We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.
July 12, 2008 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Today is R. Buckminster Fuller's 113th birthday. Visionary, designer, inventor, engineer - 'Bucky' continues to inspire us. Known as the grandfather of sustainability, even today we discover that we've barely scratched the surface of his thinking and still have far to go and much to learn about managing Spaceship Earth. [ previously]
posted by infini (24 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
posted by bluenausea at 1:43 PM on July 12, 2008

I like this day because it gives me an excuse to say "buckyballs."

posted by Rhaomi at 1:48 PM on July 12, 2008

posted by loquacious at 2:03 PM on July 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm wearing Dymaxion pants. As usual.
posted by pracowity at 2:12 PM on July 12, 2008

There was an article about him in the New Yorker just a few weeks ago.
posted by neuron at 2:12 PM on July 12, 2008

I appreciated Elizabeth Kolbert's piece in the New Yorker about Fuller a few weeks ago. I saw him speak when I was about 15 years old, a year or so before he died, and I must say, the experience was as she described:
Audiences were enraptured and also, it seems, mystified. “It was great! What did he say?” became the standard joke.
And while the geodesic dome was a masterful piece of invention and aesthetics, it's worth noting it was, in general, a failure in practical terms. Kolbert quotes Stewart Brand:
Domes leaked, always. The angles between the facets could never be sealed successfully. If you gave up and tried to shingle the whole damn thing—dangerous process, ugly result—the nearly horizontal shingles on top still took in water. The inside was basically one big room, impossible to subdivide, with too much space wasted up high. The shape made it a whispering gallery that broadcast private sounds to everyone.
posted by underthehat at 2:22 PM on July 12, 2008

Fuller was one of those interesting individuals who was half visionary genius and half crackpot. As far as crackpot goes he made outrageous statements as if they were fact, such as promoting a devolution theory of human development where we started out as aquatic animals and evolved into apes. He could drop egregious technical blunders, like claiming that gold was the most conductive metal. His Dymaxion car was a three wheeler, and so was intrinsically unstable. This is why we don't see three-wheeled recreational vehicles these days, they are all four-wheelers now. Thankfully we have video of these obsolete vehicles.

His writing was classic crackpot. As the Disinformation page puts it:

Critical Path has many of the hallmarks of so-called "crackpot literature": unorthodox punctuation (massive, annoying hyphenation), strange language (overuse of the prefix "omni-"; humans referred to as "Earthians"), an impossibly broad scope, and noticeable hubris because the author is sure that he has all the answers.

If you throw together enough abstract concepts into run-on sentences, at least some people will think you are a genius.

Nevertheless, his positive contributions deserve to be celebrated. While most known for his geodesic dome (though he did not actually invent it) he also patented the "Octet Truss" (though he didn't invent that either). You have probably seen octet trusses around but not known their history. Here in Seattle, the octet truss is used both for structural support and for art. (Self Links)
posted by Tube at 2:41 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Obligatory reference to "tensegrity" which he also didn't invent.
posted by DU at 2:47 PM on July 12, 2008

One more link for the pile: here's a still-relevant twenty-year-old retrospective on Fuller's work from American Heritage magazine. Serves as a sort of counterpoint to the New Yorker piece, which was interesting but to my mind a bit more biting than Fuller's work deserves.

I mean, I get it, the domes leaked, but for some reason when a designer couches his ideas in terms of real humanistic progress and words like sustainability are attached to it, even the most future-tense concepts are attacked for every flaw. Whereas visionary architects working on little but their own aesthetic vanities are given all kinds of leeway. (See, for example, Frank Gehry's functional disaster at MIT, which seems not to have dimmed his star one watt.)

If you don't want to slog through the whole American Heritage piece, here's what I found to be the most curious bit, which gives a little more credit than Elizabeth Kolbert did to the innovative potential of the Dymaxion House:

As innovative and outlandish as the Dymaxion house and car were, they paled before Fuller’s real objective. He envisioned shelter as a service industry—worldwide, functional, and affordable. Housing should in the future be delivered when and where it was needed, with maintenance standardized and dependable. High-quality shelter should be inexpensive for all, with mass production bringing economies of scale. The scope of this vision presented obvious practical problems. Throughout his career Fuller had little patience with interested backers out to make money from his ideas; he wanted no less than to create an industry that would remake the world.

He almost got his chance in 1944, when Beech Aircraft became interested in his house. Supported by the War Production Board and the U.S. Department of Labor—both concerned with giving workers a future in a war-dependent industry—Beech tooled up for production of a new Dymaxion house, in Wichita, Kansas. Production was scheduled to begin in early 1947 and reach an eventual volume of half a million houses selling for thirty-seven hundred dollars apiece. A 1946 prototype drew visitors from all over the country; according to Fortune magazine, 93 percent of them wanted to buy one immediately. The thirty-six-foot diameter circular structure was unexpectedly spacious and luxurious, with seven rooms and every possible convenience. Sixteen-foot cathedral ceilings and a wraparound Plexiglas window added to its expansive feeling. Made with the latest aircraft alloys, the house weighed exactly the three tons Fuller had predicted in 1929. All the component parts, including a large roof ventilator that revolved according to wind direction, fitted inside one small cylinder for shipping. Fortune called the house “so completely radical there is no basis for comparison with the traditional dwelling.” Internal political struggles suffocated the project, but not before hundreds of unsolicited orders, complete with checks, arrived in Wichita.

Makes you wonder how different the world might be if Bucky's ideas and not those of Levittown had come to dominate the postwar housing boom.
posted by gompa at 3:21 PM on July 12, 2008 [7 favorites]

posted by shakespeherian at 3:41 PM on July 12, 2008

I get that leaking is bad. But:

The inside was basically one big room, impossible to subdivide, with too much space wasted up high. The shape made it a whispering gallery that broadcast private sounds to everyone.

This doesn't make sense to me. Why can't you subdivide a dome into rooms? Building a wall up from the floor wouldn't be different until you got to the outer curved wall. And it's trivial to imagine fittings that you would attach to the outer wall to hold the final couple of studs and/or the header atop them. Or in his world, it's trivial to imagine a metal-skeleton panel that you'd attach to the curved outer wall, and then straight panels you'd attach to those panels to form interior walls.

As for the wasted space up top, if there's enough room to stand up in the center, make it a mechanical room. If there's, it's an attic like any other.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:33 PM on July 12, 2008

The Whitney's got an exhibit going on right now. Not a lot of there there, ultimately, but his tensegrity sculptures are pretty nifty. And his stuff just looked cool.
posted by whuppy at 6:00 PM on July 12, 2008

I somehow had never heard of Fuller until just over a year ago when I went to Montreal with some friends for the Fête Nationale.. Of a very full, very cool weekend stuffed with good music, good beer, tons of poutine and making fun of MIMS, the high point was definitely visiting the giant Buckyball and fuller museum.

There was a young woman, about our age, working there, and at the sight of six mid-twenties dorks who were clearly there because we wanted to know more about Fuller, it was like a switch turned on. So long had she been giving her spiel to disinterested filed-trip crowds that she'd hardly let us leave. It was amazing, and is most definitely the most memorable part of the weekend.

For my money, my favorite work of his if the Dymaxion Map, which still fascinates me whenever I study it.

Great post!
posted by Navelgazer at 6:37 PM on July 12, 2008

The tensegrity (Fuller's coinage, at least) is a fairly big deal.

There's quite a bit of evidence tensegrities are the basic architecture of eukaryotic cells-- which means everyone reading this thread contains more than a trillion of them, making them a little more successful than the geodesic dome, though some people do regard them as a superset of the geodesic dome:

"The tension-bearing members in these structures – whether Fuller's domes or Snelson's sculptures – map out the shortest paths between adjacent members (and are therefore, by definition, arranged geodesically) Tensional forces naturally transmit themselves over the shortest distance between two points, so the members of a tensegrity structure are precisely positioned to best withstand stress. For this reason, tensegrity structures offer a maximum amount of strength."[From my first link]
posted by jamjam at 6:48 PM on July 12, 2008

The Whitney exhibit is reviewed in the link "inspire us", btw.

Sure the visionary was a crackpot (or not, keep in mind he was doing this back in the early decades of the previous century), but i'm still blown away by the opening words of his "grand strategy" which read as though they were 'blogged' yesterday.

Throughout the history of man there has never been enough to go around for everyone---there has always been scarcity. Therefore, the basic problem was: who gets what? Who survives and who doesn't? Every society has had a different system for deciding that question, and which group survived was usually decided by war!

But just because it has always been that way doesn't mean that it always has to be that way in the future. Just because there was scarcity in the past, does that mean that there has to be scarcity in the future?

No! Mankind now has enough knowledge to be able to invent our way into a future of plenty. We are just not aware of the fact that we now have that possibility. According to the engineers, the world's industrial system is now operating at only about four percent efficiency, but it could easily be improved to an average of twelve percent. In other words, all we have to do is start using already existing inventions and stop being so wasteful!

Ok. That sounds great, but having two or three times as much wealth would not do much good if the world's population keeps growing. Luckily, it just so happens that as industrialization increases, the global birth rate decreases. As the amount of energy per person increases, the birth rate decreases, so that if the world is completely industrialized by about the year 2010, the total population should peak at about 6 billion & then start declining.

Therefore, if we only double the average efficiency we could easily take care of the world's present one billion poor (the other four billion are already "making it" now). And if we triple the efficiency we could not only take care of any future population growth, but dramatically raise everyone's standard of living.

(The figures that I have used are very conservative. The efficiency could probably be raised much higher, complete industrialization could be achieved much faster, and population growth slowed down much faster. It is better to understate than overstate.)

So, we are not on a treadmill; there is a way out. There is a practical strategy. How, specifically, can we raise the efficiency? How can we get more energy, use less materials, & use less time to provide for our basic needs? What do we need?

Lots of renewable energy, plenty of food, decent inexpensive housing, medical care, education, transportation, & communication, to name the basics.

posted by infini at 7:02 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

It takes a proper crackpot to see the future.

Why do you think they're sometimes called visionaries?

And if a raving stranger came to you speaking of visions of the future, what would you do?

Perhaps geniuses simply keep quiet about it and take notes until they can understand what they're seeing well enough before they start raving about it.

By many tales, Buckminster Fuller was a cantankerous drunk, or worse.

My favorite quote? Paraphrasing: "How places does nature calculate Pi to...?"

Thank you for infecting me with big pictures, Mr. Fuller.

posted by loquacious at 11:30 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

err, "How many places does nature calculate Pi to...?"
posted by loquacious at 11:42 PM on July 12, 2008

The inside was basically one big room, impossible to subdivide, with too much space wasted up high. The shape made it a whispering gallery that broadcast private sounds to everyone.

BTW, a geodesic "dome" can actually be built in any shape. It's basically a space frame "skin". So you don't actually have to have space wasted up high or whispering galleries. (And you are right that even in the classic dome shape you didn't have to have one big room.)
posted by DU at 5:18 AM on July 13, 2008

If there's anyone who would like to learn the actual math of geodesic domes, there is a very accessible book about it (google books sample) -- accessible, but the math is fully worked out -- by, oddly enough, Hugh Kenner, who was (one would guess from looking at him) otherwise a standard-issue, bow-tie-wearing lit critic/English prof, though a fine and influential one (see for instance The Pound Era) with as good a claim as anyone in the biz of owning the first thirty years of 20th century English literary history outright. There is a tip of the Language hat to Kenner over here

> Fuller was one of those interesting individuals who was half visionary genius and half crackpot.

Runs in the family.
posted by jfuller at 10:04 AM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nature doesn't have to mess around with calculating.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:09 AM on July 13, 2008

I guess this post is good, because it turned the gears over in my brain enough to realize that William Shockley, William F. Buckley, and Buckminster Fuller aren't the same person after all.

Somehow, probably because their names share some letters, I'd gotten them all filed away in the same mental shoebox. I would hear about one of them and sort of dimly think how amazing it is that the same guy invented the transistor, was one of the leading conservative thinkers and editors of our time, and also came up with geodesic domes and fullerenes. A true Renaissance man.

Well, now that man is dead and I have a real Buckminister Fuller to learn about. Thanks.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:37 PM on July 13, 2008

and also came up with geodesic domes and fullerenes.

And just FYI, Fuller didn't conceive of fullerenes, they were only named in his honor.

And I have a supercool laser etched hologram of a fullerene lighted underneath with a blue LED on my desk at work that I bought from Bathsheba. It's a good thing to stare into when you're stuck on something.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:30 PM on July 13, 2008

"Specialization is for ants."
posted by grubi at 5:43 AM on July 14, 2008

isn' that heinlein?
posted by infini at 9:18 AM on July 14, 2008

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