Accessibility links

Whitney Museum Exhibit Showcases Work of Buckminster Fuller

R. 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.

Visitors 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 per hour.

Whitney 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."

Fuller 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.

He 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."

As 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 recyclable.

These qualities were part of Fuller's efforts at what he called "ephemeralization" — what we would call "sustainability" today.

"Today, 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.

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 is beautiful."

For 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.

"The 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."

"Nature 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."

Those 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."

Later, Kroto named the C60 molecule "C60 buckminsterfullerene," after Fuller.

The 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.