Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne, Non-Symmetrical Tension-Integrity Structures, United States Patent Office no. 3,866,366, from the portfolio Inventions: Twelve Around One, 1981; screen print in white ink on clear polyester film; 30 x 40 in.; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Chuck and Elizabeth Byrne; © The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, all rights reserved. Published by Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.



The only time I heard him speak, Buckminster Fuller managed to jump from the geometric properties of his geodesic domes to the proof of God’s existence. Some of the intermediate steps of his talk elude me now—I was barely out of puberty then, and more focused on physical than metaphysical matters. Fuller plunged intrepidly between seemingly unrelated topics, speaking with an almost pedantic precision, as if he were delivering a set of operating instructions. Everything is connected to everything else: this is what I remember of that long lecture, so long that it spread over two days, such a long time ago.


The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area, an exhibition organized by curator Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a rare but much welcome acknowledgment of this important thinker, inventor, entrepreneur, and teacher. Fuller was an intellect so unusual in our history, cut of the same cloth as the philosophes, the 18th century men of the Enlightenment. Academia didn’t know what to do with him; as an undergraduate at Harvard, he was expelled twice, and although well-known and published later in his life, he was regarded as too weird, and he ruffled the feathers of those accustomed to thinking in closed fields along departmental boundaries.


He shared a trait with the most consequential scientists, artists, or designers: he perceived connections between the very small and the very large. But where others specialized, Fuller reached for the universe. Albert Einstein, six years his senior and perhaps his sole equivalent, also had unconventionally cosmic goals, such as formulating the unified gravitational theory, or as it is sometimes dubbed, the theory of everything.


That Fuller was popular with audiences only made him more dubious in academic circles. They invited him frequently to lecture but rarely to stay, and only late in his life did they heap honorary degrees on him. He wasn’t mired in controversy; he neither questioned nor wanted to entertain, and there was no post-modern cynicism, detachment, irony, or reinterpretation. What grabbed the public’s attention wasn’t so much his gravitas but his authenticity. He moved swiftly from abstractions to practical examples, speaking in quick sequences organized in a linear, logical fashion—every statement an aphorism, as if he anticipated its marble engraving. There were neither repetitions nor allowances for his audiences’ sluggish attention: he expected to be followed. You either got it or you didn’t.


Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne, Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map, 1981; screen print; 50 in. x 72 in.; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Elizabeth and Carl Solway in memory of Robert Fillmore Lovett, Jr.; © The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, All Rights reserved.


His writing was the same, drawing a straight line from the crystalline structures of minerals to humanity’s future. Nothing along the way went untested, from small problems to comprehensive solutions. He invented an adjective—Dymaxion, a combination of dynamic, maximum, and ion—for concepts that leapt out of the building blocks of the cosmos . He then proceeded to devise the Dymaxion house, car, map of the world, bathroom, automobile brakes, and, of course, geodesic domes. Reyner Banham called him the Dymaxicrat.


But was Richard Buckminster Fuller a utopist, a social dreamer, as the exhibit’s title suggests? The concept of utopia has lost much of its cachet since the times of Sir Thomas Moore, and to call Fuller a utopist is a bit of a put down. Of course he was a dreamer, but he never pursued a Platonic ideal and never prescribed a perfect society. There are no communities of Fullerites congregating under geodesic domes, no acolytes attempting to live up to the dizzying heights of the founder. Fuller was an optimist, sans naiveté, and his utopia was remarkably abstract, a rational state of being rather than a specific place.


More accurately, Fuller was convinced that logic would ultimately prevail in human affairs. In 1968, he published the Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, a manifesto calling for the need to live within our means on a planet with finite resources. A few years later, in Education Automation (1977), Fuller wrote:


We now have aboard our Spaceship Earth more than ample capability to take care of all humanity for all generations to come and to do so at higher standards of living and individual freedom than any humans have thus experienced or even dreamed of, while in no way endangering the ecological integrity of our planet…while concurrently phasing out all further human use of fossil fuels and atomic energy.


Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne, Building Construction/Geodesic Dome, United States Patent Office no. 2,682,235, from the portfolio Inventions: Twelve Around One, 1981; screen print on clear polyester film; 30 x 40 in.; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Chuck and Elizabeth Byrne; © The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, all rights reserved. Published by Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.


A spaceship, even one as large as our planet, can only be the brainchild of an engineer, as Fuller was, who thinks of the world in terms of mechanical systems with efficiently moving parts that consume just the right amount of energy. Engineers don’t typically have a reputation for being visionaries, but Fuller wasn’t a typical engineer and in his systems all parts interact to produce something unpredictable that is much more than the sum of the parts. He called this process synergy.



Bucky, as he liked being called, was born in Milton, Massachusetts, and spent his summers in a family compound on Bear Island, off the coast of Maine, in a building without electricity or plumbing. The rest of the time, he traveled constantly, and never paid particular attention to the Bay Area. So was Buckminster Fuller more influential here than elsewhere, as the exhibition implies? The exhibits—building models, laptops, photographic and text panels, and a running video of one of his interviews—should make the case by displaying their cultural lineage clearly. They don’t. And how do we measure influence, anyway? Models are built for presentation, but they don’t reveal any of the late nights, self-doubt, rethinking, marginalia, sketches, and preliminary studies that drive the design from conception to conclusion. At what point did these designers and architects feel Fuller’s influence and change their course to develop something more radical? There is not a clue of this process in the show.


Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno, HYDRAMAX Port Machine, 2012; model; 12 x 60 x 30 in.; courtesy the designers; © Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno.


Attractive as it is, Yves Béhar’s One Laptop per Child was no more influenced by Buckminster Fuller than it was by Bill Moggridge or David Kelly, two of IDEO’s founders. Is Ant Farm’s Convention City 1976 more inspired by Fuller’s geodesic domes than it was by the structures of Pier Paolo Soleri or Archigram? At what point do we decide that the camping tent, the HYDRAMAX Port Machine, or IwamotoScott’s Jellyfish House have been influenced more by Fuller than by Konrad Wachsman or Robert Le Ricolais, who also worked on lightweight structures at the same time as Fuller did? Should Morphosis’ Federal Building model, however attractive, even be part of the show?


Of course there are geodesic domes in the exhibition, but geodesic spheres did not blossom exclusively in the Bay Area, and the best known of all of them, The Epcot Center, is in Florida. More rigorous thinking would have made the scope of the exhibition clearer and the exhibits a stronger validation of the ideas behind the title, rather than just visual props.


Yves Béhar/fuseproject, One Laptop Per Child XO Laptop, 2007; plastic, electronics, and software; 1 1/2 x 9 x 9 1/2 in.; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Yves Béhar/fuse project; © Yves Béhar; photo: courtesy fuseproject.


This is not to say that there aren’t any gems, but these tend to be less spectacular and are more apt to attract the historically-minded than the typical museum visitor. For example, the entire entrance wall is covered with 4” x 6” index cards of Fuller’s thoughts. There are notebooks with his hand-drawn diagrams. There are also real traces of Fuller’s influence, such as the Whole Earth Catalogue, published by Stuart Brand from 1968 to 1972. The WEC was certainly stimulated by the idea of synergy, but it could also be argued that it was the product of the times and its counterculture movement.


The exhibition is right in one respect: we can’t deny Buckminster Fuller’s influence on our language and culture today. Nanomaterials such as fullerene are made of buckyspheres, so called because their molecular structure is reminiscent of geodesic domes. (Fullerite, the mineral, is a particularly sturdy type of fullerene.) More ubiquitously, synergy is now the buzz word for management consultants, corporate reports, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, and record labels.


Fuller also envisioned the blueprint out of our current social, economic, political, and geopolitical difficulties. To succeed without triggering catastrophic consequences, he advised, we must change our thinking, promote education, adopt new technologies, and rely on environmentally-friendly forms of energy such as the sun, wind, water, and tides. Indeed, Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House; Ronald Reagan, not the education president, took them down. That we don’t quite see the light at the end of our current tunnel is not Fuller’s fault. His predictions are no less accurate than those provided daily by business analysts, economists, politicians, futurologists, architects, designers, or planners.


At the same time, it’s difficult to pinpoint how his view of the world has changed our own. There is no Dymaxion world order, yet. His inventions, though original, barely caused a spike in the public’s attention. His domes are now tourist attractions, his patents produce no steady stream of income, his house and car prototypes are preserved only in museum collections, his papers are tucked away in archives. It seems as if Fuller is destined to be remembered as a curiosity, a savant, an icon of the 1960s, when everybody went a little crazy.


The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area does not dispel this misconception. After decades of near neglect, we are told that his thoughts are important for us, that he was on to something—but after visiting the show, exactly what he did, how he envisioned the world, and how his vision changed ours, remains vague.


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