Buckminster Fuller and his cosmic vision star in constellation of local events
Chicago, 1933, the World’s Fair: a 20-foot-long thing on three wheels with a canvas top debuts on the international stage. Yes, it’s a “car,” but it’s so different that it’s hardly recognizable as such. A curvilinear, teardrop-shaped torpedo of a vehicle, the so-called Dymaxion car carries 11 people and gets an absurd 30 miles per gallon, even on its heavy Ford V-8 engine.
Florida, 1985, Disney World: My parents load my sister and me into an automobile that is at once smaller and heavier than the Dymaxion car, carries fewer passengers and gets significantly worse gas mileage. They then conduct the Walsh family on the great American pilgrimage to Disney World.
Epcot (which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) may be the most famous and visible example of Bucky’s genius. The wiki page on geodesic structures contains the remarkable phrase: “a compromise of triangles.” Within this compromise, “Spaceship Earth,” the giant golfball-shaped flagship ride at Epcot, unwinds our progress from savages with huge foreheads to Jean Luc Picard and glimpses of what’s to come. The futurist Ray Bradbury wrote the script for the 13-minute dark ride through time, the futurist Walt Disney footed the bill and the futurist Buckminster Fuller provided the design. And some of Fuller's first experiments with that now-famous dome took place at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s.
Rewind to the World's Fair, and then rewind 10 more years. Fuller is a heavy-drinking prole, working at a meat-packing plant and considering suicide ever since his baby daughter died.
OK, not quite a prole. The grandnephew of feminist intellectual and transcendentalist Margaret Fuller (“We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path open to Woman as freely as to Man.”) and eighth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Melville Fuller (architect of the phrase “equal justice under law”), Richard Buckminster Fuller was twice expelled from Harvard, the final time for — not kidding — insufficient ambition. Cross-eyed at birth and perplexed by geometry as a youth, the forlorn father one day decided to live as if the fate of humanity depended on his actions.
A reconsideration of one’s place in the world
“He looked at the universe in a cosmically adequate way,” says Charlie Flynn-McIver of N.C. Stage Company, which is currently staging a play about Fuller. “He was solving problems that no one had anticipated — like fuel efficiency — in the 1930s. Most of what he was concerned about, the preservation of 'Spaceship Earth,' is now more pressing and real. It was science fiction back in his day. But he wasn't prescient. He was just looking at facts and nature.”
David McConville, an Asheville-based engineer, designer and president of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, describes the inventor's broad sense of purpose in A Fuller View, a collection of essays by Bucky enthusiasts published in 2011. “By spending much of his life starting with consideration of the biggest systems, anticipating future trends and needs, and combining the aesthetics and intuition of design with the empirical and intellectual rigor of science, he took it upon himself to attempt to solve some of the greatest challenges he predicted would soon be facing humanity,” McConville writes.
Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center’s fourth annual ReVIEWING convenes the weekend of Sept. 28 to focus on Fuller, who participated in two of the college's summer institutes in 1948 and '49. Fuller is one of Black Mountain College’s “towering figures,” says Alice Sebrell, program director of BMC+AC. “We received an incredible response to our call for papers and proposals from as far away as Poland,” Sebrell says. “Presenters are traveling from all over the planet to be here.”
One part dynamic, one part maximum, one part tension
According to McConville, who will speak at the conference, “Fuller argued that we must begin to transform [our] dysfunctional system by recognizing that it confuses money with wealth. He maintained that money is ‘a medium of exchange and a cash accounting system,’ while wealth is the ‘organized technological capability to protect, nurture, educate and accommodate the forward days of humans’ that arises from supporting the integrity of living systems.
“Based on Fuller’s calculations of world resources, human trends and needs, he demonstrated that it would be possible to support all of humanity at a better standard of living than ever before if the production capacity and technical know-how of global society were properly applied,” McConville says. “He sought to harness its technological and economic forces to shift ‘from weaponry to livingry.’”
Asking Fuller a penny for his thoughts was a get-rich-quick scheme. He envisioned enormous geodesic domes with cities built inside them. Warm the air a few ticks and, voila! Your city floats. Tether it to the terra firma beneath, if you wish, or submit to the dictates of the wind. When illustrators conceived of the Jetsons, Fuller’s spirit guided their hands.
What happened instead is the Dymaxion car rolled over at the World’s Fair and the driver died. Chrysler nixed its plans. Bucky moved on. He was good at that. The lack of widespread interest in his earlier project, the Dymaxion house — he’d moved on from that, too.
He envisioned a society where structures were built in agreement with, rather than in opposition to, the elements. The Dymaxion house (the word “dymaxion”: a cocktail made of one part dynamic, one part maximum, one part tension) was cheap to build, elegantly constructed to maximize space, collected rainwater, sat lightly yet stably upon the Earth, composted one’s waste, simplified one’s life and could be airlifted anywhere easily. A handful of them remain.
Only three of the cars were ever built. The Strategic Air Command adopted the geodesic dome as the design for myriad radar installations deployed against the Soviet threat from Alaska to the Aleutians. They’ve since been retired.
I asked Sebrell about how Fuller's world would look today. “We humans would exist in harmony with the planet that supports us and would understand that we are just one part of a much larger system, all interconnected and non-hierarchical,” she says.
She shares an anecdote about how, in the summer of 1948, he sought with the college community to translate a quantity of Venetian blind remnants into a large-scale geodesic dome. When things didn’t quite work out the way everyone had hoped, he dubbed the result the “Supine Dome” and used it as an instructional piece: You can learn more from your mistakes than your successes.
Doing more and more with less and less
Not coincidentally (one might say synergistically), N.C. Stage hosts R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE, a one-man play by D.W. Jacobs that the theater’s website describes as “part autobiography, part TED talk.”
I asked Flynn-McIver, the play’s director, how the world might be now if Bucky’s vision had reigned over others. “His world would be about finding the most stable, least energy-using structures and methods for sheltering and feeding humanity — doing more and more with less and less,” Flynn-McIver says. “And certainly [it] would involve no hunger and no war, because, as he said, ‘When the world believed there was not enough to go around, selfishness made sense. But now we know there is enough to go around, selfishness has no integrity whatsoever.’”
And how was it “finding” the play as its director, we wonder? “What I’ve taken away from this experience is an understanding and appreciation for his belief that the individual is key to the survival of the planet,” he says. “His gravestone has the phrase ‘Call Me Trim Tab’ on it.”
A trim tab is a small rudder that exerts force on a larger one. “He believed that the individual held that power because ‘Only the individual disregards his fears and can deliberately find the time to think in a cosmically adequate manner.’ In a way, I like to think that’s what we’re doing by producing this play and letting the metaphysical idea of ‘Bucky’ live for a new generation.”
Devin Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.