Buckminster Fuller was a preacher as much as an architect, a town crier as a scientist. He was among the first minds of the twentieth century to see that every aspect of a man’s physical environment was connected to every other. He believed that we could uncover entire worlds out of simple geometrical truths, and he saw his mission as spreading the Gospel of this realisation.
Fuller’s technology could solve all the problems, but he was far from the technocrats of the modern industrial age.
Buckminster Fuller had no part in the vast corporate establishment. He was an original who worked best on his own, by himself, thinking through problems with a remarkable mix of common sense and what can only be called religious faith.
When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.Buckminster Fuller
The religion he embraced was that of technology and rational planning, and it had even come to him in a kind of epiphany. He recalled that when his fortunes were low, in the 1920s, he pulled himself back from the brink of suicide by deciding “to discover the principles that are operative in the universe and to turn them over to my fellow man.”
In many cases, Fuller’s belief in simple principles led to works of genius. His Dymaxion House, dating back to 1927, was an essential break from conventional architecture as any designed by modernist master architects. Indeed, it might be said that Fuller went one step further than Le Corbusier’s Frank Lloyd Wright, for he not only broke with the old styles of architecture but also with the very idea of building as it had been done before.
A Dymaxion House designed by Buckminster Fuller
Since Le Corbusier’s houses were conventionally constructed buildings designed to express the idea of modern technology, Fuller’s design used modern technology to its fullest.
The Dymaxion House was a prefabricated, radical idea in the 1920s and was designed to be erected anywhere. With rooms hung from the central mast and outer walls of continuous glass, a minimum of materials was used and designed with an eye to energy efficiency.
Cross-section drawing of the Dymaxion House
Even today, it still has some freshness-the taut, tensile form of the Dymaxion House seemed to reverberate with confidence in a new world.
The problem with Fuller’s architecture was that it worked as well as it did by ignoring what architecture was about. There was no room in the Dymaxion House, for example, for individual variation; private demands did not fit into Fuller’s system-oriented thinking. One could not make the town of Dymaxion Houses, because these round flying saucer-like objects, handsome as they were, did not come together to create a larger whole that all urban buildings had to do.
Architecture as an art was not of particular interest to Buckminster Fuller; there are no absolute truths, and it was absolutes that Fuller sought. Still, his designs managed to be of considerable beauty to them. The 60-metre high geodesic dome, which served as the United States Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, has a significant presence and spatial power. Numerous other Fuller designed domes have succeeded as housings for equally specialised functions.
The geodesic dome, a dome made of tetrahedrons assembled into a sphere, the design for which Fuller was best known, emerged from the crystal clear logic of the structure. But that logical structure, like that of the Dymaxion House, was neither very flexible nor very successful as a building intended to be linked to other buildings.
The Biosphere Environment Museum, featuring a geodesic dome designed by Richard Buckminster Fuller
Many of Fuller’s designs worked as critics of the current state of affairs, not as practical projects. For example, if technically possible, his proposed dome over midtown Manhattan would have been absurd, making the city, even more, cut off from nature than it already is.
But what a better way than this vast, all-encompassing dome over midtown, indoors and out-and to criticise what Fuller indeed saw as the helter-skelter quality of the city’s overall design.
In his last years, Fuller became even less of a designer and more of a preacher, travelling around the world and talking ever more excitedly about the potential of life on “Spaceship Earth,” as he liked to call the planet.
The phrase summed up his thinking, Buckminster Fuller’s Earth was but a speck in a larger universe, capable of survival only if it was organised with the rigour and discipline of a space capsule.
His belief in the value of rational planning made Buckminster Fuller a somewhat curious cult figure at that time in history when American culture had lost much of its faith in the ability to solve problems by any rational or otherwise means. Fuller never gave up his faith, saw salvation in the patterns of the universe for more than half a century, and dedicated his life to explaining those patterns to the world.