American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

Dare To Be Naive
by Sarah Feldman

Click the yellow arrows above to read other essays on Buckminster Fuller.

Jobless, without savings or prospects, with a wife and newborn daughter to support, suicidal and drinking heavily, in 1927 Richard Buckminster Fuller had little reason to be optimistic about the future. R. Buckminster Fuller -- or "Bucky," as he's affectionately known -- transformed that low point in his life into a catalyst for transforming our planet's future and as well as his own. A mathematical genius, environmentalist, architect, cartographer, poet, and an engineer of rare foresight and a philosopher of unique insight, Fuller was born in 1895 but can be truly considered a 21st century man.

Renouncing personal success and financial gain, at age 32 Fuller set out to "search for the principles governing the universe and help advance the evolution of humanity in accordance with them." Central to his mission were the ideas that 1) he had to divest himself of false ideas and "unlearn" everything he could not verify through his own experience, and 2) human nature -- and nature itself -- could not be reformed and therefore it was the environment -- and our response to it -- that must be changed. Fuller entered into a two-year period of total seclusion, and began working on design solutions to what he inferred to be mankind's central problems.

With his goal of "finding ways of doing more with less to the end that all people--everywhere--can have more and more," Fuller began designing a series of revolutionary structures. The most famous of these was the pre-fabricated, pole-suspended single-unit dwelling Dymaxion House. (The term Dymaxion was derived from the words 'dynamic,' 'maximum,' and 'ion.') In 1933, he developed the three-wheeled, rear engine, streamlined Dymaxion Car. Unfortunately, though the car performed well, negative publicity resulting from a fatal accident halted its production. Fuller's designs tended to be based a geometry that used triangles, circles and tetrahedrons more than the traditional planes and rectangles. His Dymaxion Air-Ocean Map, which projected a spherical world as a flat surface with no visible distortion, brought him to the attention of the scientific community in 1943, and his map was the first cartographic projection of the world to ever be granted a U.S. patent.

In 1947 and 1948, Fuller's study of geodesics, "the most economical momentary relationship among a plurality of points and events," led him to his most famous invention, the geodesic dome. A hemispherical structure composed of flat, triangular panels, the domes were inexpensive to produce, lightweight yet strong space-efficient buildings. The geodesic dome combines the sphere, the most efficient container of volume per square foot, with the tetrahedron, which provides the greatest strength for the least volume of weight. Its design allows the dome to withstand winds of 210 mph, while at the same time it is light and easily transportable. Today, Fuller's geodesic domes can be found in varying sizes in countries all over the world, from Casablanca to Baton Rouge. Recognized as a landmark achievement in design and architecture, Fuller's dome was described in 1964 by Time magazine as "a kind of benchmark of the universe, what seventeenth century mystic Jakob Boehme might call 'a signature of God.'"
In 1959 he joined the faculty of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and used that as a base of operations for what Fuller called his "toings and froings." For the next two decades, Fuller globe-trotted and lectured and consulted on a variety of projects. During this period of upheaval and great change, Fuller's ideas and work in such areas as ecology, conservation, education and environmental design found an enthusiastic audience among young people all over the world. After a stint at the University Science Center in Philadelphia, in 1972 the non-profit Design Science Institute was formed in Washington, DC to perpetuate Fuller's ideas and designs.

A self-proclaimed "apolitical," Fuller maintained there was "no difference between left and the right." Nevertheless, he admitted he struggled to "dare to be naive," and retained an optimistic faith that "an omni-integrated, freely intercirculating, omni-literate world society" was within our grasp. A prolific writer, Fuller's magnum opus is undoubtedly "Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking", on which he collaborated with E.J. Applewhite in 1975. The work is considered a major intellectual achievement in its examinations of language, thought and the universe.

Though he only stood 5'2" tall, R. Buckminster Fuller looms large over the 20th century. Though a man of incredible intellect and vision, many of "Bucky's" fans remain most impressed by the man's awe-inspiring humility -- and his abiding love for his planet and his fellow human beings. "Above all, said Fuller, "I was motivated in 1927 and ever since by the most mysterious drive we ever experience -- that of love. I don't think there's any influence upon my life that compares"

R. Buckminster Fuller
July 12, 1895-July 1, 1983