Buckminster Fuller may be most famous for inventing the geodesic dome, a
hemispheric structure built of interlocking triangular panels. But Fuller's scientific and artistic insights are part of today's cutting edge
research in chemistry, nanotechnology, and "green" architecture and
design, a quarter-century after he died. VOA's Adam Phillips takes a look at
the mind inside the man.
to the Whitney Museum of American Art's "Starting with the
Universe" exhibition may be a bit overwhelmed by the elegance, strangeness and sheer
diversity of R. Buckminster Fuller's designs. Exhibits include a drawing for an
energy-saving dome to cover Manhattan, a distortion-free world map based on triangles, and a prototype of his Dymaxion
Car, a fuel-efficient
three-wheeled vehicle that could carry 11 people at speeds up to 180 kilometers
curator Dana Miller acknowledges that Fuller's genius was impossible to
categorize or precisely define. "He didn't consider himself an architect
or an engineer or a poet," she says. "He was a visionary and one of
the first interdisciplinary thinkers of the 20th century."
himself did not view the many disciplines in which he was expert as truly
distinct. Rather, he saw all the arts and sciences as different lenses through
which to view the same beautifully simple universe.
would frequently claim that "whenever you are designing something, the
best place to start is with the universe," says media artist and Buckminster
Fuller Institute board member David McConville. "What he wanted was the big picture,
because if you are not looking in the most comprehensive way at your problems,
you are not going to come up with comprehensive solutions."
early as the 1920s, Fuller understood that the planet and its resources are
finite, while human intelligence, which he considered our true wealth, is not.
He began to design ways to, in his words, "do more with less." His
futuristic Dymaxion House, for example, was
designed to be energy efficient, lightweight, easily assembled, cheap and
qualities were part of Fuller's efforts at what he called
"ephemeralization" — what we would call "sustainability"
everyone is starting to think of global warming and starting to think of the
planet as a whole," says Kurt Przybilla, an Imax film producer who
has invented toys based on Fuller's
designs. "At the time he was
talking about sustainability, he was one of the very few people saying that the
solutions that humanity needs have to be thought of globally in order for it to
work for everybody."
Fuller's elegant works were much beloved by
artists and still are, but that wasn't Fuller's main intention. "Fuller insisted that he didn't strive
for beauty, but he knew when he came to the solution, if it was the right
solution, it would be beautiful," says Harvard architecture professor and
Whitney co-curator Michael Hays.
says Fuller was convinced that nature operates according to a single overriding
system. "And if he could just find the key to that system, and find the
fundamental units of that system, then that would be beautiful, because nature
Fuller, that fundamental unit was the triangle, which he said was the strongest
and most stable shape in nature. For him, the tetrahedron — a four-sided pyramid with each face an equilateral triangle — was nature's
main building block, and so, of course, it would be the basic unit in his own
designs. By stacking and interlocking tetrahedrons precisely, Fuller created
the geodesic domes for which he is most famous.
more triangles there are, the more spherical the structure, and also the
stronger it becomes," explains Przybilla. "So the larger it gets, the
stronger it gets."
tends to build with spheres, not blocks," adds Przybilla. "We tend to
think in blocks and squares and cubes. But on an atomic level, nature is using spherical
forms to make structures."
structures were discovered on the atomic level by three chemists: Robert Curl
and Richard Smalley at Rice University in Texas, and Harold Kroto at the University of Sussex in England.
Kroto says that the precise structure of the C60 Carbon molecule eluded them until he and Smalley recalled Fuller's geodesic dome, which they
had seen at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, in Montreal
Canada or "Expo 67." "We came to the conclusion that in fact the C60 molecule, which is a
molecule with 60 carbon atoms arranged on the surface of a sphere, [had] the same
sort of topological geodesic configuration as the Expo 1967 dome."
Kroto named the C60 molecule "C60 buckminsterfullerene," after
discovery of the structure of the C60 carbon molecule earned all three chemists
the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It also created a new branch of
chemistry, called "Fullerene Chemistry," which helped give birth to nanoscience and nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter
on an atomic scale.
What interested Buckminster Fuller most was not the
molecular or even the cosmic levels of scale. It was our human potential, as
played out here, on our fragile planet, which he called "Spaceship
Earth." Evidence of that can be seen at the current
Whitney exhibition, and in other exhibits that showcase the achievements of
this extraordinary thinker.