While best known for creating the geodesic dome, American visionary Richard Buckminster Fuller was also a pioneering theorist
American engineer, architect and futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller, also known as ‘Buckie,’ might be one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. Although best known for the creation of the geodesic dome – a form which has been used for pavilions, sports arenas, and even radio statations – he also formulated comprehensive takes on the problems of the modern world.
Born at the end of the nineteenth century, Fuller never completed a formal degree. He was expelled from Harvard twice. In 1917, he married Anne Hewlett and went into business with her father, architect and muralist James Monroe Hewlett. The two of the set up a construction company that used a compressed fibre block and a modular system that Hewlett had invented.
Ten years after founding the company it came into financial difficultly. This was a turning point for Fuller. Unemployed in Chicago and without direction, Fuller decided to dedicate his working life to searching for design patterns that could help the world’s energy resources and be put to good social use.
His mission became helping as many people as possible while drawing as little as possible from the earth’s resources. Fuller called himself a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’, who would attempt to anticipate and solve the problems humanity might face before they became impossible to solve.
Fuller’s work covered visual arts, architecture, literature, mathematics, engineering, and sustainability, all of which he treated as overlapping disciplines rather than distinct fields. He spent a lot of time investigating designs in nature and using the principles in the work of his own. He believed that the one shape in particualr, the tetrahedron, was the most structurally sound and therefore most fundamental shape in nature. This shape comes up often in his work.
Fuller came up with the idea for the geodesic dome in 1947, and the discovery would define his career. He patented the dome in the 1950s and designed his first commercial dome for the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Michigan. The US army was one of his biggest commercial clients. There are more than 300,000 domes around the world today, from children’s play structures to African radar stations.
The geodesic dome is a spherical structure that is lightweight incredibly strong. It can be scaled up to any size without compromising its structural integrity and can be set straight on the ground as a complete structure. A large geodesic dome was used to house the US exhibit at Expo 67 in Montreal in 1967. The dome structure has also been used to create arenas, greenhouses, exhibition halls and sports arenas. One proposed applications for the domes included underwater farms.
Away from the domes, Fuller had a vast and comprehensive vision of a utopian future. For much of his career his attention was fixed on changing the landscape of everyday life by developing designs for prefabricated homes and progressive vehicles. Amongst his major concerns were homelessness, poverty, and the over use of natural resources .
One of his ideas was Dymaxion, a house and car with a definitive simplicity and the ability to adapt to different landscapes. Dymaxion was designed for mass production, but neither the car nor the house was ever made widely available. The house was factory-assembled and deliverable, while the car was able to transport up to 12 passages while usng half the fuel of a conventional car. Neither were commercially produced.
Fuller was also a philosopher, and was known for his unusual ideas on issues. His inventive approach to design and energy, as well as his volumes on design theory still influence designers and makers today. Fuller lectured around the world and was a long standing member of the Southern Illinois University. He was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. In 2008 he was hnoured with a comprehensive retrsoepctive at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Startling with the Universe.
In 2008, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a comprehensive retrospective of Fullers work, titled Starting with the Universe – proof, if any were needed, of his continuing relelvance today.