made-up words and new meanings forced upon old words can create another reality you might want to invest in, but not necessarily one you could trust.

Dome Mystic

So what on Earth are we to do with Buckminster Fuller? The exhibition at the Whitney made me rethink Fuller's place, his accomplishment, and his total nuttiness. Do we forgive him his eccentricities (perhaps insanities) because he came up with the geodesic dome, which has had some practical applications? Do his 20th-century proverbs compensate for the swill of his eight-hour lectures and his Synergistics tome?

What was disarming about Fuller was his optimism and his idealism, however misplaced. He really seemed to believe that technology, specifically his version of same, would save the world. Progress was not only possible, but inevitable. Toward that end, unlike the dropouts constructing geodesic "drop cities" out of recycled materials, he had no qualms about dealing with governments of all stripes or with any willing corporate bigwig. Progress, he believed, would be top-down. His notion of autonomous housing, each unit producing its own energy through wind-driven turbines, predicted ideal off-grid lifestyles -- still obtainable, alas, only by elite minorities. But his attempts at mass-produced housing show at least that his heart was in the right place, if not his brain.

The closest we have come to mass-produced housing nowadays is the MacMansion: too large and too costly, suggesting Mr. Blanding's Dream House on steroids, duplicated into infinity and arranged tightly packed to form gated "communities."

Fuller himself might have had more luck if he had pointed to the Airstream trailer rather than his own engineering.

Oh, no, he had to predict high-tech igloos delivered by military helicopters or revolving aluminum nests perched on poles. The problem with those kinds of "practical" housing is that they don't film very well. What movie star - and we all see ourselves as such - would want to live in a hut? Even one made of aluminum?

You can't film actors and actresses taking sponge baths in broom closets.

Fuller seems to have been looking a little too hard at airplanes. Although you can make a dramatic airplane exit by walking down those retractable steps onto the tarmac, you cannot make an entrance by entering one. There is no foyer, no nightclub platform from which to descend. There's no room inside for a camera crew. And where in any aluminum yurt is there privacy?

I am not qualified to judge if Fuller's geocalia is correct. For all I know, 60 degrees, as he claimed, and not 90 may be indeed the basic angle of Universe. In any case, in terms of geodesic domes, I imagine it is difficult to place paintings, mirrors, video monitors, or bookcases on a concave, faceted wall.

Most people don't want a space that's created by a leaky, echoic, floor-to-ceiling dome. If forced to give up flat walls, they'd rather camp out in a tent. Or a sleeping bag under the stars.

But at least our Bucky tried. Tried to see beyond the tried and true. Tried to seek out logical first principles. Tried to solve the problems generated by pseudo-scarcity, bad design, abuse of resources and bad faith. In some ways he was fearless. He was not afraid of appearing foolish. Perhaps he was so self-centered that any vision of his own foolishness never entered his head. Perhaps he was blessed...with naiveté. He was an Artopian ahead of his time.

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Agent MattPosted: Jan 12, 2011 - 22:26

Genuine American Monster

Level: 70
CS Original

Buckminster Fuller's World

Was modernism totalitarian? That's coming at it a bit high, but it's true that more than a few top-tier modernists were also one-size-fits-all system-mongers who thought the world would be improved if it were rebuilt from top to bottom -- so long as they got to draw up the plans. Just as Arnold Schoenberg wanted to scrap traditional harmony in favor of his 12-tone system of musical composition, so did Le Corbusier long to demolish the heart of Paris and turn it into an ultraefficient "machine for living" dominated by cookie-cutter high-rise apartment towers. So what if the rest of the world liked things the way they were? Send in the bulldozers anyway!

It isn't that these artists were especially bloodthirsty. While some would gladly have sent their opponents to the nearest guillotine, most operated on the rosy-colored assumption that sweet reason would be sufficient in and of itself to usher in a kinder, gentler millennium. Take R. Buckminster Fuller, who has been forgotten by the public at large but whose work is still well-known enough in intellectual circles to be the subject of a major museum exhibition. "Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe," which opened in March at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary of Art after a successful run at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, is pulling in more than enough visitors to have had its run extended through Aug. 9. Most of them, I suspect, are starry-eyed idealists who see Fuller as an all-American visionary and share his roseate belief that "man can do anything he wants" with the world. I doubt they've thought overmuch about exactly how one might go about passing such miracles -- and neither did their idol.

Fuller, who died in 1983, had one of the most curious careers imaginable. He called himself a "comprehensive anticipatory design scientist," but only one of his creations, the geodesic dome, has caught on, and its instantly recognizable appearance (a geodesic dome is a spherical structure made out of triangles) is far better known than the man who invented it. For most of his life, he tinkered away at equally fascinating-looking inventions that rarely proved to be practical. His polygon-shaped Dymaxion House and teardrop-shaped Dymaxion Car were hailed as prophetic in the '30s, but no one was prepared to put them into production, and now they exist only as sketches and one-of-a-kind prototypes. Later on he expanded his vision to encompass city planning on the widest possible scale, going so far as to envision placing a climate-controlled geodesic dome over the whole of Manhattan.

If such schemes bring Frank Lloyd Wright to mind, there's a good reason: Fuller was a Wright-like figure, a high-octane utopian who believed in the life-enhancing potential of modern technology. The difference was that Fuller lacked Wright's ruthless determination. He was either incapable of or uninterested in following through on his ideas -- and he was, unlike Wright, the opposite of an aesthete. The Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion House are logical, even elegant, but not truly beautiful, and the closer you look at them, the less attractive they seem.

On the other hand, Fuller's ambitions extended far beyond the creation of beautiful cars and houses. Not until the '60s did he find his footing as a public figure, and when he did it was not as a designer but a seer, a prophet of change who believed that "utopia is possible now." He specialized in marathon lectures that enthralled a generation of long-haired youngsters who sat at his feet as he preached the gospel of world-wide interdependence and universal bliss. "One hundred percent instead of 44% of humanity," he said, "should enjoy not only a high standard of living, but freedom of intellectual and physical initiative as well as educational advantage and travel embracing the whole Earth."

Peter Drucker, who knew and (up to a point) admired Fuller, wrote in "Adventures of a Bystander," his 1979 memoir, that listening to him talk was "like being in a verbal Jacuzzi -- a pool of warm, swirling water, relaxing yet constantly moving and challenging." Yet Drucker also noted that "no one ever remembers a word Bucky says. But nobody ever forgets the experience." All of which suggests that he was at heart a lapel-grabbing crank with a touch of genius, the kind who knows the One Best Way to do everything better than anyone else.

Not only did Buckminster Fuller think big, but he was sure that the only way to fix the world was by fixing every corner of it simultaneously. "We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully, nor for much longer, unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common," he declared. "It has to be everybody or nobody." It seems never to have occurred to him that his all-or-none "solutions" to the world's problems could only be imposed from above by a totalitarian regime, which doubtless explains why they continue to appeal to brainy technocrats who are no less sure of their own ability to make Spaceship Earth a clean, well-lighted place. All they need is enough money -- and, sooner or later, enough guns.

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Agent MattPosted: Jan 12, 2011 - 22:29

Genuine American Monster

Level: 70
CS Original

Dymaxion Man

One of Buckminster Fuller’s earliest inventions was a car shaped like a blimp. The car had three wheels—two up front, one in the back—and a periscope instead of a rear window. Owing to its unusual design, it could be maneuvered into a parking space nose first and could execute a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn so tightly that it would end up practically where it had started, facing the opposite direction. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the car was introduced in the summer of 1933, it caused such a sensation that gridlock followed, and anxious drivers implored Fuller to keep it off the streets at rush hour.

Fuller called his invention the Dymaxion Vehicle. He believed that it would not just revolutionize automaking but help bring about a wholesale reordering of modern life. Soon, Fuller thought, people would be living in standardized, prefabricated dwellings, and this, in turn, would allow them to occupy regions previously considered uninhabitable—the Arctic, the Sahara, the tops of mountains. The Dymaxion Vehicle would carry them to their new homes; it would be capable of travelling on the roughest roads and—once the technology for the requisite engines had been worked out—it would also (somehow) be able to fly. Fuller envisioned the Dymaxion taking off almost vertically, like a duck.

Fuller’s schemes often had the hallucinatory quality associated with science fiction (or mental hospitals). It concerned him not in the least that things had always been done a certain way in the past. In addition to flying cars, he imagined mass-produced bathrooms that could be installed like refrigerators; underwater settlements that would be restocked by submarine; and floating communities that, along with all their inhabitants, would hover among the clouds. Most famously, he dreamed up the geodesic dome. “If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top . . . that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver,” Fuller once wrote. “But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings.” Fuller may have spent his life inventing things, but he claimed that he was not particularly interested in inventions. He called himself a “comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist”—a “comprehensivist,” for short—and believed that his task was to innovate in such a way as to benefit the greatest number of people using the least amount of resources. “My objective was humanity’s comprehensive success in the universe” is how he once put it. “I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers.”

Fuller’s career is the subject of a new exhibition, “Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe,” which opens later this month at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition traces the long, loopy arc of his career from early doodlings to plans he drew up shortly before his death, twenty-five years ago this summer. It will feature studies for several of his geodesic domes and the only surviving Dymaxion Vehicle. By staging the retrospective, the Whitney raises—or, really, one should say, re-raises—the question of Fuller’s relevance. Was he an important cultural figure because he produced inventions of practical value or because he didn’t?

Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jr.—Bucky, to his friends—was born on July 12, 1895, into one of New England’s most venerable and, at the same time, most freethinking families. His great-great-grandfather, the Reverend Timothy Fuller, a Massachusetts delegate to the Federal Constitutional Assembly, was so outraged by the Constitution’s sanctioning of slavery that he came out against ratification. His great-aunt Margaret Fuller, a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, edited the transcendentalist journal The Dial and later became America’s first female foreign correspondent.

Growing up in Milton, Massachusetts, Bucky was a boisterous but hopelessly nearsighted child; until he was fitted with glasses, he refused to believe that the world was not blurry. Like all Fuller men, he was sent off to Harvard. Halfway through his freshman year, he withdrew his tuition money from the bank to entertain some chorus girls in Manhattan. He was expelled. The following fall, he was reinstated, only to be thrown out again. Fuller never did graduate from Harvard, or any other school. He took a job with a meatpacking firm, then joined the Navy, where he invented a winchlike device for rescuing pilots of the service’s primitive airplanes. (The pilots often ended up head down, under water.)

During the First World War, Fuller married Anne Hewlett, the daughter of a prominent architect, and when the war was over he started a business with his father-in-law, manufacturing bricks out of wood shavings. Despite the general prosperity of the period, the company struggled and, in 1927, nearly bankrupt, it was bought out. At just about the same time, Anne gave birth to a daughter. With no job and a new baby to support, Fuller became depressed. One day, he was walking by Lake Michigan, thinking about, in his words, “Buckminster Fuller—life or death,” when he found himself suspended several feet above the ground, surrounded by sparkling light. Time seemed to stand still, and a voice spoke to him. “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself,” it said. “You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe.” (In Fuller’s idiosyncratic English, “universe”—capitalized—is never preceded by the definite article.) It was at this point, according to Fuller, that he decided to embark on his “lifelong experiment.” The experiment’s aim was nothing less than determining “what, if anything,” an individual could do “on behalf of all humanity.” For this study, Fuller would serve both as the researcher and as the object of inquiry. (He referred to himself as Guinea Pig B, the “B” apparently being for Bucky.) Fuller moved his wife and daughter into a tiny studio in a Chicago slum and, instead of finding a job, took to spending his days in the library, reading Gandhi and Leonardo. He began to record his own ideas, which soon filled two thousand pages. In 1928, he edited the manuscript down to fifty pages, and had it published in a booklet called “4D Time Lock,” which he sent out to, among others, Vincent Astor, Bertrand Russell, and Henry Ford.

Like most of Fuller’s writings, “4D Time Lock” is nearly impossible to read; its sentences, Slinky-like, stretch on and on and on. (One of his biographers observed of “4D Time Lock” that “worse prose is barely conceivable.”) At its heart is a critique of the construction industry. Imagine, Fuller says, what would happen if a person, seeking to purchase an automobile, had to hire a designer, then send the plans out for bid, then show them to the bank, and then have them approved by the town council, all before work on the vehicle could begin. “Few would have the temerity to go through with it,” he notes, and those who did would have to pay something like fifty thousand dollars—half a million in today’s money—per car. Such a system, so obviously absurd for autos, persisted for houses, Fuller argued, because of retrograde thinking. (His own failure at peddling wood-composite bricks he cited as evidence of the construction industry’s recalcitrance.) What was needed was a “New Era Home,” which would be “erectable in one day, complete in every detail,” and, on top of that, “drudgery-proof,” with “every living appliance known to mankind, built-in.”

Not coincidentally, Fuller was working to design just such a home. One plan, which never made it beyond the sketching stage, called for ultra-lightweight towers to be assembled at a central location, then transported to any spot in the world, via zeppelin. (Fuller envisioned the zeppelin crew excavating the site by dropping a small bomb.) A second, only slightly less fabulous proposal was for what Fuller came to call the Dymaxion House. The hexagonal-shaped, single-family home was to be stamped out of metal and suspended from a central mast that would contain all its wiring and plumbing. When a family moved, the Dymaxion House could be disassembled and taken along, like a bed or a table. Fuller constructed a scale model of the house, which was exhibited in 1929 at Marshall Field’s as part of a display of modern furniture. But no full-size version could be produced, because many of the components, including what Fuller called a “radio-television receiver,” did not yet exist. Fuller estimated that it would take a billion dollars to develop the necessary technologies. Not surprisingly, the money wasn’t forthcoming.

Fuller was fond of neologisms. He coined the word “livingry,” as the opposite of “weaponry”—which he called “killingry”—and popularized the term “spaceship earth.” (He claimed to have invented “debunk,” but probably did not.) Another one of his coinages was “ephemeralization,” which meant, roughly speaking, “dematerialization.” Fuller was a strong believer in the notion that “less is more,” and not just in the aestheticized, Miesian sense of the phrase. He imagined that buildings would eventually be “ephemeralized” to such an extent that construction materials would be dispensed with altogether, and builders would instead rely on “electrical field and other utterly invisible environment controls.”

Fuller’s favorite neologism, “dymaxion,” was concocted purely for public relations. When Marshall Field’s displayed his model house, it wanted a catchy label, so it hired a consultant, who fashioned “dymaxion” out of bits of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion.” Fuller was so taken with the word, which had no known meaning, that he adopted it as a sort of brand name. The Dymaxion House led to the Dymaxion Vehicle, which led, in turn, to the Dymaxion Bathroom and the Dymaxion Deployment Unit, essentially a grain bin with windows. As a child, Fuller had assembled scrapbooks of letters and newspaper articles on subjects that interested him; when, later, he decided to keep a more systematic record of his life, including everything from his correspondence to his dry-cleaning bills, it became the Dymaxion Chronofile.

All the Dymaxion projects generated a great deal of hype, and that was clearly Fuller’s desire. All of them also flopped. The first prototype of the Dymaxion Vehicle had been on the road for just three months when it crashed, near the entrance to the Chicago World’s Fair; the driver was killed, and one of the passengers—a British aviation expert—was seriously injured. Eventually, it was revealed that another car was responsible for the accident, but only two more Dymaxion Vehicles were produced before production was halted, in 1934. Only thirteen models of the Dymaxion Bathroom—a single unit that came with a built-in tub, toilet, and sink—were constructed before the manufacturer pulled the plug on that project, in 1936. The Dymaxion Deployment Unit, which Fuller imagined being used as a mobile shelter, failed because after the United States entered the Second World War he could no longer obtain any steel. In 1945, Fuller attempted to mass-produce the Dymaxion House, entering into a joint effort with Beech Aircraft, which was based in Wichita. Two examples of the house were built before that project, too, collapsed. (The only surviving prototype, known as the Wichita House, looks like a cross between an onion dome and a flying saucer; it is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan.)

Following this string of disappointments, Fuller might have decided that his “experiment” had run its course. Instead, he kept right on going. Turning his attention to mathematics, he concluded that the Cartesian coördinate system had got things all wrong and invented his own system, which he called Synergetic Geometry. Synergetic Geometry was based on sixty-degree (rather than ninety-degree) angles, took the tetrahedron to be the basic building block of the universe, and avoided the use of pi, a number that Fuller found deeply distasteful. By 1948, Fuller’s geometric investigations had led him to the idea of the geodesic dome—essentially, a series of struts that could support a covering skin. That summer, he was invited to teach at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina, where some of the other instructors included Josef Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. (“I remember thinking it’s Bucky Fuller and his magic show,” Cunningham would later recall of Fuller’s arrival.) Toward the end of his stay, Fuller and a team of students assembled a trial dome out of Venetian-blind slats. Immediately upon being completed, the dome sagged and fell in on itself. (Some of the observers referred to it as a “flopahedron.”) Fuller insisted that this outcome had been intentional—he was, he said, trying to determine the critical point at which the dome would collapse—but no one seems to have believed this. The following year, Anne Fuller sold thirty thousand dollars’ worth of I.B.M. stock to finance Bucky’s continuing research, and in 1950 he succeeded in erecting a dome fifty feet in diameter.

The geodesic dome is a prime example of “ephemeralization”; it can enclose more space with less material than virtually any other structure. The first commercial use of Fuller’s design came in 1953, when the Ford Motor Company decided to cover the central courtyard of its Rotunda building, in Dearborn. The walls of the building, which had been erected for a temporary exhibit, were not strong enough to support a conventional dome. Fuller designed a geodesic dome of aluminum struts fitted with fibreglass panes. The structure spanned ninety-three feet, yet weighed just eight and a half tons. It received a tremendous amount of press, almost all of it positive, with the result that geodesic domes soon became popular for all sorts of purposes. They seemed to spring up “like toadstools after a rain,” as one commentator put it.

The geodesic dome transformed Fuller from an eccentric outsider into an eccentric insider. He was hired by the Pentagon to design protective housing for radar equipment along the Distant Early Warning, or DEW, line; the structure became known as a radome. He also developed a system for erecting temporary domes at trade fairs all around the world. (Nikita Khrushchev supposedly became so enamored of one such dome, built for a fair in Moscow, that he insisted that “Buckingham Fuller” come to Russia “and teach our engineers.”) Fuller was offered an appointment at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale, and he had a dome-home built near campus for himself and Anne. In 1965, he was commissioned by the United States Information Agency to design the U.S. Pavilion for the Montreal Expo. Though the exhibit inside was criticized as uninspiring, Fuller’s dome, which looked as if it were about to float free of the earth, was a hit.

As the fame of the dome—and domes themselves—spread, Fuller was in near-constant demand as a speaker. “I travel between Southern and Northern hemispheres and around the world so frequently that I no longer have any so-called normal winter and summer, nor normal night and day,” he wrote in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.” “I wear three watches to tell me what time it is.” Castro-like, Fuller could lecture for ten hours at a stretch. (A friend of mine who took an architecture course from Fuller at Yale recalls that classes lasted from nine o’clock in the morning until five in the evening, and that Fuller talked basically the entire time.) Audiences were enraptured and also, it seems, mystified. “It was great! What did he say?” became the standard joke. The first “Whole Earth Catalog,” which was dedicated to Fuller, noted that his language “makes demands on your head like suddenly discovering an extra engine in your car.”

In “Bucky,” a biography-cum-meditation, published in 1973, the critic Hugh Kenner observed, “One of the ways I could arrange this book would make Fuller’s talk seem systematic. I could also make it look like a string of platitudes, or like a set of notions never entertained before, or like a delirium.” On the one hand, Fuller insisted that all the world’s problems—from hunger and illiteracy to war—could be solved by technology. “You may . . . want to ask me how we are going to resolve the ever-accelerating dangerous impasse of world-opposed politicians and ideological dogmas,” he observed at one point. “I answer, it will be resolved by the computer.” On the other hand, he rejected fundamental tenets of modern science, most notably evolution. “We arrived from elsewhere in Universe as complete human beings,” he maintained. He further insisted that humans had spread not from Africa but from Polynesia, and that dolphins were descended from these early, seafaring earthlings.

Although he looked to nature as the exemplar of efficient design, he was not terribly interested in the natural world, and mocked those who warned about problems like resource depletion and overpopulation. “When world realization of its unlimited wealth has been established there as yet will be room for the whole of humanity to stand indoors in greater New York City, with more room for each human than at an average cocktail party,” he wrote. He envisioned cutting people off from the elements entirely by building domed cities, which, he claimed, would offer free climate control, winter and summer. “A two-mile-diameter dome has been calculated to cover Mid-Manhattan Island, spanning west to east at 42nd Street,” he observed. “The cost saving in ten years would pay for the dome. Domed cities are going to be essential to the occupation of the Arctic and the Antarctic.” As an alternative, he developed a plan for a tetrahedral city, which was intended to house a million people and float in Tokyo Bay.

He also envisioned what he called Cloud Nines, communities that would dwell in extremely lightweight spheres, covered in a polyethylene skin. As the sun warmed the air inside, Fuller claimed, the sphere and all the buildings within it would rise into the air, like a balloon. “Many thousands of passengers could be housed aboard one-mile-diameter and larger cloud structures,” he wrote. In the late seventies, Fuller took up with Werner Erhard, the controversial founder of the equally controversial est movement, and the pair set off on a speaking tour across America. Fuller championed, and for many years adhered to, a dietary regimen that consisted exclusively of prunes, tea, steak, and Jell-O.

The Dymaxion Vehicle, the Dymaxion House, “comprehensive, anticipatory design,” Synergetic Geometry, floating cities, Jell-O—what does it all add up to? In conjunction with the Whitney retrospective, the exhibition’s two curators, K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller, have put together a book of essays, articles, and photographs—“Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe.” Several of the authors in the volume gamely, if inconclusively, grapple with Fuller’s legacy. Antoine Picon, a professor of architecture at Harvard, notes that the detail with which Fuller’s life was recorded—the Dymaxion Chronofile eventually grew to more than two hundred thousand pages—has had the paradoxical effect of obscuring its significance. Elizabeth A. T. Smith, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, writes that Fuller’s influence on “creative practice” has been “more wide-ranging than previously thought,” but goes on to acknowledge that this influence is “difficult to pinpoint or define with certainty.” In their introduction, Hays and Miller maintain that Fuller helped “us see the perils and possibilities” of the twentieth century. They stress his “continuing relevance as an aid to history,” though exactly what they mean by this seems purposefully unclear.

The fact that so few of Fuller’s ideas were ever realized certainly makes it hard to argue for his importance as an inventor. Even his most successful creation, the geodesic dome, proved to be a dud. In 1994, Stewart Brand, the founding editor of the “Whole Earth Catalog” and an early, self-described dome “propagandist,” called geodesics a “massive, total failure”:

Domes leaked, always. The angles between the facets could never be sealed successfully. If you gave up and tried to shingle the whole damn thing—dangerous process, ugly result—the nearly horizontal shingles on top still took in water. The inside was basically one big room, impossible to subdivide, with too much space wasted up high. The shape made it a whispering gallery that broadcast private sounds to everyone.

Among the domes that leaked were Fuller’s own home, in Carbondale, and the structure atop the Ford Rotunda. (When workmen were sent to try to reseal the Rotunda’s dome, they ended up burning down the entire building.)

Fuller’s impact as a social theorist is equally ambiguous. He insisted that the future could be radically different from the past, that humanity was capable of finding solutions to the most intractable-seeming problems, and that the only thing standing in the way was the tendency to cling to old “piano tops.” But Fuller was also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place. “I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult,” he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. “What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.” Fuller’s writings and speeches are filled with this sort of tension, or, if you prefer, contradiction. He was a material determinist who believed in radical autonomy, an individualist who extolled mass production, and an environmentalist who wanted to dome over the Arctic. In the end, Fuller’s greatest accomplishment may consist not in any particular idea or artifact but in the whole unlikely experiment that was Guinea Pig B. Instead of destroying himself, Fuller listened to Universe. He spent the next fifty years in a headlong, ceaseless act of self-assertion, one that took so many forms that, twenty-five years after his death, we are still trying to sort it all out. ♦

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