Buck the system

Buckminster Fuller’s influential ideas were ahead of his time. But his followers have found a way to use his legacy for contemporary projects.

There’s Bucky, convivially at the wheel of his Dymaxion car. Happy children clamber in and out of the back of it. Bucky drives it at speed, then turns it in its own length around a traffic cop. This is quite some feat, since the car is 6m long. What a vehicle the Dymaxion was. What a shame it was so dangerously unstable. What a relief it never went into production and killed thousands. But what good, clear ideas it contained, for all that. It’s well worth the trip to the Design Museum just to see this bit of 1930s archive newsreel. But why does Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) continue to hold such a strange fascination for us? How does his influence endure?

Fuller did show signs of genius, although some of the evidence might suggest he was a madman. He gave a lecture called Everything I know, for instance, which lasted two weeks. In the annals of 20th century speechifying, only Fidel Castro came close to Fuller: even a “normal” lecture was an endurance test. Early on, he announced that his whole life was a conscious experiment, with himself as the guinea pig. From 1915 onwards, he recorded everything he did, said or thought in a “chronofile” which he bound into books. You have to be pretty convinced of your own worth to go to that trouble.

He proposed enclosing the whole of Manhattan in a single, vast bubble. He thought that homes should be mass-produced the same way as planes or cars, and preferably hung from masts. He thought that cars could work better if their tails rose off the ground, like planes. He designed a new map projection of the world.

He made several versions of a catamaran rowing-boat with hulls like pencils. He designed only one commercially successful thing in his life, though that was huge: the geodesic dome. He popularised the idea of “spaceship Earth”. His work led scientists, after his death, to the discovery of a new carbon molecule, which they named Buckminsterfullerene. His name, it seems, liveth for evermore.

What Fuller did, he called “design science”. Naturally, this appealed enormously to the burgeoning hi-tech movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Norman Foster, for instance, collaborated with Bucky on several projects, from an underground theatre in Oxford to an advanced home in the form of overlapping geodesic spheres (neither was built). He wasn’t the only one. If you hunt through the monographs, you’ll also find a photo of architect Nick Grimshaw, long-haired and greatcoated in 1968, showing off his first built work to Bucky: his long-vanished, mast-hung, spiral extension of bathroom pods for a London students’ hostel.

Upstart Grimshaw had managed to build his homage to Bucky while the older Foster was still indulging in research projects. And it was a homage, for Bucky had invented the idea of the one-piece bathroom pod (you can see one in the Design Museum show), not to mention the mast-hung house, of which he produced several variants, some of them forming towers not unlike Grimshaw’s. In 1968, a British building made of pieces that arrived on a lorry was amazingly advanced. Come to think of it, it’s still advanced today: while prefabricated bathroom pods are now commonplace, serious attempts at modular housing are only just hitting the mainstream, more than 30 years later.

During his lifetime, Fuller (an academic failure who was expelled from Harvard, therefore very much the autodidact) had much the same reputation as the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Which is to say that some saw him as a genius, some as a charlatan. He certainly indulged in some off-the-wall business ventures, but it seems this ran in the family: after leaving the US Navy after World War I, for instance, he took charge of a company owned by his father-in-law which made houses out of compressed straw blocks with holes through them. You stacked up the blocks and poured concrete through the holes, thus making concrete tubes that held the whole structure together. A clever idea, but not sufficiently thought through: flawed, in fact. The company folded, but Fuller was by then off on his own, having many other ideas which he never refined sufficiently.

His prefabricated houses are a case in point. It almost seems as if Bucky did not want these to go into production. The broad concept was great, but there is some doubt as to whether Fuller had actually originated the idea. Most things attributed to him turn out to have had their genesis elsewhere. Paradoxically, while Fuller was brilliant at imagining applications for technologies and developing concepts, he was bad – and very probably not very interested – in the final act of turning a concept into a functioning production model. Had he dreamed less and sweated more, the whole built environment after World War II could have been different.

Starting in 1927 with the Dymaxion House (Dymaxion was a Fuller brand-label, derived from “dynamic” and “maximum efficiency”) he did more than any other 20th century designer to find a way to mass produce homes in the way that cars and planes are manufactured.

In the aftermath of World War II he was all set up with a company, ready to turn out his metal-component houses from the Beech aircraft factory in Wichita, Kansas. But it all went wrong. It seemed Bucky was never ready to sign off the product. Development never ended, it had to be perfect. Which makes some sense – mistakes in mass production are costly mistakes – but there has to come a point where the design is frozen, and Bucky delayed this point until the economic moment had passed and America’s military machine was gearing up for the Cold War rather than making homes. The shiny, cylindrical, domed-roof Wichita Houses, their technology based on the umbrella and the bicycle wheel, were not made: people in the US built a zillion little homes out of the usual ticky-tacky instead.

But in a sense this is not the point. Although the Wichita Houses could well have gone into production – Fuller was not that far ahead of his time – all the architects of the 1940s and 1950s knew all about the project and applied the thinking in their own way. The message from Fuller was always the same: do the most with the least material. That lesson was well learned as the technology of lightweight structures developed through the final years of the 20th century. Mike Davies of the Richard Rogers Partnership is a bit of a Fuller man, for instance. What is his Millennium Dome, after all, but a version of Fuller’s dream of an enclosed city? A structure that weighs less than the air inside it?

But it is not just architects who learned the lesson. A glance at the vehicle design work at the Royal College of Art and elsewhere, for instance, shows that the influence of the 1933 Dymaxion car is as strong as ever. There’s a spate of new three-wheeled designs with the single wheel at the rear, Dymaxion-style. There are also a number of teardrop-shaped people-movers – which was exactly what Bucky’s car was, though it was scarcely space-efficient. And you only have to look at the noses of the people carriers on the road today, from the Ford Galaxy to the Toyota Previa, to see how Bucky’s idea of streamlined, one-box design has hit the mainstream. Some cars today even have a bit of rear-wheel steer in them, though none goes the whole way and steers only from the back as Fuller envisaged (as an ex-naval man, he saw the rear wheel as a rudder).

Influence, influence. One of those most fascinated by Fuller’s ideas was and is the structural engineer Tony Hunt, who worked on the Fuller/ Foster projects. Hunt was also the first person to employ James Dyson, in the late 1960s, on radical theatre schemes. Dyson has always remained loyal to Hunt, who now engineers his factories. Dyson is chairman of the Design Museum. And the Design Museum is the venue for the Fuller show, entitled Your private sky. To profess to an admiration of Bucky gains you entry into an exclusive club of some of the best designers in the world. None of these people see him as a con man: they all know he was the real thing. It was not just that he built the audacious three-quarter sphere of the American Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal – one of the great buildings of the century. It was that he made people think: about the earth’s dwindling resources, about new forms of structure, new ways of moving. As with Lloyd Wright, he had today’s good ideas way back in the middle of the 20th century, or earlier. He was the prophet and, in his day, the only significant proponent of holistic design science.

Buckminster Fuller: Your Private Sky runs until 15 October at The Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1.

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