Buckminster Fuller

Constructed out of various metal alloys, Buckminster Fuller’s Jitterbug is mounted on a vertical rod and undergoes a complex transformation when pressure is applied to a cuff on the rod. With a shape roughly the proportions of a round lollipop, the piece is comprised of 11 modular units, each unit a cube-octahedron with eight equilateral triangles and six squares.

Fuller describes the cube-octahedron structure as being in a state of vector equilibrium, because it can, when pressure is directed, fold into its component parts: the icosahedron and octahedron. These units are based on the simplest and strongest unit in Fuller’s hierarchy, the tetrahedron. Vector equilibrium is a precisely organized structural fluidity, which allows the sculpture to translate its infolding according to the degree of outside force. The transformation is innately two-way, because the negative space surrounding each unit is an octahedron, ready to expand into a cube-octahedron as its twin contracts. During a single cycle caused by a downward pull on the cuff, the sculpture shrinks to a width of 26“ halfway through its transformation, then regains its full 30” width as it reforms into its mirror image.

It’s called Jitterbug because a single unit transformed from tetrahedron to octahedron and back again by hand looks, in its axial gyration, like a jitterbugging couple. The title dates from Fuller’s initial home-made construction in 1948 of a maquette (too imprecise actually to move)—whose gleaming 1976 version is a result of precision engineering, in turn made possible by the recognition granted Fuller’s philosophy of transformation, called synergetics.

The sculpture is attended by displays explaining synergetics. Information ranges from glass marbles in small symmetrical piles to an engineer’s detailed description of the cube-octahedron’s transformation, posters with snappy design and titles such as “Deceptiveness of Topology,” the painfully constructed maquette, a single unit of the piece on a table, a looped videotape of the Jitterbug moving through its transforming; and an elaborately produced 13-minute videotape called Modelling Universe, co-starring Fuller and the synergetic universe. There were chairs scattered around for the viewer to contemplate all this: “The Jitterbug may perhaps be considered as a sequence of three-dimensional sections taken through a four-dimensional polyhedron . . . .”

The basis for these models is Fuller’s claim that he has developed a universal system of ordering based on rational, low-order numbers. In Modelling Universe an example was, “To how many places does nature carry pi out before she gets frustrated and decides to fudge a bubble?” According to Fuller, manifestations of mere statistical probability, such as pi and Planck’s Theorem, can be rationalized if we model reality as triangular vectors, based on the tetrahedron. He wants to extend this concept as far as it will go—with socially useful spinoffs on any level as the payoff. Suggestions such as harnessing the tides to power a worldwide energy net are a result of the efficient renegade thinking (Fuller calls it “more with lessing”) such an attitude can permit.

The social premise behind this engineering is that in a well-designed environment people’s attitudes will change for the better. And so he propagates his ideas on a worldwide basis, not just to students, but to scientists, social programmers, leaders of business and government. In the 1972 issue of Architectural Forum devoted to Fuller, William Marlin wrote: “Fundamental to his strategy of design science initiative is that it must operate independently of politics and the big corporations.” In practice, this seems to pan out as Fuller talking to a plurality of people (during the Korean War he designed a structure to be lifted by air for the U.S. Marines), in the expectation that his ideas will percolate through everybody’s various systems, like water through loose sand.

People in the design sciences are more often affected by Fuller than physicists, who don’t seem to be losing much sleep over a possible refutation of the uncertainty principle. And, on my part, I think a hyper-rational system claiming to be outside of politics is particularly liable to political manipulation. At the same time, though, Fuller’s extra-institutional status gives him tremendous analytical perspective; he said some sane things about transportation, recycling, and energy before just about anyone else.

The finished sculpture is rather cold in its beauty; the maquette, with its bits of plastic stuck together with wire and tape, is a finer thing to contemplate, because when Fuller made it he couldn’t know if it would work, and because it’s the viewer’s mind which does make it work.

Barbara Baracks