Buckminster Fuller’s World: Emancipation by Design

There are two sets of shots in The World of Buckminster Fuller (1971) that I keep coming back to as I think about the film. One shows Fuller holding court in a small classroom, or maybe a student lounge, with a cluster of college-aged kids sitting around him in a semi-circle, some on tables, some on the floor, some in chairs, all looking rapt. Another is from a similar scene at the University of Detroit School of Architecture. Once again, an audience of young people is crowded around the older man, listening.

One reason that I keep thinking about these images is that they reflect the experience of watching the documentary. The film is, mostly, the title subject talking about ideas, both to the camera and in lecture and conversational situations like the ones noted above. Fuller’s edited monologue is intercut with images of his designs and tools, the geodesic dome, the Dyamxion map, car, and house, but, for the documentary, these are the equivalent of the hand gestures that Fuller uses to illustrate the principles of his thought: short, visual and symbolic representations of ideas.

The contemporary tendency in biographical filmmaking is to want to dig beneath a subject’s public identity to find the ‘real’ person, as if someone’s childhood, or romantic life, friendships and foibles, is somehow more revealing or interesting than the work that makes them of interest in the first place.

The examination of a public figure’s private life can be of significance, American presidents are bundles of contradictions, for example, and can help to make historical or ‘important’ figures appear more as people and less as myths, but not everyone’s personal history is important to their public works. And just as the college students shown in the documentary came to hear Buckminster Fuller talk about social and environmental problems and design, and not anecdotes from daily life, thirty years later, that is still what one would want to hear. The World of Buckminster Fuller is firmly grounded in that interest, veering into personal biography only as far as it relates to the formation of his thinking about society and nature.

The second reason I am drawn to the images of young people listening to Fuller is that it provokes a number of thoughts about the role of intellectuals in American culture and how that role has, or hasn’t changed, over time.

Fuller was a polymath, a Marshall McLuhan blurb on the Microcinema DVD case calls him “The Leonardo da Vinci of our time”, and one of, at present, a final wave of big thinkers in American life who emphasized universality rather than difference. He believed in a common human future. More particularly, he thought that human ingenuity and technology could be deployed to eliminate material deprivation and conserve natural resources for the benefit of all and for subsequent generations. Not only concerned with conservation, Fuller also derived inspiration from nature. As shown in The World of Buckminster Fuller he saw his designs as following patterns in nature, for strength, for efficiency, for beauty.

Bemoaning the loss of public intellectuals and the coarsening of intellectual discourse in the United States has become cliché, but watching footage of Fuller speaking before groups of huddled youth it is hard not to reflect on whether such scenes would be possible today. What would motivate college students to tear themselves away from their plethora of media to hear an old white man talk about the world?

This may beg the question of why it would be essential that they do this in the first place, except that Fuller is radical in a way that few public figures are allowed to be without being marginalized as cranks, Noam Chomsky, for example, or used as political targets, as with Ward Churchill. It is particularly difficult to imagine someone like Fuller, a person who rails against the idea of having to “earn a living” and who proposes a “Universal Fellowship” to free people from the need to work mind numbing jobs, being honored by a conservative president in the way he was by Ronald Reagan.

Of course, it is notable that Fuller’s ability to attract an audience corresponded with the fissures in American Cold War culture resulting from reactions to the War in Vietnam and the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s, a period which saw a shift in policy towards the Soviet Union that allowed for the possibilities of negotiation and co-existence between the two superpowers. Perhaps this loosening also benefitted thinkers like Fuller on the home front in ways that would have been unthinkable in the ’50s and early ’60s.

Leaving aside the very real possibility that I am engaging in misplaced nostalgia, misplaced both in the sense that I was just barely in the world when Fuller was filmed giving his talks and that the present is never always worse or better than the past, or vice versa, The World of Buckminster Fuller does make it seem as if there was a time in American culture where the broader public sphere was open to the articulation of alternative ways of living in a way that it isn’t now. Today, to speak as if there are ways to live outside of capitalism is to necessarily place oneself in a minor intellectual niche, if not exactly in total isolation from political and social discourse.

The only extra included on the Microcinema DVD is a 13-minute short film, “Modeling Universe”. Made contemporaneously with the longer documentary, the shorter work is a poetic exploration of Fuller’s search for design principles in the forms of the natural-physical world. It extends material included in The World of Buckminster Fuller, and the two work well as part of a larger whole. At the same time, expecting additional material and supplements on Fuller and his work, whether archival or scholarly, doesn’t seem unreasonable.

One quality that makes Buckminster Fuller a complicated figure in the American history of ideas is that it is easy to consider his designs out of their social, environmental, and political contexts, a trick made all the more tempting for the retro-futuristic cool of his structures and forms. However, The World of Buckminster Fuller, by giving its subject free reign to articulate his worldview, makes clear that the man himself never saw his inventions outside of their substantive ends. No doubt this is why he attracted clutches of idealistic college kids seeking to change the world. Maybe he still can.

RATING 7 / 10