"Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe"
The visionary 20th-century designer, inventor and teacher remains relevant and highly inspirational.
Tue Aug 12 2008
Photographs courtesy Special Collections, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Photograph by Leah Broaddus
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
Despite the celebrity of the geodesic dome (think Epcot Center), few know the mind behind its remarkable structure. “Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe,” the Whitney’s exhibit on his life and work, should be mandatory viewing not just for those curious about the great visionary—whose ideas are increasingly relevant—but for anyone with a speck of concern about the fate of the planet. That is, for all of us.
At age 32, under challenging personal circumstances, Fuller (1895–1983) was contemplating suicide on the shore of Lake Michigan when he had a vision: He was surrounded by light and instructed that he belonged to the universe, and did not have the right to eliminate himself. From that moment on he dedicated himself to a “lifelong experiment” in service, “to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”
At the base of Fuller’s worldview was the idea that the earth’s resources are finite. He gained a lot by eschewing some of the obvious binaries that still cramp his successors’ thoughts today: Rather than view energy conservation as personal deprivation, he sought to minimize resource consumption while maximizing quality of life. Fuller saw the globe as a fragile entity hurtling through space, and accordingly, he coined the term “spaceship Earth.” In direct contrast to contemporaries like Robert Moses, Fuller thought both big and small, never forgetting that his constructions affected the lives of individuals. One or two people, working alone, could install many of his self-sufficient living units.
Boris Artzybasheff (1899–1965)
Photograph: Courtesy Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University
He was genuinely invested not just in ease of building, but in the accessibility of ideas. He argued that if complex science wasn’t easily comprehensible to a child, it was in danger of faulty logic. Teaching and lecturing remained central to his practice all his life—this is the man who rewrote “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” for use as a physics demonstration. His version is on view at the Whitney in a folding print called the TetraScroll.
At the heart of the exhibition lie Fuller’s drawings, scale models, photographs, and letters to and from friends, along with a geodesic dome modeled in cardboard and shiny relics of yesterday’s future, like the one surviving Dymaxion car, created in 1934. Fuller’s drawings, in particular, highlight his unique mash-up of art and design. One diagram details a “4D color progression” that reads like a synesthetic laundry list “from darkness through yellow of dawn through natural green through mechanical red.…”
Throughout the work presented here—and throughout his career—Fuller’s approach was characterized by vast overarching concepts, interdisciplinary reaches and design building blocks with widespread applications. One of his greatest gifts to the future was a resistance to notions of absolute ownership of resources. On the drawing One Ocean World Town he scrawled the phrase if MATERIALISM WINS, HUMANITY IS LICKED.
It can be difficult to convey the spirit of a visionary—the end products of genius are only traces of the mind that produced them. The Whitney wisely includes personal effects and, better, footage of Fuller talking about his work, world resources and the engineering phenomenon he called a “jitterbug thump.” He was notoriously long-winded, and his speech could be difficult to understand, but his panache and enthusiasm for his subjects shine through.
In a video called Buckminster Fuller Meets the Hippies in Golden Gate Park, he sits in a field among men in long beards and women in headbands, seriously engaging their concerns about the spiritual constraints of his geometric designs. That unlikely conversation epitomizes the enthusiasm and the drive toward cross-cultural connection that made him not just a great thinker but a great ambassador for his visions.
Fuller’s prioritization of the individual and of daily experience, combined with his concern for the future of the connected and finite system we call the planet, exemplify the kind of genius needed to solve our world’s continuing problems.