Buckminster Fuller

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Buckminster Fuller was right on some vital points even if most of his designs never made a leap from the drawing board. He knew, for instance, that the idea of race was a phony tribal concept steeped in ignorance, wealth inequality was a real threat to democracy and childbirth per family would decline as the infant mortality rate decreased.

The theorist, who certainly realized the delicate balance of our environment, may or may not have been right when he insisted pollution itself was a great resource gone unharvested, a recyclable more or less, but that’s an awfully dangerous assumption. Even if it’s so, our “creation” of these raw materials could extinct the species long before we establish a collection day. Technocracy has its merits, but I wouldn’t want to wager everything on it.

In a smart Aeon essay, Samanth Subramanian wonders about the renewed capital of Fuller’s teachings in this time of climate peril and technological prowess, when those domes Elon Musk dreams of printing on Mars may soon be as needed on Earth. The opening has a great, largely forgotten anecdote about a Vermont town deciding in 1979 to build a Fuller-ish dome around itself to deal with falling temperatures and rising gas prices, before quickly quashing the project. The writer also de-mythologizes much about the Futurist, whose self-promoting prowess was Jobsian long before Jobs was born.

An excerpt:

Fuller wasn’t the first person to dream of domed cities – they’d featured for decades in science fiction, usually as hothouses of dystopia – but as an engineering solution, they feel thoroughly Fullerian. Implicit in their concept is an acknowledgement that human nature is wasteful and unreliable, resistant to fixing itself. Instead, Fuller put his faith in technology as a means to tame the messiness of humankind. ‘I would never try to reform man – that’s much too difficult,’ Fuller told The New Yorker in 1966. Appealing to people to remedy their behaviour was a folly, because they’d simply never do it. Far wiser, Fuller thought, to build technology that circumvents the flaws in human behaviour – that is, ‘to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions’. Instead of human-led design, he sought design-led humans.

Winooski’s grand dome never went into construction. By the end of 1980, after the election of Ronald Reagan as president and a summer of stormy criticism over the cost and visual impact of the project, the mood had shifted. But Fuller, who had first advanced the idea of a domed city in 1959, continued to champion it until his death in 1983. ‘The way consumption curves are going in many of our big cities, it is clear that we are running out of energy,’ he wrote. ‘It is important for our government to know if there are better ways of enclosing space in terms of material, time, and energy.’ The most ambitious of his urban lids was the dome he wanted to lower over midtown Manhattan, a mile high and two miles in diameter. As well as a perfect climate, Fuller said, the dome could protect New Yorkers against the worst effects of a nuclear bomb going off nearby.

In the great flux of postwar United States, Fuller was convinced that the world was marshalling its resources poorly and unsustainably, and that change was a burning imperative. The world finds itself again passing through a Fullerian moment – a phase of political, environmental and technological upheaval that is both unsettling and exhilarating. Within this frame, Fuller’s life and ideas – the sound ones but also those that were tedious or absurd – ring with a new resonance.•

Fuller introduces the Dymaxion House in 1929.

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A house that’s impervious to storm and earthquake sounds pretty good right about now, and that was what Buckminster Fuller promised in 1929 when he introduced the Dymaxion House, an architectural dream never realized beyond a few prototypes. In a 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from a series on the future of the home, Fuller’s automated abode was given a public hearing. The opening of the piece below.


“We are living in a spheroidal universe”:

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In “The view From the Year 2000,” a 1971 Life article, Buckminster Fuller, ever the technological positivist, saw skies that were blue and cloudless. Our gadgets have grown much more powerful, but we’re still waiting for his future to arrive. An excerpt:

“A lot of what you’re hearing today is absolute nonsense,” he said. “The population bomb. There is no population bomb! Industrialization is the answer to the population problem. In colonial times, the average American family had 13 children, but now that we can count on the little ones growing up healthy, the average is about two. That’s evolution working–where industrialization occurs, the birth rate simply goes down. Now, of course, you have the environmentalists telling you that you can’t industrialize any further because of pollution, which is more nonsense. Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value. But if we got onto a planning basis, the government could trap pollutants in the stacks and spillages and get back more money than this would cost out of the stockpiled chemistries they’d be collecting.

“Margaret Mead gets quite cross with me when I talk like this because she says people are doing very important things because they’re so worried and excited and I’m going to make them relax and stop doing those things. But we’re dealing with something much bigger than we’re accustomed to understanding, we’re on a very large course, indeed. You speak of racism, for example, and I tell you that there’s no such thing as race. The point is that racism is the product of tribalism and ignorance and both are falling victim to communications and world-around literacy.

“These social adjustments we’re witnessing are very big. They are marvelous, the most marvelous part of the whole show. They don’t get done overnight, but they’re actually happening so fast I can’t believe it. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a fantastic amount of change, and I know we’re going through something very extraordinary in the history of the world. We’re going through some great flume, and if we will only hold on and have patience and respect the integrity of the universe itself, we’ll make it beautifully together.”•

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D.A. Pennebaker, Shirley Clarke and Albert Maysles captured the Khrushchev-era exhibition of American consumer goods that was held in Moscow in 1959, the Iron Curtain briefly lifted. On display was the handiwork of Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller and many others. The Kitchen Debates between Nixon and his Soviet counterpart took place during this event.

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Buckminster Fuller wanted to dome a chunk of Manhattan, but even that plan wasn’t as outré as his designs for a floating city. From “10 Failed Utopian Cities That Influenced the Future,” a fun i09 post by Annalee Newitz and Emily Stamm:

“Cloud Nine, the Floating City

Science — and science fiction — often influenced city designers. But nobody took futuristic ideas more seriously than mid-twentieth century inventor Buckminster Fuller, who responded to news about overcrowding in Tokyo by imagining cities in the sky. The Spherical Tensegrity Atmospheric Research Station, called STARS or Cloud 9s, would be composed of giant geodesic spheres. When filled with air, the sphere would weigh one-thousandth of the weight of the air inside it. Fuller planned on heating that air with solar power or human activity, causing the sphere to float. He would anchor his floating cities to mountains, or let them drift around the world. They were never built, but Fuller’s idea for a pre-fab, geodesic dome dwelling called Dymaxion House eventually influenced the pre-fab house movement which is still going strong.”

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A brief 1973 profile of the late-life Buckminster Fuller, a brilliant if cross-eyed prophet of things that have not quite occurred.


Buckminster Fuller agitating against customary geometry inculcation.


The complete version of the very cool 1974 film, The World of Buckminster Fuller.


Bucky Fuller exhibiting the design for his Dymaxion House, apparently in 1929.


Rare Buckminster Fuller interview from some sort of 1980s parapsychology talk show. Odd.

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From a 1972 Playboy Interview with Buckminster Fuller, who offers his non-PC take on social revolution:

PLAYBOY: When you say that young people are doing their own thinking and refusing to follow dogma, do you feel that this generation is fundamentally different from those that came before?

FULLER: Most assuredly. The masses of them are different. Let me go back to the reasons for this, because one of the most interesting discoveries I’ve made relates to it. When Malthus, as a young economist, began receiving his data at the start of the 19th Century, he was the first economist dealing with total data from the whole earth seen as a closed system. And he found that apparently, people were reproducing themselves more rapidly than they were producing food for themselves. Darwin followed, with his survival of the fittest, and these two compounded to justify the actions of the men I call the great pirates, the imperialists of that period, the elect, as they thought of themselves. Then Karl Marx came along, with the same jargon, assuming scarcity as a permanent condition and agreeing with the Darwin argument. And Marx said that the fittest among men was the worker, because the worker was closest to nature and knew how to cope with it. He knew how to cultivate and handle the chisel, and so forth, and the other people were parasites.

As late as 1815 in England, commoners caught killing a rabbit were often hanged on the spot without a trial; those animals belonged to the nobles and the king. These most powerful men ate the meat and the other people could make do with what was left over. And in their ignorance about what they should eat and what would give them nourishment, they let themselves get into a position where those who were powerful and ate well could rule by the sword. The proportion of nobles to the total population was so small that everybody assumed there must be some mystical reason they should have the best of it. And what was evident to everybody was that not only were the poor people illiterate and ill-clothed, and so forth, but they also seemed dumb.

Now, this was something that hurt me very much when I was a kid. I was brought up with this class thing, and I hated it and didn’t believe it was valid. But I couldn’t get over this thing that confronted me: Poor people seemed to be dumb. I worked with them and I loved them, but they were dumb. And Karl Marx accepted this. These people, while they were the fittest, gave in to the nobles out of dumbness, so Marx saw that people like that would need powerful rules if they were to be saved. If you’re going to pull  the top down on society and your people are dumb, there have to be standards that everyone can recognize and follow, so you make a virtue of your dumbness and your coarseness and you live by strong rules. You wear your baggy and stupid clothes and make yourself proud of them.

A great many young people feel tremendously sympathetic with this idea these days, as I did at Harvard more than 50 years ago. You want to join with the underdog and therefore you wear his clothing and give up your standard of living. But this idea is becoming obsolete, however much it might appeal to the moral logic of young people. Because only in the past ten years have we finally had the first scientific proof – and now absolute scientific proof – that malnutrition during the child’s time in the womb and during the early years of life causes permanent brain damage. So this dumbness and coarseness factor that Mark built into his theory of class warfare is purely the damaged brain of malnutrition – something we now can eliminate by the kind of revolution that pulls the bottom up instead of pulling the top down.”



A Buckminster Fuller Geodesic Dome from the 1960s.

From Jennifer Kahn’s recent and fun New Yorker profile of tech visionary Jaron Lanier, who is best known for coining the term “virtual reality” and authoring the cautionary tome, You Are Not a Gadget:

“In Mesilla, Lanier’s father allowed him to design their new home. Lanier, who was eleven, chose a geodesic dome, and with his father’s assistance he drew up blueprints calculating the angles of the frame, plus plans for a squat, cantilevered spire that he envisaged as the entrance. (‘Clearly a subconscious phallic expression of some kind,’ he told me.) But the project proceeded slowly. ‘We’d get enough money to pour the foundation for one part of the house, and then, after a few weeks, we’d get enough to do another part,’ he recalls.

During the first two years that the dome was under construction, Lanier and his father lived in an unheated canvas Army tent that was stiflingly hot in summer and frigid in winter. Lanier remembers shivering uncontrollably at times, ‘like I was having a seizure.’ The family belongings, which included his mother’s grand piano and her antique furniture, were wrapped in plastic and heaped together on the ground outside the tent. ‘We sealed the piano in a bag, kind of,’ Lanier said. ‘It must have sat out there for a year.’”

“In Mesilla, Lanier’s father allowed him to design their new home. Lanier, who was eleven, chose a geodesic dome, and with his father’s assistance he drew up blueprints calculating the angles of the frame, plus plans for a squat, cantilevered spire that he envisaged as the entrance. (‘Clearly a subconscious phallic expression of some kind,’ he told me.) But the project proceeded slowly. ‘We’d get enough money to pour the foundation for one part of the house, and then, after a few weeks, we’d get enough to do another part,’ he recalls.During the first two years that the dome was under construction, Lanier and his father lived in an unheated canvas Army tent that was stiflingly hot in summer and frigid in winter. Lanier remembers shivering uncontrollably at times, “like I was having a seizure.” The family belongings, which included his mother’s grand piano and her antique furniture, were wrapped in plastic and heaped together on the ground outside the tent. ‘We sealed the piano in a bag, kind of,’ Lanier said. ‘It must have sat out there for a year.’”


Buckminster Fuller and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi conduct a press conference at Amherst in 1971:

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From a new New York Times article about smart cities comes this recollection about Buckminster Fuller, that dreamer, who somehow thought it would be good idea to build a geodesic dome over a large swath of Manhattan:

“At a time before urban planning was formally taught in universities, Mr. Fuller — a Harvard dropout turned inventor, engineer, architect and philosopher — directed his attention to cities.

He perfected and popularized the geodesic dome, and after building several smaller ones in the 1950s, he teamed up with the architect Shoji Sadao in 1960 to propose a dome with a width of two miles, or 3.2 kilometers, above Midtown Manhattan. The dome would have covered the island from the East River to the Hudson River, with one axis running along 42nd Street. It would have reached from 21st Street to 64th Street, covering the southern lip of Central Park.

During a time when air-conditioning was coming to many U.S. homes and businesses, Mr. Fuller said the giant dome would greatly reduce cooling costs in summer and heating costs in winter by reducing the ratio of surface to volume. Instead of each building’s having to be heated or cooled separately, the entire dome would be kept at a ‘very moderate temperature level’ throughout the year.

The glass would be threaded by a heating wire — much like the rear window of many cars — so that snow and ice accumulation would not become a problem. Melted snow and rain would be collected in catch basins and used for things like irrigation and cleaning.

The scalable dome, according to Mr. Fuller, became stronger and sturdier as it was built larger.”


Six minutes of non-stop, unabashed Bucky Fuller:


Water bubbles that are carbon neutral. (Image by Eriikson Architects.)

Buckminster Fuller famously designed unorthodox, environmentally friendly edifices and automobiles that were rarely realized. Finnish architects Eriiksson are, however, currently making a Fuller-esque vision come to fruition, creating an eco-city outside of Beijing from a cluster of geodesic domes that marries futurism to a sustainable future. An excerpt from Inhabit.com:

“The Miaofeng mountain area, located about 30 km west of Beijing, is slated to be reborn as a gorgeous new ‘Ecological Silicon Valley.’ Located close to the urban metropolis of Beijing, the new city will combine research institutes for modern science and innovation with environmentally friendly and eco-efficient urban living. The master plan for the eco-city was laid out by the Finnish firm, Eriksson Architects in collaboration with Finnish ecological experts Eero Paloheimo Eco City Ltd. With goals of carbon neutrality, respect for the environment, water and energy conservation, renewable energy, and housing and amenities for all employees and visitors, the Mentougou Eco Valley aims to reduce its environmental footprint to one third that of a typical city of similar size.”

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Reddit pointed me to this 1987 commercial for what was a really cool and inexpensive black-and-white camcorder for kids, the Fisher-Price PXL 2000. It was a handheld camera that recorded footage using audio cassettes. Intended as a toy, the lo-res pixelvision product was a flop with kids but became a popular, artsy cult item with adults, especially indie filmmakers and graphic designers. It was created by Andrew Bergman, who passed away in 2007 at the young age of 57. An excerpt from a remembrance of the ecelctic inventor from a Stickley Museum newsletter:

“Andy was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, and schooled at Carnegie Mellon and Southern Illinois University, where he taught with prolific innovator Buckminster Fuller. In 1992, he formed the Bergman Design Consortium, a force in the toy design industry. As a self-taught sculptor and furniture designer, Andy spent many summers at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Island, Maine. Andy’s zest for life was abundant and was evident in his joyous creations.”

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A Dymaxion House on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. (Image courtesy of rmhermen.)

Even though architect Buckminster Fuller has long been revered as a visionary theorist, not many of his designs, including several iterations of his pre-fab, space-age autonomous building, the Dymaxion House, ever caught on. In fact, no Dymaxion was ever built according to Fuller’s specifications and inhabited, even though it was energy efficient, had a waterless bathroom and was designed to withstand any climate.

But his futuristic house designs were taken seriously in a 1946 Life articleFuller House,” which was subtitled “Newest answer to housing shortage is round, shiny, hangs on a mast and is made in an airplane factory.” An excerpt from the article:

“Unveiled last week was the most startling solution yet offered for the U.S. housing shortage. It was a round aluminum structure, 36 feet in diameter. At its center was a mast, anchored in the ground. From it radiated cables on which walls and floors were hung. Around the outside ran a plastic window. On the roof ran a streamlined, revolving ventilator. The inside had four wedge-shaped rooms, two baths, range, dishwasher, refrigerator, garbage-disposal unit, three revolving closets and three electric bureaus.

Some called it a house, others a machine. Designed by Buckminster Fuller, it was made by Beech Aircraft Corporation, Wichita, Kansas, which expects to be producing it in volume by next January. The house is a descendant of Fuller’s 1927 Dymaxion House, but, unlike its ancestor, is eminently practical. Included in the hoped for selling price of $6500 are all appliances plus shipping and erection charges anywhere in the U.S.”