In the late 1960s, when the merger of art and technology became a touchstone for both countercultural mind-liberation and New Frontier futurism, Buckminster Fuller served as a central, if gnomic, philosopher of the moment. The first issue of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 features a semi-mystical autobiographical fragment by Fuller and his poem-cum-manifesto "God is a Verb"; Gene Youngblood's seminal 1970 study Expanded Cinema includes a lengthy introduction by Fuller, in which he praises the "forward, omni-humanity educating function of man's total communication system"; and the premier issue of early video art's central journal Radical Software published a "pirated transcription" of an interview videotaped by the Raindance Corporation. "We hear people talk about technology as something very threatening," Fuller says in the stream-of-language transcript, "but we are technology, the universe is technology...it's simply a matter of understanding these things." Fuller's own book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth became an underground best-seller after its publication in 1969. Multimedia collectives like USCO and Ant Farm cited "Bucky" as inspiration; members of the latter group even went so far as to abduct Fuller when he came to speak at the University of Houston, picking him up from the airport under false pretense and taking him instead to see a touring MoMA exhibit entitled The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age.
This summer, the Whitney mounted a major exhibit on Fuller's life and work, Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe, on view through September. The show features a variety of Fulleriana, arranged in chronological order, allowing for a roughly biographic experience: sketches, architectural models, concept designs, numerous looped clips from the 1971 documentary The World of Buckminster Fuller, maps and diagrams, original publications, and a 12 foot high cardboard geodesic dome built for the exhibit. Though largely a show about architecture, Starting With the Universe presents Fuller as a revolutionary and visionary thinker who worked, as he put it, "comprehensively," across disciplines, and a forerunner of 21st century environmental design and networked culture.
It took Fuller many decades to achieve the iconic status he enjoyed in the 1960s. The son of a prominent intellectual New England family (his aunt was Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist and pioneering woman journalist), Fuller attended Harvard, dropped out twice, then entered the Navy and served during World War I. After the war, following a failed business enterprise, he claimed to have had a quasi-religious experience while on the brink of suicide. "Apparently addressing myself, I said, 'You do not have the right to eliminate yourself, you do not belong to you. You belong to the universe," Fuller wrote years later in the Whole Earth Catalog. "You are fulfilling your significance if you apply yourself to converting all your experience to highest advantage of others."
On display at the Whitney are a generous sampling of Fuller's ambitious humanity-enhancing projects of the 20s and 30s, none of which advanced beyond prototypes. Included is an original, cartoonish sketch from 1927 of the world, which he called "One Ocean World Town," expressing a core Fullerian notion of global interconnectedness inspired by the rise of intercontinental air flight. This became the setting for a 1929 drawing of skyscraper-like structures he called "Lightful Towers" -- all-in-one multi-family dwellings that could be planted in the ground like trees, and delivered to sites by zeppelin. These evolved into a single-family dwelling dubbed the 4D House, a hexagonal one-floor structure hung from one central pole containing minimal-waste plumbing, electricity and air conditioning; meant to be constructed cheaply, they were also designed to be easily deconstructable and therefore as portable as a large piece of furniture.
A scale model of Fuller's 4D House was presented to the public at a surprising location: the Interior Decorating department of Marshall Field's department store in Chicago, timed to promote a new line of modern furniture. The store's publicity agent renamed the structure the Dymaxion House (a portmanteau of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion"), a term that Fuller later trademarked and used on a variety of concepts. The Whitney show includes a video clip of outtakes from a 1929 Fox Movietone newsreel of a young Fuller explaining his Dymaxion House model. Shot when the technology of sound movies was still new, Fuller is unusually awkward, evincing none of the smooth charisma that would entrance later generations, speaking stiffly with an old New England uppah-clahss accent. Fiddling with his collapsible scale mock-up, he explains that its odd circus-tent shape "is not an aesthetic choice of my own." Rather, he continues, its shape is due to the fact that "we are living in a spherical universe." For Fuller, the structure's true beauty lay not in its visual form but rather in its denial of conventional ornament and design in favor of structural integrity and efficiency. To follow the deep mathematical patterns of nature, in Fuller's view, was a means to be in sync with the Universe.
A similar concept lies behind the design of the Dymaxion car, a three-wheeled, backwards-teardrop-shaped vehicle created by Fuller in the 1930s as an improvement on the typical automobile. Inspired by the hardnosed engineering of aircraft design, Fuller worked with friend and sculptor Isamu Noguchi to create aerodynamic wind-tunnel models allowing for minimum air resistance and maximum fuel efficiency -- a radical notion in the days when a car looked more like a block than a wedge. Images of Noguchi's gypsum miniatures are on display at the Whitney alongside the last remaining full-scale prototype of the Dymaxion Car, sans interior. Later models, Fuller hoped, would have inflatable wings and be able to take flight.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Fuller proposed a number of Dymaxion-style houses, convinced that more efficient means of everyday living was the key to global resource problems. The Dymaxion Deployment Unit converted unused grain shelters into roundhouse-style homes. Though never used as residences, the design was taken up by the US military, who then deployed Fuller's quickly-built structures during World War II to remote locations in the Pacific and Middle East. After the Allied victory, Fuller devised a means to use surplus wartime materials with the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, nicknamed the Wichita House, an aluminum dwelling made entirely from aircraft construction machinery and parts. A reconstructed scale model of the Wichita House shows twelve identical, flattened metal domes equally spaced around a cul-de-sac, glowing with rings of circular windows, resembling an eerie conflation of Atomic-era suburbia and The Day the Earth Stool Still. Such a stark, factory-floor style may not have thrilled recent veterans, tired of living for years in anonymous, utilitarian barracks.
In 1948, Fuller began teaching at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an avant-garde refuge where he worked alongside Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Willem de Kooning. While at Black Mountain, Fuller developed sculptural models of his theory of "tensegrity", or the productive tensions available within the form of a single object. With his students, he constructed his first geodesic dome. Created to allow for maximum volume and strength from minimum materials, the geodesic dome held its shape solely from its framework of interlocking triangular beams, without need for other reinforcements. It quickly became his most successful design. In the early 1950s, Fuller implemented his first practical application of the dome for the roof of a Ford Motor Company building in Michigan. Soon after, the military began using small geodesics as emergency shelter in remote locales, and the government started a long career of erecting Fuller domes at international exhibits as symbols of American ingenuity and technological prowess: first at a global trade fair in Kabul, Afghanistan, and later at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959. That same year, Fuller was hailed as design innovator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which mounted an exhibit entitled Three Structures by Buckminster Fuller in its sculpture garden, including a plastic geodesic dome, an aluminum tensegrity tower, and a horizontal frame built with the "octet truss," a form based on interconnected tetrahedrons, a shape Fuller lauded as the simplest structural unit found in nature.
By the 1960s, as Fuller entered his 70s, he transformed into full-blown guru-intellectual -- a role uniquely possible in the age of Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan -- jetting around the globe to give legendarily marathon lectures to thousands. Tirelessly arguing for the power of technology to improve the future of humanity, at a time when many opposed both the "dehumanizing" computerization of society and the high-tech war in Vietnam, Fuller became paradoxically both an advocate for American technocracy and an inspiration to countercultural radicals. Even before Fuller's famous 200-foot tall dome was erected at the American Pavillion of the 1967 Expo in Montreal, where it would house monumental paintings by the likes of Andy Warhol and Barnett Newman, a ramshackle cluster of utopian hippies called Drop City had already constructed their own village of Fuller-inspired domes in a rural backwater of Colorado. As chronicled in Felicity D. Scott's recent study Architecture or Techno-Utopia, "droppers" saw in Fuller's dome an externalized manifestation of a new consciousness. "With few resources but idealism and the conviction that they were 'total revolutionaries,'" Scott writes, "the droppers believed they were 'rebuilding the world' as an open, communal society one dome at a time," using the blueprints that Uncle Bucky had bequeathed them.
Though the Whitney's exhibit alludes only obliquely to the existence of droppers and their ilk, Fuller himself had his own grandiose ideas for reshaping society, represented here in a series of concept illustrations of fantastic megastructures. He envisioned midtown Manhattan ensconced in a mile-high, temperature-controlled dome. Even more trippy were his visions of gigantic "Tetrahedron Cities" housing a million residents each, sitting on the outskirts of Tokyo (and rhyming the peak of Mt. Fuji) or floating off the coast of San Francisco. He also imagined large-scale systems for visualizing global resource problems. One plan was "Minni Earth," a giant scale-model planet floating in the East River next to the UN building, dotted with lights representing population growth, food shortages, and other pressing data. He devised a triangle-based Dymaxion Map that represented the continents with less distortion than the standard Mercator projection, and had the added bonus of picturing the inhabited continents as one near-contiguous land mass: a "one-world-island in a one-world-ocean," as he put it. Fuller used giant floor-sized versions of this map to play something he called The World Game -- a peaceful version of military war games in which players must figure out how to cooperate to share the world’s limited resources. The World Game, Fuller thought, might someday become the entire curriculum of the university.
So if Fuller saw himself as the educator of the future, what should we hope to learn from him now? Why celebrate him in 2008, a quarter century after his death? Solidly embracing the great-man biography model, Starting with the Universe is resolutely invested in establishing Fuller's significance. In its zeal, the exhibit isolates Bucky as a wholly unique figure at the expense of granting historical context to his inventions and ideas. Casual museum-goers might never consider that schemes for achieving far-reaching social betterment were far from uncommon in 20th century architecture, from Le Corbusier to Neutra and beyond, or that Fuller was not alone in drafting freaky fantasy plans like cloud-cities and underwater homes; contemporary firms like the British Archigram and the Italian Superstudio served up even more far-out dreamscapes (though the show's catalog does a more comprehensive job of situating Fuller within a larger history). Nor does the exhibit dwell much on the fact that Fuller, like Edison, was as much a myth-maker as he was an inventor: two of his central ideas, the geodesic dome and tensegrity, were actually invented by others before him, and his oft-cited moment of suicidal epiphany that he claims kick-started his career may be nothing but well-crafted fiction.
Nevertheless, the exhibit is utterly convincing in testifying to Fuller's inspirational potential. Many reports on the show have cited Fuller's prescience as a prophet of ecological sustainability, but the issue of the environment was only one factor in his truly global attempts at problem-solving -- and, in fact, Fuller was no tree-hugger; he always weighed humanity's own needs as highest priority.
More broadly, at a time when many artists and intellectuals have consigned their work to the comfortable margins, valorizing tactical interventions, small-scale craft and near-mute lessness, the epic scope of Fuller's vision reminds us that it need not be this way. When massive problems loom, why not think big?