American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

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"Whenever I draw a circle, I immediately want to step out of it."

So said R. Buckminster Fuller, who, for the better part of the 20th century, went where no man had gone before as the maverick captain of the planet he called "Spaceship Earth." An architect, designer, engineer, poet, philosopher, author and global iconoclast, Fuller was a true visionary, a Renaissance man best remembered as creator of the geodesic dome. As part of its 10th anniversary celebration, AMERICAN MASTERS profiles "Bucky" Fuller, the man who has been called a 20th century Da Vinci, a modern Ben Franklin, and a jet-age Emerson.

What did his contemporaries think of him? See clips & quotes from the film, plus previously unpublished excerpts from the film's interviews.

In Buckminster Fuller's world, cars had three wheels, houses were to be delivered by blimps, and cities were to be built inside floating spheres. To many, Fuller was a genius; to others, a crackpot. To most, he was both. This insightful documentary lets viewers decide for themselves about the man considered to be one of the 20th century's most distinguished, innovative and controversial thinkers. "Fuller's journey on 'Spaceship Earth' encompassed nearly a century of American life," said AMERICAN MASTERS Executive Producer Susan Lacy. "He's an ideal and fascinating subject for the series because he played such a major role in so many important historical and cultural movements, from the Machine Age to the counter-culture of the 1960s."

This first documentary on Fuller since his death in 1983 is produced and directed by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, one of the critics at this past winter's Sundance Film Festival, singled it out as one of the most promising films and "an especially insightful and colorful portrait."

"It's remarkable how Fuller urged everyone to think globally and act ecologically long before most people had even heard the words," said Ms. Goodman. Added Mr. Simon, "We were so fortunate to be the first journalists to be given access to Fuller's archive and unpublished personal papers."

The Buckminster Fuller Institute allowed the filmmakers unprecedented access to its archives and materials for this documentary. At the core of the film are rare and previously unseen materials, including film and video clips, photographs, and private correspondence from Fuller's voluminous archives spanning eight decades.

The film, "Thinking Out Loud," looks at Fuller's unorthodox life. Born cross-eyed, he was a belligerent youngster, twice kicked out of Harvard. The illness and death of his young daughter led to a period of heavy drinking, during which he considered suicide, but Fuller then decided to commit himself to bettering mankind through a "design revolution." Understanding that the earth's resources were finite long before such notions were standard environmental thinking, he designed the Dymaxion House in 1927. The metal structure hung from a central mast with outer walls of continuous glass, affording maximum design efficiency with minimal materials. Among its unique features: it was designed to be prefabricated and airlifted to any site, was self-vacuuming and centrally air-conditioned.

Fuller next designed the Dymaxion Car, a sensation when it was demonstrated on city streets and at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Because the strange-looking streamlined car rode on three wheels, seated 11 passengers, and got a remarkable 30 miles to the gallon, it promised to revolutionize the auto industry -- until a tragic accident ultimately derailed those plans.

The post-war housing shortage strengthened Fuller's resolve to devise affordable housing for everyone. In 1945, Fuller was inspired by the sight of unused grain bins to create a company to build low-priced homes, or "modern igloos."

And in 1948, while serving as professor of architecture at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Fuller created the geodesic dome, which he believed would herald a new era in housing throughout the world. The geodesic dome was the invention that brought the spotlight to his oeuvre, and in fact it was chosen as the design for the United States Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal, where the 200-foot-high version still stands.

By the 1960's and '70s, Fuller was giving more than 400 lectures a year, and became a guru to young people. He traveled around the world 122 times to deliver his message that science and technology could solve all of humanity's problems.

John Cage, composer

Paul Goldberger, New York Times

"He had this confidence that science & technology could answer everything and the world could be made to work and function right if only we would stop our nonsense and get down to business and listen to him."

Al Hirschfeld, artist

  • Clip (qt movie, 413k)

Arthur Penn, film director

Merce Cunningham, choreographer

Allan Temko, San Francisco Chronicle

"...a certain kind of frenzy, as though time were going to run out at 2am that night."

J.Baldwin, author and inventor

Philip Johnson, architect

  • Simon & Goodman's interview with Philip Johnson
  • At a recent panel discussion on the film:
    "I'm in the minority here since I didn't like Bucky Fuller. I don't know why I was invited. It's all very embarrassing."

Buckminster Fuller

  • Clip (qt movie, 2.3mb)
  • Clip (qt movie, 6.7mb)

Gerard Hughes, classmate

"They called him four eyes, which was rather cruel. But he took it all in good nature ...he was one of those fellows that rode through rough waters and was able to navigate himself."

This TV program was funded by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.