Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through September 21
This summer, Gotham feels like all Bucky, all the time, with exhibitions at Max Protetch, Carl Solway, and Sebastion + Barquet Galleries, while the Center for Architecture has sponsored a slew of events that include round-table discussions, lectures, a film series, and the opening of the Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion Study Center. (A 26-foot Fly’s Eye Dome was also erected recently in LaGuardia Park across the street from the center.) But the main event is Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe at the Whitney Museum. This critically astute retrospective has been elegantly curated by K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller, who tell the story through an assortment of drawings, photographs, scale models, and full-scale prototypes, like the three-wheeled showstopper Dymaxion Car (1934) parked in a first-floor gallery. There’s also a selection of archival film footage to bring the man to life, as well as several recent interpretations of the Fuller canon to demonstrate his ongoing legacy.
The timing for a full-on retrospective couldn’t be more auspicious, as people are at last daring to discuss alternate, non-petroleum futures and new paradigms for planetary survival. So yes, it’s a good thing to bring back Bucky and reabsorb his no-nonsense theories of ephemeralization (doing more with less) before it’s too late. Even though there have been hundreds of books by and about Fuller (over 400 are on view at the Center for Architecture), he has always been difficult, if not impossible, to pin down or capture within a single thought or category.
There are many Buckys to choose from: hippie Fuller, but also Cold Warrior Fuller who developed ideas for the U.S. Marine Corps and early defense warning systems. For him, there were never any boundaries, and his career was as multi-faceted as one of his geo-domes: philosopher, lecturer, engineer, absentminded professor, architect, mapmaker, poet, and mathematician. He was a prophetic papa of Big Ideas, peering at the future through thick spectacles, and had no problem shifting from mini to mega in his rambling lectures that went on for hours and became the stuff of legend.
courtesy the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller
courtesy Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library
Considering the epic scope of Fuller’s thinking, it’s surprising to see how ephemeral some of the actual artifacts are: scratchy little renderings that he did in the late 1920s in an amateurish, even childish, style with pencil on three-ring notebook paper; sketches of bombs dropping from Zeppelins, making craters for 4D Towers that are sometimes drawn as enlarged objects rising from planet earth, early proof of Fuller’s global perspective. There’s also a clunky but compelling attempt to synthesize the Brooklyn Bridge and a Ferris wheel into a single hybrid structure (c. 1928), or the “4D Tower Garage” that Fuller proposed for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, resembling something like a spiraling Christmas tree.
Fuller’s fervid investigations find their first true form with the Dymaxion renderings and models of the 1930s, with endless variations on this hexagonal structure suspended from a central mast that would later morph into the Dymaxion Deployment Unit (1941) made from corrugated grain silos and the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (or “Wichita House,” 1945) that was fabricated from aluminum like an airplane. Fuller’s projects from this period still seem cornball and quirky, verging on a loony kind of Popular Mechanics kitsch. In one gallery, there’s a model of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machines Community (c. 1946) that looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie, as if alien flying saucers, all silver and glowing, had disguised themselves in a conventional suburban subdivision with front lawns and sidewalks. Another gallery features a collection of yellowing models made from cardboard and toothpicks—tetrahedrons and rhombic dodecahedrons—the kind that used to be found gathering dust in high school geometry classes. It’s easy to see how the Eurocentric Philip Johnson would dismiss Fuller, as Hays points out in his catalogue essay. “Bucky Fuller was no architect, and he kept pretending he was,” said Johnson. “It was very annoying.” On the other hand, who cares what Johnson thought about Fuller? They occupy such radically opposing orbits: one a reformed Nazi, the other a free-thinking descendant of Yankee transcendentalists.
Maybe the ideas were loftier than the material output, or maybe Fuller’s brightest legacy comes through other people’s interpretations of his seed ideas. Such was the case with Kenneth Snelson, Konrad Wachsmann, Tony Smith, and Robert Smithson. Fuller is sometimes mistakenly credited with other people’s work, as he is with the invention of the geodesic dome, actually developed by Walter Bauersfeld in 1922 for a planetarium at the Zeiss optical works in Jena, Germany, a fact that doesn’t appear to be cited anywhere in the Whitney exhibition or catalogue.
There is something odd about seeing Fuller get the full treatment by a major institution. Bucky was never much of an insider, and thrived as the inveterate outsider, one who shunned and was often shunned by institutions. (He was expelled from Harvard in 1915 and never really dropped back into the mainstream.) The institutional Fuller is never as appealing as the “outlaw” Fuller. (Calvin Tompkins’ seminal New Yorker profile “In the Outlaw Area” of January 8, 1966, has been thoughtfully republished in the exhibition catalogue.) And this raises an interesting point. If there’s anything missing in this otherwise comprehensive survey, it’s the legacy of Bucky as prime guru of 1960s counterculture, when rebel builder/designers like Steve Baer, Lloyd Kahn, Jay Baldwin, Steve Durkee, and others took Fuller’s lessons and in some cases out-Buckyed Bucky on the frontiers of planetary consciousness. Their funky, handbuilt domes and “zomes” (an elongated version of Fuller’s geodesic patent) became symbolic of both resistance and solidarity within communes like Drop City and other anarchic outposts of the tie-died diaspora. Fabricated with recycled and discarded materials, these were the true successors of ephemeralization, rather than those late urban projects on which Fuller collaborated with Shoji Sadao—Triton City (1967) or Harlem Redesign (1965)—that seem more like dystopian megastructures and receive an inordinate amount of attention in the Whitney show.
One of the essential lessons that hippie builders learned from the master and incorporated into their daily building practice was the importance of failure as a learning tool and model for growth. Bucky’s career was filled with radical failures that he turned, somehow, into successes, exploiting the poetic potential of the flop, the glorified mistake. In July 1948, after countless drawings and models, he attempted to erect a large-scale prototype of his geodesic theories while teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It was to have been a 48-foot-diameter dome made from Venetian blind metal, but it drooped to the ground like a flaccid balloon and was dubbed the “flopahedron.” Fuller refused to see it as a failure, but rather as a pathway to new discoveries, new ways of thinking.
In a sense his entire career was predicated on tragic failure. Alexandra, his three-year-old daughter, died in 1922 and Fuller briefly considered suicide, but rejected it in favor of what he called a “blind date with principle.” Starting from there, he set out to relearn and rethink the whole ball of wax, writing, “I committed myself to as much of a fresh start as a human being can have—to try to go back to the fundamentals and see what nature was really up to.” We are still figuring out what this otherworldly visionary was really up to, and the Whitney exhibition makes a perfect point of departure.