Hunter Braithwaite visited the Buckminster Fuller exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, and says the he “started off thinking that this guy was a genius, then shifted to kook, then settled on a mix of the two.” You can determine for yourself by checking out the exhibit, on display through June 21st.
In this season of layoffs, the clichéd “doing more with less” seems inescapable. But did you know that the term wasn’t coined by a regional manager somewhere, but by Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, almost-inventor of the flying car, and founder of the modern day sustainability movement? Now you do.
Here is the back story: Fuller, twice-expelled from Harvard, unemployed, and unable to provide for his family, contemplates suicide on the shore of Lake Michigan. In the end, he decides against it, choosing instead to help as much of humanity as possible while using the smallest amount of resources. Or, to do more with less. If this came as a revelation, and you find yourself in the Chicago area before June 21st, check out Fuller’s retrospective “Starting with the Universe” at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Luckily, the exhibition’s curators do not share Fuller’s passion for resource conservation. “Starting with the Universe” is a maximalist account of Fuller’s life. Mining years of journals, the show is an in-depth narrative of Fuller’s personal and professional growth. The walls are silkscreened with quotes, drawings, and enormous portraits of Fuller. There are models of his houses and developments. Unfortunately, the Dymaxion car isn’t present. With a length of thirty feet, it wouldn’t fit in the museum’s freight elevator.
The exhibition charts Fuller’s ambition as he moves from single-family homes to planned communities, from domed cities to plans for reallocating international resources. And toward the end of his life, things really took off. He made plans for cities that floated in the ocean. After that, he planned cities that floated in the sky. Some of these blueprints are little more than scribbles on notebook paper, but they raise the universal question, “what could he do had he lived for another decade?” The last room of the exhibition baits the viewer to pick up where Fuller left off. It is the Dymaxion study center, where visitors can browse over 400 volumes by and about Fuller.
But why is a man this prolific and accomplished anything less than a household name? The exhibition has it that since Fuller’s professional life varied so greatly, there has been no easy way to study him. This puts the blame on his audience–something that shouldn’t be the case.
Yes, Fuller is difficult to pin down. He was, in his words, a Comprehensive, Anticipatory Design Scientist. While he was a dreamer, he wasn’t a trained architect, or designer, or diplomat. At the end of the day, Fuller seems more Howard Hughes (or Heinlein) than da Vinci.
This might explain why his legacy is passed back and forth between disparate intellectual communities. And what a legacy it is.
For everything that Fuller accomplished, there is a humorous counter-example of shortcoming. He invented the geodesic dome. That’s great, but geodesic domes are loud, hot, and leak. He almost invented to flying car. That’s a big almost. The project was scrapped when the driver was killed in an accident. He could be considered a progenitor of the modern day Green movement, but he laughed at talk of overpopulation and believed in isolating man from the natural world.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
And as a person who devoted his adult life to scientific development, he firmly believed that humans came to Earth from outer space.
It is within these knots of contradictions that we find Fuller’s legacy. After considering his constant strivings and repeated failures, it seems that Fuller matters precisely because he didn’t change the world. He represents the blind ambition, creativity, and will of the 20th century. Looking at Fuller through this lens, his efforts are more important than his actual accomplishments. It’s fitting that today’s world, let down by its actual accomplishments (the SUV, The Dow Jones, plastic bags), should focus again on human potential. Maybe that is Buckminster Fuller’s greatest contribution.
Photos: Above, Bucky/Fly’s Eye/Dymaxion Car, 1980. Photo © Roger White Stoller; Below, Buckminster Fuller, U.S. Pavilion Montreal Expo 67, 1967. Image courtesy the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller. Via the Museum of Contemporary Art.