PRINT November 2008



A Dymaxion Car, designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, in front of the US Capitol, Washington, DC, July 20, 1934. Photo: Corbis

IN THE UNITED STATES over the past three months, it has become abundantly clear that the points for debate between the two major political parties’ presidential candidates are not nuanced matters of policy but rather the most basic tenets of the country’s social and economic infrastructure. Yet most remarkable about this particular election season is that such attention to the very contours of civil society has been prompted less by abstract ideology than by concrete circumstance. The credit crisis, for instance, required government intervention on a scale unseen since the Depression, forcing a public renegotiation of free-market principles and, as the crisis spread quickly to other regions of the world, a tacit acknowledgment of globalism as a contemporary reality. Even before that, rising gas prices (and the attendant increased costs of production) were underscoring the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, such that the concept of alternative energy became a question not only of environmentalism—its traditional rationale—but also of economics and, ultimately, of national security. Indeed, creeping into the popular consciousness was the notion of environmentalism as a matter of national security, given that global warming puts in jeopardy the natural resources—from water to wheat fields—that helped to propel the country’s auspicious growth for the past two centuries. In other words, during the past few months an appreciation of the dynamic interconnectedness and coinciding interests of what had previously been deemed unrelated fields—a sense, that is, of each sphere’s role within a larger context, all of them affecting the others’ behavior—began to emerge even within the popular arena of the mainstream media. And to say that this shift in conventional wisdom—however fleeting its grasp of relationships and overlaps among different financial, environmental, and social systems—might create strange bedfellows is an understatement, as anyone digesting recent reports that Obama ads have begun to air on evangelical radio stations might attest. (But then, recall an observation made by retail anthropologist Paco Underhill in these pages last spring, suggesting the erosion of binary, oppositional logic today: “So many issues that challenge us as a species now are not about politics, but rather morality. The idea that someone can be an avid ecologist and a fundamentalist Christian isn’t a disconnect.”)

It is against this unresolved cultural backdrop that R. Buckminster Fuller is presented in the current issue, put forward, significantly, neither as a figure from some futuristic past nor as a figment of some past vision of the future (though he is, it should be said, plainly both of these), but rather as a thinker whose ideas are manifestly relevant right now. For nearly all the issues in play above—energy-related, economic, environmental—are enmeshed in questions of sustainability, ephemeralization, and cross-disciplinary negotiation that Fuller took as his fundamental subjects more than four decades ago. And though his designs, considered by themselves, are at best only rarely applicable today—the Dymaxion Car is, one hopes, but a glimmer of tomorrow’s vehicles; and one hardly imagines a massive dome ever spanning the Manhattan skyline—the ecological underpinnings of his ideas are nevertheless utterly contemporary in their complexion. As architect and founding principal of Morphosis, Thom Mayne observes here of Fuller’s multidimensional methodology, by which the visionary architect transposed the logic of car making to the mass production of housing at the same time that he sought to address the need for alternative energy: “He didn’t think that our world could be approached in terms of singular, monolithic ideas, but only by integrating vastly different systems of knowledge.” And, as architectural scholar Helene Furján suggests, it is only too easy today to see the influence and recognize the potential in architecture and design of what Fuller called omni-integration—wherein any architectural endeavor or designed object must be understood and tactically engaged, bearing in mind those greater, encompassing infrastructures always at hand, binding the local and global: “environmental, informational, cultural, economic, historical, and political systems in tightly interconnected formations.”

But where, then, do we find a place for art? The most intriguing potential of Fuller’s ideas in this respect rests, somewhat paradoxically, partially in its negativity. As Fritz Haeg observes of his own engagements with environmental projects in the wake of Fuller: “There is no single discipline that I subscribe to. Gardeners call me an architect; architects often categorize me as an artist; those in the art world may refer to me as an activist; and many activists call me a gardener. Ultimately, I want my work to enter into a mainstream dialogue without the label ‘contemporary art.” Taking into account questions of context, in other words, inevitably leads to conditions in which a practice is at once both and neither, with art going less by name than by the continuous navigation of those terms. Or, to cite Furján about Fuller’s holistic approach, seen as a kind of “Eco-logics”: “[It is] a practice and a process; it is applied and theoretical, ethico-political and aesthetic.” If Fuller sought relationships among these different quarters that were striking in his time, now they seem so only for their basic soundness.