[21 May 2009]
America’s great 20th Century polymath, R. Buckminster Fuller, is best known for popularizing geodesic dome structures used for houses, equipment shelters, and even playground equipment. A self-described “comprehensivist”, Fuller was an architect, cartographer, conservationist, poet, countercultural icon, and all-around visionary.
Contemporary exhibitions (like “Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe”, currently on view at MCA Chicago through 21 June) and publications point to an ongoing Fuller revival. This post-millennium rediscovery examines Fuller anew, seeking help with our most dire ecological and economic challenges within his philosophy of sustainability and technological balance.
Becoming Bucky Fuller is an in-depth look at the thinker’s early projects and personal ordeals. It is, in author Loretta Lorance’s words, “both a revelation and an unmasking”. Her tight cross-section of Fuller’s career brings his glaring business foibles, idea borrowing, and retroactive spin doctoring to the surface. Lorance covers Fuller’s move to Chicago in 1927 to his growing repute in the early 1930s, using entries and sketches from his diary (and wife Ann Hewlett Fuller’s diary also) to survey his first major project: The Dymaxion House. Lorance suggests a parallel development occurred during this time. As Fuller developed his architectural project, a carefully engineered public persona was also emerging.
Fuller moved to Chicago to organize a materials firm that specialized in a lightweight, standardized block for construction. Still in his early 30s, he’d already been twice booted out of Harvard, served in the Navy, and suffered the loss of a daughter. His most inspiring ideas like the geodesic dome and the World Game were decades away. Bright with promise, Fuller’s initial success in the business world quickly tanked. He was ousted over lack of communication and soon was in legal hot water over patents belonging to his former company. Fuller emerged mostly unscathed and soon was working as a flooring salesman by day and prefabricated housing iconoclast by night.
His Dymaxion House went through several incarnations. First called the Fuller House, then Cosmopolitan Homes, and later 4D, it finally was called “Dymaxion,” short for “dynamic-maximum-ion,” or “dynamic-maximum-tension” depending on who you ask. (Based on Fuller’s concepts on doing more with less, this reviewer puts his chips down on “tension”.) Regardless of the name du jour, Fuller’s house would be mass-produced and assembled quickly and affordably on-site. It would have a raised, hexagonal living area supported by a central pillar. Time-saving electric amenities would come standard.
Photos of early models show a blocky dwelling that resembles a carnival ride you’d be glad to emerge from alive. As the house was developed further it became a sleek and futuristic design that looks like a vintage sci-fi movie prop today. Despite its dated aesthetics, the Dymaxion House had a timeless objective. It was Fuller’s attempt to provide affordable housing via the assembly line, taking his inspiration from the paradigm shift of automobile manufacturing.
Fuller’s gusto quickly sunk when his project failed to generate the interest he anticipated. He fell flat at the 1928 American Institute of Architects (AIA) convention. Unable to secure a speaking presentation, Fuller cornered notable architects individually and no doubt made a pest of himself with his unsolicited pitch. The struggling designer failed to realize his message of prefabricated housing simply did not align with the AIA, who were more focused on architecture’s artistic applications.
Fuller viewed aesthetics as an unnecessary tradition barring progress and the AIA couldn’t disagree more. Even so, Lorance notes that Fuller desperately wanted AIA approval for his project while he publicly dismissed AIA policies. The institute was interested in celebrating design and preserving regional architecture while Fuller was pushing mass-produced universal housing. They had reached an impasse, and today’s scorecard shows mass-production isn’t the saving grace promised a century ago. Fuller’s salvation through prefab homogeny even has a vaguely dystopian vibe.
So the Dymaxion House was never realized. But all was not lost. As Bucky realized his house would not go into production, he shrewdly changed up and rebranded the Dymaxion lodging as a “house of the future”. His media savvy grasp of the situation allowed him to lecture and share his ideas without a tangible product that could win or loose on the open market. Rather than an architectural never-was he could now be a futurist that one day the world might come to understand. Aspects of his biography that conflicted with this enlightened image were later redacted.
Becoming Bucky Fuller is a valuable look at the early development of an endlessly intriguing thinker. Some readers may find Lorance’s prose a bit technical or lament her emphasis on the Dymaxion House over a warmer, more personal study. It shouldn’t be too surprising that Fuller’s career had its share of misfires. Utopian visionaries do not usually arrive fully formed without some period of trial and endurance. Should Fuller be faulted for realizing he needed an engaging, media-friendly hook for life in the public arena? With this book, Fuller’s early calculations and failures become real, making him more likable and more human.