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01 July 2016

Buckminster Fuller, the Man Who Invented the Future

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As with other celebrated figures who are physicists, writers or doctors, defining Buckminster Fuller with a single label seems a mission impossible. Furthermore, given that he was expelled from Harvard before earning a degree and didn’t practice a particular profession. Although he did invent and patent things, none of his contributions achieved widespread use, and while he is usually remembered as an architect because of his most famous legacy, the geodesic dome, it was actually created before him by someone else. Above all, Buckminster Fuller was an unconventional innovator, and perhaps this is why the word that best defines him is one that does not actually exist, but is the word he used to identify much of his work: Dymaxion.

Buckminster Fuller in 1979 with its sphere of tensegrity, steering wheel prototype city. Credit: PBS

Richard Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895 – July 1, 1983), Bucky to his relatives, debuted early as an inventor. At age 12 he concocted a system that allowed him to row while looking in the direction of travel of the boat. But inventing was only a means to an end, and this end was revealed in a moment that changed his life. In 1927, Fuller was going through his darkest period. The blow of losing Alexandra, his first child, from complications from polio, was relieved somewhat by the birth of his second child, Allegra. But the little girl came along at the worst moment: Fuller had just been ousted from the efficient-housing construction business that he had tried to set up with his father-in-law. He had no savings, and his professional experience was limited to meat packing and passing through the Navy during World War I.

One day, Fuller was walking along Lake Michigan submerged in bleak thoughts, contemplating suicide as a solution so that his family could benefit from his life insurance policy. Suddenly, he experienced a kind of vision: he found himself wrapped in a luminous sphere that was floating above the ground, while a voice said: “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe.” Fuller used the latter term in this way, without the article, one of the many linguistic peculiarities that defined his style.

Designing the home of the future

It is unclear whether Fuller really felt the experience this way, or if he simply invented a metaphor to explain how the proposition that would guide the rest of his life arrived, that of trying to bring the greatest benefit to humanity. To this he devoted the rest of his life, putting to work a privileged intelligence from which innovative ideas continuously flowed. For many of them he could not find adequate words in the dictionary, which led him to invent his own: ephemeralization, or doing more with less; synergistics, or the science of a system which exceeded the sum of its parts; or the celebrated Dymaxion, a composition of “dynamic”, “maximum” and “tension”.

The latter word was not really his exclusive creation. In 1929, when he designed his first concept of a portable prefabricated house inspired by aircraft construction, the Chicago department store Marshall Field’s wanted to incorporate Fuller’s prototype into its exhibition on the home of the future. A catchy name was needed, so the store hired an expert who worked with Fuller until he was able to find a word that represented both the idea and its creator. In fact, Fuller liked the name so much that he used it for many of his future works: the Dymaxion House, the Dymaxion car, the Dymaxion map… even the Dymaxion Cronofile, the grand effort of Fuller to leave his whole life thoroughly documented, and which now consists of more than 200,000 pages occupying 1,300 metres of paper files, plus 2,000 hours of audio and video recordings and thousands of other pieces.

A three-wheeled car

The Dymaxion car. Credit: Star Satyr

With its compact and aerodynamic line, its three wheels and rear-wheel steering, the Dymaxion car caused a sensation in the 1930s, especially at the Chicago World’s Fair. But as usual with Fuller’s ideas, it was intended to be much more than just a car; it was the first step toward what would one day be the Omni Medium Transport, a vehicle capable of flying above traffic. But not even the car was a success: only three prototypes were built, and the model lost its popularity when one of them suffered an accident that killed the man behind the wheel, a race car driver.

The Dymaxion car symbolized Fuller’s philosophy: lead the human being towards a better future that was necessary to invent, because it would not come by itself. Fuller was one of the great figures in the golden age of modernity, and his revolutionary and liberating thought made him a countercultural icon. His vision became popular with his best-known idea, the geodesic dome. Although it had been created 30 years earlier by the German Walther Bauersfeld, Fuller progressed from his Dymaxion home to building self-sustaining domes that maximized the covered space with a minimal amount of structure –more with less– and according to the criteria of environmental sustainability that was ahead of its time.

2-Bucky
Montreal Biosphere, designed by Buckminster Fuller for Expo’67. Credit: Cédric Thevenet

Carbon molecules shaped like soccer balls

But although his domes were much admired and some remain standing today, such as the so-called Montreal Biosphere, in this case his inspiration, once again, did not lead to the future. His own student and former defender of geodesic domes, writer and environmentalist Stewart Brand, wrote in 1994 that the structures of Fuller resulted in a “massive and total failure”: an indivisible living space, with too much wasted space and a complex construction impossible to completely seal; there were always leaks.

Today the memory of Fuller’s domes lives on mostly in a discovery made by others. In the 1980s, a new family of carbon molecules shaped like balls or geodesic spheres received the name of fullerenes, or buckyballs, in honour of the great designer of the future. Nowadays, there are those who dismiss the figure of Fuller because of the limited implementation of his inventions. His defenders, however, insist that his focus went beyond his objects. As a curious metaphor, Fuller was farsighted from birth; he saw near things poorly. And perhaps the only flaw in his sharp distance vision was not having foreseen that after modernity would arrive postmodernity.

By Javier Yanes for Ventana al Conocimiento

@yanes68

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