R. Buckminster Fuller
American Designer, Architect, Scientist, Mathematician, Inventor, and Author
Summary of R. Buckminster Fuller
Aptly described by one commentator as a "practical dreamer", Fuller was a tenacious optimist, stating that his overall objective in life was to help achieve "humanity's comprehensive success in the universe". Fuller produced theoretical contributions to science, architecture, and design that were defiantly utopian. Intent on improving the quality of everyday living, his futuristic "Dymaxion" designs included a car, a house and a world map. These were followed by his Geodesic Dome which remains his most resounding practical success.
Fuller's worldview was shaped by an unshakable belief in the benefits of technology but he did not consider himself an inventor. He referred to himself rather as a "comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist"; that is, a modern day soothsayer who produced blueprints and prototypes which next generation design practitioners could take forward and realize. His idea that the Earth was analogous to a spaceship ("Spaceship Earth" as he called it), led to his most ambitious vision of all, a global network of Geoscope screens on which friendly nations would cooperate for the greater good. Fuller also earned a reputation as a mesmeric teacher and he supplemented his various internships and professorships with some 30 book publications. The spirit of Fuller's ambitious optimism and inventiveness was inspirational and lives on in the attitude of many present-day entrepreneurs, designers, architects and scientists.
- Though his Geodesic Domes would prove too futuristic for everyday living, they found many other practical uses. Used as bases by the military around the world; as weather and radar outposts; as storage depots; as a home for botanical gardens and aviaries; and a fixture of many children's play areas, the Dome would become Fuller's abiding signature on the earth's landscape (as many as 200,000 have been constructed).
- Fuller's Dymaxion designs offered a whole new way of imagining urban living. His car, which would in the future take to the air or the sea; and the house, which would be mass produced and transported to their location in giant tubes, seemed to belong to the realms of science fiction. But the Dymaxion philosophy, which prioritized sustainability through technology and human-centric living, would in fact anticipate the central tenets of all modern design thinking.
- His revolutionary "island earth" Dymaxion Map - the first flat map of the earth's whole surface area - brough the Buckminster Fuller name to the attention of the American public. Like his Dymaxion Car and House, many viewed his futuristic vision as impractical and outlandish. But Fuller's map inspired legions of followers, some of whom shaped the whole future of world mapping.
- Fuller's World Game concept embodied his "Spaceship Earth" metaphor whereby the earth's population would work - or rather "play" - together for the collective benefit of the whole planet. With his blueprint for a city-enveloping Geoscope screen and a World Game (the latter to be played out on the former) Fuller had in fact foreseen a new technological utopia of advanced screen science on which global information and new ideas could be shared instantaneously.
Biography of R. Buckminster Fuller
In his vision for a "shelter for living", Fuller rued, "let architects sing of aesthetics that bring Rich clients in hordes to their knees"; for me "a home, is a great circle dome where stresses and strains are at ease".
Important Art by R. Buckminster Fuller
Fuller's futuristic vehicle was a total reimagining of family travel. With its engine positioned in the rear, the three-wheeled aerodynamic "Zeppelin" car was big enough to carry a dozen passengers (and a picnic), ran for 30 miles on a single gallon on alcohol fuel, and featured air nostrils, air-conditioning and rear view periscopes. Fuller also considered the comfort of his passengers, allowing for them to maintain an "inertial poise" while in motion. Never intended for mass production - only three prototypes were ever produced - Fuller goal was to present his vision as what "flying cars" might look like once they took to the "ocean of the sky".
Fuller, with help from his close friend, the Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, had started designing the car in the late 1920's, but had to wait several years to secure the funds needed to realize his vision. The prototype was built in a factory in Connecticut in 1933. It was to be the middle stage in a technical revolution that might result in a vehicle that could be airborne, road bound and even sea fairing. Whether or not it was an effective mode of road travel at the time was of little consequence to Fuller who wanted rather to inspire other designers. And inspire it did, enthusing the cream of 1930s American society, including Amelia Earhart, Henry Ford and Diego Riviera, and many years later, the famous British architect Norman Foster.
The three Dymaxion prototypes suffered different fates. Due to high interest from the media, the first Dymaxion was involved in a fatal accident at the gates of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Fuller biographies tell it that, overeager to get a first-hand look at what some elements of the print media had branded a "freak car", a Chicago South Park Commissioner accidentally drove his own car into the Dymaxion which rolled over, killing the driver and injuring its passengers (including a Scottish spy and French government minister). The Commissioner's car was hastily removed from the scene, and once the police arrived, the "clumsy" Dymaxion design was blamed for the accident. The first Dymaxion prototype was repaired, but was later destroyed in a refuelling accident; prototype three was cut up for scrap metal, while prototype two was thought to have been lost forever until it was discovered on a farm by a group of Arizona State engineering students. The farm owner had bought the car many years earlier for a dollar and was using it as a makeshift chicken coop. The last original Dymaxion Car was acquired circuitously by casino magnate Bill Harrah who restored it to its original glory and placed in on display at his National Automobile Museum in Reno.
First published as an article in Life magazine in March 1943, Fuller's map eradicates much of the distortion than effected earlier maps. He wrote, "for the layman, engrossed in belated, war-taught lessons in geography [...] The Dymaxion World map is a means by which he can see the whole world fairly at once". The map was presented as a pull-out section that allowed Life's readers to assemble the map into a globe. The globe's surface is seen thus as a continuous surface without bisecting areas of major land mass. As the Open Culture journalist Josh Jones put it, the map "was intended to be folded in different ways though in its most common orientation it shows an archipelago of almost uninterrupted continents and allows the plotting of migratory paths and flow particularly well". The Buckminster Fuller Institute stressed, meanwhile, that the map was "the only flat map of the entire surface of the Earth which reveals our planet as one island in the ocean, without any visually obvious distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and without splitting any continents".
In spite of his enormous ambition, many of Fuller's contemporaries found his view of the world, expressed through his overarching "spaceship earth" analogy, romantic and impractical. Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker summarized the sceptical attitudes towards his projects (which were only heightened following the unveiling of The Dymaxion Car) when she noted that his "schemes [...] had the hallucinatory quality associated with science fiction (or mental hospitals)". Yet these reservations seem somehow unjustified given that Fuller presented himself, not as an inventor at all, but rather as an "anticipatory design scientist" who promoted the maxim, "if you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them [...] give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking".
In this sense, Fuller's "tool", the Dymaxion Map (and Fuller's modified icosahedron Airocean world map which was published in 1954), can be claimed as an unqualified success because it prompted many imitators and instigated nothing short of what Jones called "a revolution in mapping". It led indeed to maps based on ice, snow, glaciers and ice sheets, maps that illustrate flight paths and, later still, to the "Googlespiel", an interactive Dymaxion map developed by Google Maps. One might add that the design also extended its influence to the world of contemporary art through Jasper Johns's painting Map (1967).
Fuller's idea for new living solutions was conceived of as early as 1928 with a design he named the "4-D house". At the time he was destitute and the idea was roundly dismissed as a viable economic venture. Undeterred, Fuller pushed on with his development until it was picked up in 1944 by the U.S. government which was looking for ways to keep wartime aircraft factories busy. Because of bureaucratic interference, The Dymaxion House, in spite of securing several thousand advanced orders, was only ever developed into one fully working prototype (the Wichita House).
The Dymaxion House was mathematically precise and polished; designed to be delivered fresh from the factory floor and flat-packaged so that it could be easily shipped world-wide. The height and shape of the house would prevent flooding and protect against earthquakes, and the octagonal symmetry would streamline the plastic shell so that it could withstand a tornado. The design was streamlined in order to optimize the internal climate which was also controlled by floor and roof vents that allowed for natural air conditioning in summer and efficient heat influx in the winter. In what at the time seemed like pure science fiction, Fuller thought of automating appliances with devices such as an instantaneous dishwasher and the shower replaced with a water-saving "fog gun". The fuel for the house was to be derived from human waste in order to achieve a sort of self-sufficiency to the home while it used tension suspension from a central column (which allowed for a change in floor planning - a bedroom could be squeezed to allow for a bigger living room for parties for instance) with the lightweight structure able to be airlifted to a new location as-and-when desired. The Dymaxion House was, finally, to be leased, or priced like a car, and paid off in instalments over five years.
Architectural historian Peter Reed, writes, "The unconventional shape, structure, and materials of the Dymaxion House stood in sharp contrast to buildings by leading modernists such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Le Corbusier had described his own mass-produced housing as a 'machine for living in,' and the Dymaxion House was unabashedly machine-like, but Fuller was highly critical of modern European architects, who he felt were preoccupied with cosmetic concerns that merely symbolized or aestheticized functional elements without a clear and honest display of function and efficiency". Reed also observed that Fuller's prototype "inspired many architects" though some accused him of being "overly technical". Fuller himself took exception at that criticism, insisting, "I never work with aesthetic considerations in mind, but I have a test: if something isn't beautiful when I get finished with it, it's no good".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on R. Buckminster Fuller
- The Dymaxion World of Buckminster FullerBy R. Buckminster Fuller and Robert Marks
- Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for the MillenniumBy Thomas T. K. Zung, Michael A Keller
- You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the FutureBy Jonathon Keats
- A Fuller View: Buckminster Fuller's Vision of Hope and Abundance for AllBy L. Steven Sieden
- Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern ArtBy Peter Reed
- Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of ThinkingBy R. Buckminster Fuller
- Utopia or OblivionBy R. Buckminster Fuller
- Operating Manual for Spaceship EarthBy R. Buckminster Fuller
- 4D- TimelockBy R. Buckminster Fuller
- World Game Series: Document OneBy R. Buckminster Fuller
- Buckminster Fuller's Map of the World: The Innovation that Revolutionized Map DesignBy Josh Jones / Open Culture / February 20, 2017
- John A. Rice (1888-1968), Black Mountain College, Life as a WriterBy Katherine C. Reynolds
- Smart but not Wise: Further Thoughts of Domebook 2, Plastics and Whiteman TechnologyBy Lloyd Kahn / Shelter Publications / 1972
- Buckminster Fuller's Experimental Finishing SchoolBy Eva Diaz / University of Chicago Press Books / 2015
- From the archive, 4 July 1983: Interview with American design guru Buckminster FullerBy Richard Boston / The Guardian / July 4, 2013
- The Story of Buckminster Fuller's radical geodesic domeBy Jonathan Glancey / BBC / October 21, 2014