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Friday, September 16, 2011

R. Buckminster Fuller

About once per century the world is gifted with an individual so remarkably versatile and talented in so many fields relating to the arts and sciences that we have come to apply the term "Renaissance Man." Recently I've talked about the great Leonardo, and (to my mind at least) the even greater Christopher Wren, and from these shores, the incomparable Thomas Jefferson. From this country also comes a great 20th century thinker, scientist and artist who also fits the classic description of the Renaissance man--R. Buckminster Fuller. As with all these individuals, this man, "Bucky" to his friends, was at least a generation or two ahead of his time. He, like Wren, was first of all an inventor, but also a brilliant mathematician, a scientist, a thinker, and finally, an architect. But not an architect in the classical sense of the word as was Wren. In fact, quite the opposite. Though the underlying logic and geometric perfection of his designs might be deemed classical, he was, without a doubt,  the first of what we call "green" architects.

Photo by R. M Herman
Dymaxion House, Buckminster Fuller, 1932, now at
the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
Fuller was born in 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts. A Harvard graduate, right out of college he tackled the problems surrounding the efficient use of earth's natural resources and energy at a time, during the 1930s, when everything was scarce, yet paradoxically, few scientists had given the matter much thought. In 1932, he founded the Dymaxion Corporation. The term, though coined by a public relations firm (DYnamic MAXimum ION, a physics concept), was an umbrella designation for a number of lifestyle inventions all aiming to get the most from the least. His designs involved the Dymaxion House, the Dymaxion car, and eventually, whole cities designed to float at sea. The house was a factory built, self-sufficient, donut-shaped structure hung by cables from a central concrete mast; while the car was kind of a tear drop shaped mini-van capable of holding ten people, travel at speeds up to 75 miles per hour, and get in the neighborhood of 30-40 miles per gallon of gas.

Dymaxion car, Buckminster Fuller, 1932,
the front of the car is to the left.
Although the technology didn't exist at the time (and still doesn't), Fuller had in mind for his car to eventually be a flying vehicle landing and taking off vertically using movable thrusters not unlike today's Harrier jets. His thinking was that such a vehicle and such a home would open up vast unused areas of the earth's surface to habitation.

The logical corollary
to Fuller's dome is
the geodesic sphere.
Much the same thinking went into his designs for pyramid-shaped floating cities. During the late 1960s the US Government seriously considered funding such a venture. Of course Fuller's trademark architectural achievement was his geodesic dome, which he didn't invent, but merely popularized. No one who has visited Disney's Epcot Center or seen the US Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal World Exposition can come away unimpressed with such an achievement. Fuller had in mind to use the structure to enclose entire cities as seen in his plans to cover downtown Pittsburgh (the other alternative he suggested for the city involved explosives). Imagine, an architectural structure that, as it becomes larger, also became lighter. A geodesic dome 1000 feet in diameter, when heated inside to a temperature of just one degree warmer than that outside, actually becomes lighter than the air it encloses. Fuller's designs were not limited just to the great and grand. He also invented what he called the "fog gun." It was a high powered misting device designed to conserve water while washing the body without soap. Actual tests indicated that a family of four could bathe (separately, of course) using only one pint of water.
photo by Cedric Thevenet
Fuller's geodesic Biosphere, Montreal, Canada, 1967

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