Buckminster Fuller

Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College

Buckminster Fuller is a nearly mythic figure who inspires and disappoints in equal measure. Was he a visionary or a bit of a quack, a genius or a dilettante? This exhibition, subtitled Harmonizing Nature, Humanity, and Technology, provided a rare occasion to consider Fuller’s prolific inventions and proposals, his influence on design, and his investigations of natural systems and organisms. Though Fuller has been described as a philosopher, architect, engineer, mathematician, and naturalist, it is an irony of his long, active life that no one field has been particularly anxious to claim him. Fuller’s innovations have never occupied a centrist position, and though many of his ideas have gone unrealized, he remains an inspiration.

This exhibition, at the Edith C. Blum Art Institute at Bard College, was divided into four major parts. A small introductory section, which included organisms and objects that Fuller collected, reflected his sense of nature as a source and model. A second, much larger part of the exhibition was devoted to a sampling of his prodigious studies in geometry, form, and structure. The study model served Fuller as an indispensable tool of observation and invention, and he seems to have realized every thought and hunch in three-dimensional form.

A third section featured models, drawings, and photographs of actualized projects and proposals, including the enormous geodesic dome that served as the United States Pavilion at the Montreal Expo ’67 and became the symbol of that international gathering. Other proposals ranged in scale from megastructures to modest single-family dwellings. The plan for Triton Floating City, 1968, for instance, was first developed for a site in Tokyo Bay. This proposed water-based city for 6,500 inhabitants was then acquired by the United States Office of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Navy for further, but inconclusive, study.

By contrast, early works such as his proposals for the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, 1944, suggest a more economical, efficient approach. All of the materials and components needed to fabricate the dome-shaped, metal structure supported by a single, central mast weighed only 6,000 pounds, and the entire structure could be assembled by a single person. Only one prototype, the Wichita House, 1944, was ever constructed. The unsuccessful pitch to a middle-class market was poignantly recorded in an advertisement showing a Dymaxion home appointed with conventional suburban accoutrements including a tended lawn, a shade-tree, a cluster of patio furniture, and refreshing beverages on the outdoor table. Although Fuller’s house never found a domestic market, a similar structure was used as provisional housing for United States troops in the Persian Gulf. In this case, the Butler Manufacturing Company converted corrugated steel grain-storage bins into living units that were air-lifted to the site.

The final section not only documented Fuller’s collaborations with artists such as John Cage and Isamu Noguchi, but showed how other artists like Agnes Denes and Charles Ross were inspired by his theories. Critic Calvin Tompkins wrote that Fuller considered himself a “comprehensivist.” Certainly, his Dymaxion houses suggest an approach to design that assigned structure, construction, ecology, economy, and esthetics equal importance. His synthetic thinking worked best in small-scale, and his proposals for mega-environments are ungainly. Fuller’s imagination obeyed few restraints, but his actual designs flourished when strict limits were imposed. His philosophy, at once sophisticated and naive, promotes an ecological consciousness that may be required equipment in the next century.

Patricia C. Phillips