PRINT November 2008


R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER LIVED THROUGH the oil crisis of 1973 and ’74, and through the energy-conservation and alternative-energy movements it spawned—and then he watched those movements sidelined by corporate interests. It may be that these events only strengthened his conviction that humanity can and must learn to live “entirely within its cosmic-energy income,” e.g., waterpower, tidal power, wave power, wind power, vegetation-produced fuels, methane gas, and so on. The alternative—to dip into our “cosmic-energy savings account” and spend our “cosmic capital” by using fossil fuels and nuclear power—was, for him, a “folly no less illogical than burning your house-and-home to keep the family warm on an unprecedentedly cold midwinter night.”1

Thirty-five years later, with prices for oil and gasoline rising to unheard-of heights, and with lobbyists for fossil fuels and nuclear generators still fighting hard against investment in renewable energy technologies, the bonfires are burning brighter than ever. In their light we can see clearly that Fuller, creator of so many inspiring if not always practical prototypes, was himself a prototype. He was the forerunner of the contemporary designers who, as science fiction writer and technology “wrangler” Bruce Sterling puts it in his 2005 manifesto Shaping Things, “want to be active agents in a technosocial world.”2 Sterling asserts that it is the combination of innovation, creativity, aesthetics, and, above all, systemic thinking that makes designers peculiarly well suited to tackle the critical issues of resource depletion and climate change. “The status quo uses archaic forms of energy and materials which are finite and toxic,” he says. “They wreck the climate, poison the populace and foment resource wars. . . . Design thinking and design action should be the proper antidotes to fatalistic hand-wringing when it comes to technology’s grim externalities and potentials for deliberate abuse.”3 He is echoing William McDonough, whose “cradle to cradle” philosophy—which makes a plausible case that a waste-free, nontoxic industrial system is possible—is one of the most nuanced theorizations of sustainable design, but the reverberations of an earlier practitioner of “anticipatory” design are strong here as well. Fuller believed that the fundamental requirement for technology was that it maximize benefits to mankind, and he equated these benefits with “wealth”—which, in his terms, is the capacity to deal with future contingencies. Further, he saw the world’s wealth as ever increasing, a universal flow of energy. The problem was in its use and distribution. And there was no way to attack a problem of distribution flows without thinking synergistically: A follower of general systems theory, he approached all of his projects with the understanding that local actions produce global effects. Everything, in his view, was interrelated. The word he liked to use was omni-integrated.

As more and more designers realize that “active agents” cannot think in terms of discrete disciplines or isolated questions, Fuller’s radical holism appears increasingly relevant. Thus it seems crucial to grasp the full implications of his vision of “total ecological regeneration” (which took aim at factory farming, among other industrializations) and of a “design-science-artifacts-produced-and-induced, sustainable, and unprecedentedly high standard of living for all.”4 To that end, it’s perhaps useful to reflect on the degree to which Fuller’s thinking syncs with what philosopher Félix Guattari would later call “ecosophy.” Ecosophy, per Guattari, is an ethico-political interrelation of three ecologies—the ecology of the environment, the ecology of social relations, and the ecology of human subjectivity—that must be at once global and molecular. As demonstrated in the work of architectural firm R&Sie(n), the resultant “eco-logics” is a generalized ecology that does not strive for resolution and that moves between collective action and individual creativity—i.e., allows for emergent orders and practices, for the drift or bifurcation of a project from its initial path. “Eco-logics” is therefore a practice and a process; it is applied and theoretical, ethico-political and aesthetic. It is a process of “continuous resingularization” (continual mutation, reinvention, becoming).5 Donna Haraway articulates this beautifully in her discussion of the advent of holism in biology—under the influence of systems theory and, subsequently, complexity theory—when she says:

Meanings, communities, persons, organisms, landscapes, and artifacts are configured, constituted, brought into being—formed—in the relentless emergent relationality that is the world. Far from connoting a fixed type, form is formative process. No one could look at an embryo and think anything else.6

Haraway is interested in what she sees as the breakdown of dichotomies that for decades had been considered the foundation of biology: “structure–function, epigenesis–preformation, form–process.”7 It is neither one term nor the other, but both. Noted cell biologist Lynn Margulis, for her part, describes this synergistic, or symbiotic, model in terms of “fused assemblages”: “In reality the tree of life often grows in on itself. Species come together, fuse, and make new beings, who start again.”8

If you go looking for Fuller’s legacy, you will see it everywhere. The recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is merely one example of his visibility. His interest in complex, self-similar lattices manifests itself in the hypnotizingly ornamental nonlinear geometries deployed by architecture firms such as davidclovers, Ruy Klein, su11, Xefirotarch, and FPmod, whose work is on view until later this month at New York’s Artists Space in the exhibition “Matters of Sensation,” curated by Georgina Huljich and Marcello Spina (of the firm Patterns). Fuller’s Dymaxion House is the ancestor of the compact prefabricated dwellings gathered together in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent show “Home Delivery,” in which Contemporary Architecture Practice’s Migrating Formations, 2008, updated the concept of the prefab house via component-based design. Reiser + Umemoto’s curvilinear, laser-cut steel Vector Wall, 2008, meanwhile, continued Fuller’s project while critically upending it, avoiding the fetishization of computation and the essentializing geometries that Jesse Reiser has attributed to Fuller’s geodesics, and subverting aesthetic and formal homogeneity in favor of effect, mood, and ornament.9 More generally, buildings are increasingly becoming adaptive, networked organizations that link infrastructural, structural, circulatory, programmatic, environmental, informational, cultural, economic, historical, and political systems in tightly interconnected formations—a development he would have approved. His theories of “tensegrity” (tensional integrity), Fuller’s term for the interplay of tension and compression in physical structures, have found applications far beyond the built environment: Harvard researcher Donald Ingber, for instance, has developed “tensegrity structures” to model the transmission of signals between cells and tissues, inspired both by the sculptor Kenneth Snelson and by Fuller.10 In the arenas of industrial and product design, one might point to such innovations as the Antro Solo, a new hybrid car conceived by a team of Hungarian engineers and scheduled for release in 2012. The aero-dynamic three-seater, made entirely of carbon fiber, can run on gasoline, ethanol, electricity, solar power, and even pedal power.11

These are all worthy extrapolations of Fuller’s concepts. What is important, however, is that we not lose the forest for the trees. Fuller himself never broke down his practice into components, and we should be careful to follow his example as we consider what he can offer us today. You could say that, above all else, he advocated context-driven intelligence. In his work and his writings, the analytic and developmental isolation of the object gives way to the object that is always perceived as embedded within a complex of forces. In human terms, Fuller conceptualized an “omni-integrated humanity” linking “remotely-deployed-from-one-another, differently colored, differently credoed, differently cultured, differently communicating, and differently competing entities.” Here, in this unstable yet rich and dynamic relation between object and environment, is an “ecological” model in the truest sense.

Helene Furján is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in Philadelphia.


1. R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), xvii.

2. Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 13.

3. Sterling, Shaping Things, 7, 13. See William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002).

4. Fuller, Critical Path, 270, 251.

5. See Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton (London/New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone Press, 2000).

6. Donna Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1976/2004), xvii.

7. Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields, 17.

8. Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 52.

9. See Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, Atlas of Novel Tectonics (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 138–140.

10. See Donald Ingber, “The Architecture of Life,” Scientific American 278, no. 1 (January 1998): 48–57. My thanks to Peter Lloyd Jones for this information. See Helene Furján and Peter Lloyd Jones, “Epigenesis,” in via: Occupation (Philadelphia: School of Design, University of Pennsylvania, 2008), 110–113.