In the summers of 1948 and 1949, Buckminster Fuller was teaching at Black Mountain College, a small liberal arts college in western North Carolina. In characteristic fashion, he was trying to drum up interest in a new invention—the geodesic dome. With a euphoric conviction that this latest contribution, like those before it, represented an important accomplishment, and quite possibly the palliative to the world’s ills, Fuller tirelessly advocated the wholesale adoption of the dome as a state-of-the-art shelter solution for post-war consumers. Always indefatigable, Fuller wrote enthusiastic letters to advertising agencies and press associates, proselytized to students in long lectures repurposed as even longer position papers, and sent peppy memos and engineering plans to various branches of the military and to contacts in the private building trades. As one of his students at Black Mountain, the painter and writer Elaine de Kooning reflected, “Bucky’s eyes… had us all mesmerized. They were, to us, the eyes of a visionary, a saint, all-comprehending, all-forgiving. We loved him and hung on every word.”1
Yet doubters and detractors were thick on the ground—in spite of unflagging self-promotion, Fuller didn’t have a great track record by the late 1940s. Several criticisms dogged Fuller by this time, raising a chorus of dissent that he attempted to drown out with the tenaciousness of a carnival barker. In previous decades Fuller had embarked on numerous ill-fated ventures pitched as radical remedies to key problems in housing, automotive engineering, aeronautics, and cartography. Together, this body of inventions he termed “dymaxion” constructions, in which portable, mass-produced goods and shelters efficiently delivered “the maximum gain of advantage from the minimal energy output.”2 Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Fuller produced a variety of prototype cars, houses, maps, and even bathrooms. Based on his initial 1927 “4-D House,” to which a Marshall Fields’ advertising man lent the “dymaxion” moniker (a neologism derived from Fuller’s predilection for the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension”), the dymaxion constructions emphasized the efficient deployment of resources through mass production. Encouraging portability and general consumption, they used the weight and cost of the completed structures as central design criteria.
Once featured in influential popular culture magazines, however, Fuller’s inventions tended to languish soon after the prototype development stage.3 Advance publicity generated numerous serious buyers—from among approximately 30,000 inquiries—for the Fuller House throughout the mid-1940s, yet production was stalled as Fuller struggled with his backers at Beech. The Dymaxion Map was intended as an educational distribution for elementary school students, but the project floundered when costs proved prohibitive for mass distribution. His projects all seemed unrealizable, so that by 1948 a profile on Fuller proposed for Science Illustrated generated the following internal queries: “Can you include in the piece some of the reasons why Fuller’s plans and projects have failed… Shouldn’t there be some mention of the fact that Fuller never seems to carry things through? Doesn’t look as though he ever will. Why?”4 Grumblings of increasing frequency and intensity were voiced about Fuller’s inability to shepherd a project beyond the realm of conjecture.5
These failures were aggravated, in critic’s minds, by Fuller’s cultivation of a self-consciously “visionary” breadth of thought, which permitted him to deflect specific criticisms of his projects by pointing to the narrowness of his critics’ foresight. To Fuller, his projects were “evolutionary” and could be adequately realized only decades after his initial insights, an assertion that most found irritatingly proleptic. Equally alienating were Fuller’s arguments—typically self-aggrandizing and portentous statements written with an autodidact’s proclivity towards showcasing largely irrelevant information, resulting in his notoriously lengthy digressions.6 Willfully falling between chairs, engineers found his work—particularly his written tracts—quaintly philosophical, while Fuller left artists baffled (though often captivated) by his pseudo-scientific neologisms.
The ambivalent reception to Fuller’s ideas was due primarily to his unconventional argument about the methodology of experimentation responsible for his inventions. His process of thinking—what he termed “total thinking”—strove to uncover universal principles of nature, therefore allowing him to anticipate solutions to future problems.7 In Fuller’s model, experimental procedures were those by which the “valid data” of “what is really going on in nature” could be formulated conceptually by artists (also known as “comprehensive designers”), thereby exposing the conventionalized knowledge claims or “myths” of an overly specialized society.8 In attempting to think comprehensively about society, he advocated inferring future experiments from existing postulates: as Fuller proclaimed, “the design grew out of the philosophy.”9 Experiment, to him, was the process of aligning specific failures of a method with the regularities of holistically-conceived systems, a process not unlike a deductive application of the scientific method, in which a general hypothesis is offered and then its merits tested. This model of experiment, summarized by Fuller as “comprehensive, anticipatory design science,” would propel, teleologically, current limited understanding towards a finite totality of universal knowledge. The world in its entirety was fodder for experiment, and revelation of its underlying general rules the experimental procedure. As Fuller claimed, it was necessary to take “the phenomena [of] life as we are given it as an experiment, exploring it thoroughly and fulfilling the given problem.”10 Anticipatory design science, as he defined it, demanded knowledge be “generated by experimental discovery of the natural laws involved.”11
Fast forward nearly thirty years to 1975, when Fuller gave his marathon lecture “Everything I Know” over two weeks in Philadelphia. Fuller hadn’t changed much—his speeches were still animated, often convoluted, and never concise. But he’d managed to charm a much wider circle than Elaine de Kooning and other students and faculty at Black Mountain College. Fuller’s ideas of equitable resource management and holistic planning—what he termed “comprehensive design”—had substantial influence in the 1960s and 1970s. Of particular importance in exploring, testing, and propagating Fuller’s ideas were the “access to tools” ethos of the Whole Earth Catalog and other DIY satellite publications and organizations; the examples in practice of the network of intentional communities such as Libre, Drop City, and Red Rockers profiled by the Whole Earth books that were constructing domes and deploying other Fuller-inspired “appropriate” technologies throughout the 1960s and 1970s; and, finally, as architectural historian Felicity Scott has examined, the challenge of radical art and architectural collectives such as Ant Farm, which were bent on politicizing the technocratic, libertarian logic of Fuller’s theories so often rehearsed by his acolytes.12
The forty-two hours of “Everything I Know” is textbook Fuller—overweening in scope, yet prophetic on issues of resource management and scarcity. In it Fuller articulates his “total thinking”—what in other contexts he termed “comprehensive, anticipatory design science” that tests traditional artistic and architectural forms in order to teleologically progress toward a utopia of efficiently managed resources. Yet “total thinking” is perhaps not the most important feature of Fuller’s influence. Instead, his paradoxical stance of self-declared success in the face of apparent setback—his proposal of a model of experimentation that accommodated failure in the name of a larger holistic program—has proved to be one of Fuller’s greatest contributions.13
1 Elaine de Kooning, “de Kooning Memories,” in Mervin Lane, ed., Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds, An Anthology of Personal Accounts (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 247.
2 R. Buckminster Fuller, “Emergent Humanity: Its Environment and Education,” in Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for the New Millennium, Thomas T.K. Zung, ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 119.
3 Articles on Fuller and his inventions appeared in Fortune, Time, and Architectural Forum. Often profiles mention his failings, for example, the Saturday Evening Post, October 18, 1944: “Some people say the inventor of the 3-wheel automobile and the ‘dwelling machine’ is an authentic 18-carat genius. Others just laugh and laugh.” Quoted in Krausse and Lichtenstein, Your Private Sky, 14.
4 Edward Hutchings Jr. quoted in Beaumont Newhall letter to John R. Whiting, editor of Science Illustrated, August 11, 1948 [R. Buckminster Fuller Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries].
5 See the final sections of Robert W. Marks, “Man of Science: Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion World,” Science Illustrated, November 1948.
6 Fuller had a fixation with patenting his works possibly motivated by his lack of formal academic training. He obtained patents for 25 inventions in his lifetime, and enforced them doggedly. He certified his students as “dymaxion designers” to produce no more than one geodesic dome after graduation before paying licensing fees—see for example his “Dymaxion License” to an Institute of Design student dated May 27, 1949 [Fuller Archive]. He chased down unauthorized dome assemblies on college campuses, underscoring his copyright. (A form letter to “Mr. X” of “X School of Art” dated February 11, 1955 describes the royalties Fuller requests to avoid filing a lawsuit if more than one dome was assembled on the offending campus [Fuller Archive]). Conversely, one could attribute such tight proprietary control over his patents to cynical impulses, as licensing his ideas as inventions is hardly commensurate with a comprehensive designer’s ostensibly altruistic impetus. Years later, Fuller realized that patents appeared ungenerous. Fuller appeared contrite when he stated: “I did not take out the patents to make money but only to document and demonstrate what the inventive little individual can accomplish, and to prove documentably [sic] the socioeconomic existence of such unique industrialization lags... Now that I have proven that an individual can be world-effective while eschewing either money or political advantage-making, I do my best to discourage others from taking patents, which almost never ‘pay-off' to the inventor. My patent taking was to effect a `bridgehead' accreditation to more effective employment of humanity's potentials.” [Fuller, Critical Path (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), 149.]
7 “Total thinking” was a common phrase in Fuller’s rhetorical repertoire, and was used early in his career in the essay, “I Figure,” written in 1942. See Fuller in James Meller, ed., The Buckminster Fuller Reader (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books., 1972), 102; and Fuller, “Total Thinking,” 1949, in Meller, Fuller Reader (1972 ed.), 310-328.
8 What Fuller termed the “experimentally unproveable myths.” Zung, Fuller: Anthology, 107, 120.
9 Letter to Deborah Allen, Associate Editor, Interiors, May 8, 1949, 1 [Fuller Archive].
10 Fuller, lecture n.d., (immediately follows lecture dated December 2, 1948, Part 2. It begins “I’m anxious at the point to eliminate…”), likely presented at the Institute of Design, Chicago, 2 [Fuller Archive].
11 Bulletin of the Fuller Research Foundation, June 1955, Exhibit 1, 3 [Fuller Archive].
12 “Access to tools” was the subtitle of each of the four Whole Earth Catalogs (Fall 1968, Spring 1969, Fall 1969, and Spring 1970), as well as the subsequent Last Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Epilog. In addition to featuring articles in categories such as whole systems, shelter and land use, industry and craft, communications, community, nomadics, and learning, the Whole Earth books were catalogs of things one could order through the mail. Andrew W. Kirk’s book Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007) provides an engaging history of the Whole Earth Catalog and its offshoots such as the influential grant-giving, San Francisco Bay Area–based Point Foundation. For information about Ant Farm’s relationship to Fuller’s legacy, see Felicity Scott, Ant Farm: Living Archive 7 (Barcelona: Actar; New York: GSAPP, 2008); and her excellent study of postwar architecture and its countercultural critics, Felicity Scott, Architecture or Techno-utopia: Politics after Modernism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007). Scott’s recent “Fluid Geographies: Politics and the Revolution by Design,” in New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller, ed. Hsiao-Yun Chu and Roberto G. Trujillo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), studies the reception of Fuller in the late 1960s, in particular the World Game and dome projects, by connecting those ventures to the antipolitical and millenarianist logic of Fuller’s acolytes.
13 For example, Fuller’s first attempt to erect a twenty-two-foot-high geodesic dome out of Venetian blind slats at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1948 failed and was good-naturedly termed the “Supine Dome.” His eventual success in raising a large-scale geodesic dome the following year reflected the achievement of “synergetic” processes, but not only in the sense that the structure became stronger than its constitutive lattice of parts. To Fuller, when an entire system or holistic theory’s synergy (in this case the theory of tensegrity) was experimentally validated, it reinforced the presuppositions of his entire method. The Supine Dome exemplified his model of experimentation; it allowed tactical failures as part of a larger holistic strategy. For more information about Fuller and a pedagogy of failure, see the chapter on Buckminster Fuller in my dissertation, “Chance and Design: Experimentation in Art at Black Mountain College” (PhD diss., Princeton University, 2009).
Eva Díaz is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art at Pratt Institute in New York City. She received her Ph.D. at Princeton University in 2009 for her dissertation Chance and Design: Experimentation in Art at Black Mountain College, which focused on rival methodologies of experimentation practiced by three key Black Mountain teachers in the late 1940s and early 1950s: Josef Albers, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller. Her writing has appeared in magazines and journals such as The Art Bulletin, Artforum, Art in America, Cabinet, and Modern Painters; in exhibitions catalogs for the New Museum of Contemporary Art and other institutions; as well as in numerous art monographs and books on curatorial practice. Her recent work about the influence of Buckminster Fuller on contemporary art, titled “Dome Culture in the Twenty-first Century,” appears in the current issue of the MIT Press journal Grey Room.