• 50 Years - A Million Thanks

American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

Interview with Architect Philip Johnson

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These excerpts were taken directly from Simon & Goodman's interview transcripts, and were edited lightly for clarity. The notation [question] indicates that a question was asked. However, the transcripts most often did not contain the actual question, so the filmmakers could assess the usability of the interview segment.


Bucky Fuller was no architect and he kept pretending he was. It was very annoying. We all hated him because he really thought the profession was unnecessary, and he was a .. he knew everything, and he didn't see the need of any little artist wandering around on his tail because he was the great artist being the technical genius that he was. In his opinion.


The question is always asked, was Bucky Fuller an architect, and I'm delighted because he was a lousy architect. In a sense he didn't know anything at all about space, about details, about how you feel, about how you sat, how you walked, how you looked at at a building. But he knew everything. He didn't need architects at all. He was the great enemy of the architectural profession throughout his life, and we loved him in spite of it.


Bucky Fuller's background was the word people of the 19th century. Emerson, good Lord, nobody could write better than Emerson in Europe. We provided that in this country. We also provided a strain of madness. Frank Lloyd Wright was a good example and Bucky Fuller was the prime example of the guru madness that ended up in the California Hills dying a very unfortunate death. But now, but this period where he was the leading guru of the United States and he swept all before it. I mean he was the man who could go into a campus and...I remember him at Yale. He'd come in, everybody would be doing a transectomy, no, ecraty...the names are interchangeable, these tensegrity towers all over the campus. And it was delightful. I came along some odd years after him and I remember I did the glass box at that time. You're here now. So they built glass boxes all over the Yale campus. I mean students are like that. But Bucky, my, there was nobody that had the kids in the palm of his hand the way he did. And it was a beautiful sight.

And he was a lovely man personally, in addition. I mean you just felt the love ooze out from you. It didn't last as long as his speeches did. Four or five hours was a bit much. Well, there was the other thing I didn't like about him, he talked and I wanted to talk. It was outrageous, you know. But all talkers have that same problem. Other people will insist on talking. And Bucky would talk, and talk, and talk. So I remember meeting him once at dinner in Washington in the war. And I remember leaving in the middle. What was the point? This torrent of words just kept on coming. But they didn't make too much sense actually.

Have you ever read, has anybody ever read, "Nine Chains to the Moon"? But the title! Oh you read the title every morning before breakfast and you feel inspired. "Nine Chains to the Moon." I mean it's mellifluous, its beautiful English like that word I don't know about, tensegrity. How lovely. Dymaxion? All right he didn't invent the word, the hell he didn't. I mean he was a wordsmith first, last and always. Oh, he wouldn't think so. See to him, this great technical genius would save the world.


Oh yes, we all want to save the world, we middle-western, non-conformist, New England types. He missed the middle-west. Otherwise he was in the tradition. Frank Lloyd Wright was the middle-western leader of Bucky's moment.


The Dymaxion House was his only claim to architecture. The rest of the time he did stick pretty well to tents and things that could be angles or, or what he called domes. Yeah, they were domes, weren't they? They were round and they had bubbles. But the Dymaxion House was his pretense at a dwelling space - machine for living.

And of course in the 20's, his language was a trumpet that intrigued all of us. I mean we all believed in the machine. The machine was the esthetic of the 20's started, of course, by the cubists. But the 20's - we all believed that we'd be saved by the machine and what we artists could do to express it properly. And that was his faith and it went along very well and became, of course, the faith that provided us with the greatest architect of the machine, Corbusier. A name he could not use . . .Mr. Fuller was not interested in architecture.

So the Dymaxion House was probably the worst planned dwelling in the world. A round, small round space. Unless you're an igloo, unless you like igloos and live like Eskimos in one room. But he believed in privacy, so he carved it up and made rooms at the beds. If you look at the plans today it is to laugh. The bed never got into the pie shape, pie shape room. There's no way architecturally to make it work. But he tried anyhow. And he put an arched door in this mechanical looking thing.

And then he held it up in the central mast. Well if there's one way not to hold up a house, it's from the center. Frank Lloyd Wright tried the same thing you know. I mean it was in the air. It was in the air. A lot later it went into art through Snelson but in engineering it lasted for a long time. You hold down a building on the outside and hold it up in the middle. Well isn't it easier, any common person would say, to hold it up all over? Why do you hold it all up and then pull it down again? Never made any sense. But ideologically it made wonderful sense. We have this central mast - you could see the poetry that would fit around a circular building around a mast. Perfect. Had nothing at all to do with architecture and all to do with dreams and pseudo mechanics.

And he had a wonderful life, and deservedly so. There hasn't been anybody since that could lead us into the land of the future. We don't believe in the future. We don't believe in the land, we don't believe in anything any more. He was the last of the great believers, wasn't he? Last of the Unitarians. I was brought up a Unitarian. You have, it's hard to understand Unitarians because it did have this Millenarian streak in it straight back to Concord and Emerson, that made a believable thing out of the American dream.


The grain bin house? I don't, didn't pay attention to it. Grain bins. I was brought up in the farm country of Ohio with grain bins. I'm not interested.


It <the Montreal dome> was wonderful as an icon. The great fair was an amazing thing and we're picking a guru instead of an architect. The wise, ignorant government of the United States did a wonderful job of picking a sphere. A technological marvel, we all thought anyhow. And belief is the important part here - the fact that anybody could make a dome like that never crossed anyone's mind. And it's not important. What's important is that Bucky had the dream. That's the only way you could make a dome, was his geodesic way. And whatever that was it worked, and it made a symbol of the American, of the United States, as a world power, and advanced . . .And the sphere, you could almost see it roll ahead because it was a sphere, not a dome.

He kept calling the word dome. It wasn't, it was a sphere. And spheres are perfect and they're big and they make a marvelous image down the way a bit. And it dominated the fair in a very successful way. Our only point was it had absolutely nothing to do with architecture. But in a way why should it, you know. Automobiles don't have anything to do with architecture either, but they're marvelous things.

And so Bucky, if he'd just restricted himself, you see, to being a technological crank and a poet, wouldn't have had the enmity of us architects that he managed to provoke. But I admit that we were pretty provokable. I mean we were a bunch of stuffed up New England ... New York cranks that believed that architecture was what Corbusier and Mies van Der Rohe thought it was. Well that wasn't right either. We downplayed the great, sweeping American spirit of do any old thing department.

So we downplayed Bucky and I'm sorry. Because there was a figure that we should greet the way we greet Frank Lloyd Wright. The poet of the future. The Whitman . . of course, the analogy is too clear. Whitman, Emerson, Wright, and Bucky would make a wonderful quartet you see, marching down the halls of history. And he would be in the vanguard. And we should honor him for it and not cavil, as I did throughout his entire life, about his lack of understanding of architecture.


Oh, he had lots of poetic things. He also flew. . .he had lots of ideas about everything. I mean if you lived in a house, you should be able to go into the Maine woods. I noticed that the wood was in Maine. And then you could carry the house from its factory and drop it in an idyllic, obviously self-contained house, with everything but the food maybe...maybe the food. And you'd drop it there in the wilderness and live the way an American should, in a little house in the wilderness. That's and old, old romantic dream. And he was very good at it.

The other one is to make cities safe and romantic and without the squalor and the dirt that we have. And so he put a dome over it. But those things are wonderful ideas. Why not? It kept the world's dream going. The fact that he could dream up a car with 3 wheels. The fact that a car with 3 wheels doesn't work, is really not the point. The point is that he did it and everybody loved it. Stopped the traffic with it. I remember it well. I never took a ride in it.

But it was a, one of those dreams of inventive kind of things that's now disappeared from our horizon. The amateur dreamer, futurist, that word is unfortunately still with us, that could take us off into new ways that we never dreamed of. It was a dream world and he was the man that could embody our dreams most...most beautifully.


I cannot tell you about Shelter because it was a painful period. I was always starting magazines, museums, whatever, and what impelled us to start Shelter I have no idea. George Howe was the real instigator. Oh, I know, I paid for it, that's what I did. They always need somebody. But the real editor was a young Philadelphia architect. I don't even remember his name. I don't know how many issues we put out, 1, 2 or 3. And I gave up and the Philadelphia boy tried to go on. I don't know where they got the money but, but he teamed up with Bucky. And somebody told me that they put out a few issues, but I never saw one. But he, his direction was so different. At that moment I was at my crankiest and he was at his crankiest, so I never saw him.


His style and my style -- that is a contradiction in terms. He had no style. He was an inventor and a guru and a poet. I was a promoter of the international style architecture which we, we 'cause I didn't, named and which took over the buildings, the actual buildings of the world. So naturally we, as a cadre of people with an ax to grind, would be the natural enemies of a dreamer poet. You can imagine, 'cause we were very practical indeed. And our buildings had to be built before we put them in any of our books or any of our thoughts. And there was no way that Bucky's line and mine could've met. It's easy to talk about it now, 40 years, 50 years later, than it was at the time.

My first meeting with him was at Lincoln Kirstein's' gallery in Cambridge in 1929 or maybe 30, when the model of, he had the model of the dymaxion house. And he was young too at that time even, and made an engrossing speech. But I didn't like it at the time cause that was already in the late 20s, involved in modern architecture as traditional architecture, what you think of, that can build churches, that can build houses. He couldn't do either.


I don't know because you could....I don't know who knew Bucky you see. Because Bucky started, he landed talking and, but if there ever was an end he was gone or I was gone. So in fact, he never knew I was present, you know he had no eyes. I don't know what he actually saw through those glasses, but not the people he was talking to. See he was not a man-to-man- talker-to-er. So he was just an appearance, just a geographical expression, as a man. So maybe he was great. I mean maybe he was a loving father, all the things that you think of, I don't know.


Was Bucky Fuller ahead of his time, and are we learning still? Is there some paradigm, is there some lesson that we apply today? Something that nobody even thinks about. That is the answer. Pretty good! (laughter)


Was Bucky Fuller an architect? People keep asking that very silly question. I don't think even he would've said that he was an architect. He would've said that's not the point. He'd say, let's get beyond archit...he might've, had he lived in another period, gone beyond architecture - like all these beyond art books that've been coming out.

But in those days he felt that he was on the main line and we architects were classicists and just fussed around with shapes, and our buildings weighed too much anyhow - as if weight made any difference. But he never realized the importance, that's still important to us, is how do you feel when you're - vis a vis a wall with a hole in it - what do you feel if the hole is the wrong shape or right shape. He'd say that wasn't a question of an interest. So when he went into his house he put an arch in. He couldn't think of any other shape to walk through. See, he didn't care. That wasn't. . . the essence of the Dymaxion house was not the front door, but the essence of a New England salt box, or a New England 18th century house was the front door. How do you feel when you walk in? Do you straighten your tie or you just sort of flop into a room? Very important. But not to Bucky.


Bucky Fuller was a great man for weight. He always worried about whether -- he thought it was a sin almost, in the New England sense, it was a sin to build a heavy house when you could build a light one. It was very interesting, his sense of lightness. It's part of the sphere at the fair. Cannot use the word dome. He could use it but it wasn't a dome, it was a sphere. And a sphere is a bubble. And bubbles do bounce along the lawn. You've seen them when you're a kid blowing bubbles, and you watch them. They wouldn't break, they actually rolled along. And that, that idea can, the lightness idea was in the air. I don't know, I really don't know were he got it.

But the importance to him of the lightness of the, of the sphere as against any other method, cheaper methods of building such a shape, as a prejudice and a belief, but I have no idea where he got it. The rest of us never paid any attention. In fact the pyramids are quite heavy, doesn't make them ugly. But the ugly-beautiful dichotomy didn't have any interest to him. Light-heavy was his, one of his interests. That's why the mast, single support, you see, would hold like nature. Same as Frank Lloyd Wright. It was to us merely a strange aberration.