Jobless, bankrupt and having recently lost his daughter to polio, 32-year-old Buckminster Fuller stood on the shore of Lake Michigan and contemplated suicide. It was then, he later claimed, that he heard a voice telling him that he didn’t have the right – because he ‘belonged to the Universe’. From that point forward he embarked on a life-long ‘experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity’. The prolific results of this experiment were on display in ‘Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe’, a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum.
Beginning with a series of projects for an energy-efficient car, a prefabricated bathroom and – later – housing, the first half of Fuller’s career was characterized by both radical invention and commercial failure. The Dymaxion Car (1933) (a contraction of ‘dynamic’, ‘maximum’, and ‘tension’ – a term coined not by Fuller but the advertising man Waldo Warren who popularized the term ‘radio’ instead of ‘wireless’) with its sexy aluminum, tear-drop shaped chassis, rear-view periscope, and single rear wheel, would have delivered greater fuel efficiency and maneuverability than almost any other car in production. It might have had a promising future, had the driver of the first prototype not been killed when the car flipped over in an accident at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The Dymaxion Dwelling Machine or Wichita House (1945), a somewhat awkward, circular space-age-styled aluminum shelter hung from a central mast with an enormous rotating rooftop ventilator (designed for passive cooling) would, by all accounts, have revolutionized the housing industry, had financing not tragically fallen through. However, Fuller also invented the Dymaxion Map, which would later become an essential philosophical way-station on his road from inventor to global visionary. The map (first published in Life Magazine in 1942) featured a flattened projection of the globe in which, unlike the Mercator projection (where Greenland appears as large as Africa), the continents didn’t distort as they moved away from the equator. Proportional integrity was an ethical matter for Fuller, who patented the map in 1946 to compare natural resources and energy consumption around the planet. The Dymaxion Map later became the basis for Fuller’s World Game (1961), which proposed a ‘computer coordinated model of planet Earth – complete with resources, history, human attitudes, and social trends – that can be used to “play the world” and develop ways of running the future for the benefit of all mankind.’ One of the earliest forms of sustainable thinking, the data gathering and synthesis of the World Game empowered individuals to think globally in order to manage world resources.
Two years after the Dymaxion Map was patented Fuller made his official foray into the construction of geodesic domes; beginning with a 45-foot prototype in 1948 made from Venetian blinds, which collapsed instantly. For Fuller, geodesics were the structural analogue of the same kind of global thinking that inspired the Dymaxion Map. Notable domes included one for the Ford Motor Company in Michigan (1952–3), Fuller’s own home in Illinois (1960) and the US Pavilion for Expo ’67 in Montreal, now an environmental observation centre dedicated to sustainable development. Despite leaks, high indoor temperatures in bright sunlight, a fragile outer skin and high ambient noise levels, Fuller remained convinced that his domes were nature’s perfect structure because they enclosed the greatest volume of space with the least surface area.
The show’s copious sketches, notational scribbles, mechanical drawings and elaborate models leave one feeling that Fuller’s commitment to geometry was as much spiritual fervour and fetish as an argument for efficiency; making his denial that aesthetics had any bearing on his work difficult to believe. His famous adage, ‘If the solution isn’t beautiful, I know it’s wrong’ seems suspect coming from someone who produced too many beautiful things that he just couldn’t get right. Which begs the question: Is Fuller really a role model for sustainable thinking? Too much of what passes for green architecture today focuses on the image of nature, rather than its performance. At a time when sustainability is still very much a fad in the design world, the aspects of Fuller’s oeuvre that we should be celebrating are not his personal fixations on certain elegant formulas in nature that happen to produce exquisitely beautiful form. What we should be taking away from his career is the profound importance of letting go when something doesn’t work the way it should, rather than the quixotic pursuit of the unworkable. Above all, what the exhibition revealed is that we are in desperate need of both mentors and cautionary figures for the uncharted environmental and ecological territory the human race is now entering. Fuller is an attractive candidate for both. We can learn equally from his stunning successes and failures, but more importantly from the questions that this ‘unknown individual’ never stopped asking.