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Green Before His Time
Espousing a “less is more” philosophy, visionary Buckminster Fuller helped light a trail toward the current environmental movement. An exhibit at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art looks back at his achievements—and failures.

R. Buckminster Fuller, known as "Bucky," was famous especially late in his career when his geodesic domes became sensations. This 1963 depiction of the inventor appeared on the cover of Time in January 1964 and is on display in the Whitney Museum's exhibit.
Boris Artzybasheff (1899–1965), tempera on board, 21 1/2 x 17 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time magazine.

Long before “going green” became a trendy advertising pitch, and even before the idea of being an environmentalist caught on, a determined man named Buckminster Fuller was devising how to save the world, one fuel-efficient car and sustainable home at a time. Born in 1895, “Bucky,” as he was better known, was an audacious polymath—depending on the day, he was an inventor, mathematician, designer, cartographer, or philosopher. No matter how others chose to define him, the self-described “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist” marched to his own beat, subscribing to the proto-green credo—“doing more with less”—that permeates his eclectic life’s work. Now through September 21, viewers can better acquaint themselves with Fuller’s preternatural ideas at “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe,” an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Around 1946, Buckminster Fuller modeled an entire community of “dwelling machines.” The model for these homes was re-fabricated in 2008.
Patrick Hobgood, Iannis Kandyliaris, and Ilias Papageorgiou

In the late 1920s and by then twice expelled from Harvard University, Fuller began designing a series of pre-fabricated homes to be built using as few materials as possible. The fantastical sketches and detailed models of these are a highlight of the exhibit. They reveal, for example, Fuller’s vision of an earth dotted with independently powered residential towers, the floors stacked like CDs, and his later plans for the Dymaxion house—a carousel-shaped dwelling that was suspended above ground on a central mast and used gravity to improve its structural strength. Meeting building specifications that would today qualify as green, the house filtered fresh air for cooling and collected waste energy from the lighting system for heating. Fuller dreamed that his low-cost domiciles might solve global housing shortages and even claimed that the Dymaxion house was (somewhat miraculously) “proofed against drudgery,” since an ensconced housewife might complete her daily chores in 15 minutes. In his sketches, Fuller also warned of the dangers of rampant consumerism (on one early drawing, he scrawled, “If materialism wins, humanity is licked”).

Dome Over Manhattan, circa 1960. Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao. Black-and-white photograph mounted on board, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
Courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller

Among Fuller’s many outlandish ideas, he once envisioned a way of freeing our “terrestrial dependence” by residing inside mammoth floating cities anchored in the San Francisco Bay. There was also a proposal to encapsulate midtown Manhattan with a giant dome to regulate local air quality and climate. His most famous design, however, was the geodesic dome, the apex of a lifelong pursuit of low-cost material and energy-efficient structures. The domes became popular icons adopted by hippies in the 1960s, but they leaked too much and were simply too bizarre to ever catch on in the more traditional real estate market. Today the domes are still used as emergency and equipment shelters, as well as public attractions, and can be visited at landmarks around the world, including Florida’s Epcot Center. The Whitney exhibit tracks the mathematical and philosophical explorations that led Fuller to develop his domes, presenting many models and examples, such as the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair Pavilion.

A photo of the U.S. Pavilion for the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal. Today the dome, which suffered a fire in the 1970s, houses the Biosphère Museum.
Courtesy the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller

Though his quixotic mass-produced housing plans were never realized, Fuller also pursued his quest to help humanity thrive—on fewer resources—with the Dymaxion car (a brand combining the words “dynamic,” “maximum” and “ion”). On display in the exhibit is the only survivor among the three prototypes. Shaped like a teardrop, the three-wheeled car looks more like it belongs in space than on the road, but it carried up to 11 passengers with an efficiency of up to 30 miles per gallon with a normal V-8 engine—not too shabby compared to modern gas-guzzlers. An early fatal accident involving a test driver in the first prototype, however, doomed the car’s commercial prospects. So it went with many of Fuller’s grand schemes.

The only surviving prototype of Fuller’s three-wheeled Dymaxion car is on display at the Whitney Museum's exhibit. In the background is a model of the Dymaxion house. 
Dymaxion House and photograph from the Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, MI. 1934 Dymaxion “2” 4D Transport courtesy of the National Automobile Museum (the Harrah Collection), Reno, NV.

Whether practical or bordering on ridiculous, in retrospect, one thing is certain: Fuller’s prescient philosophy prefigured many of our more recent environmental preoccupations. In the 1940s, at a time of peak nationalism, for example, Fuller grappled with the consequences of globalization by compiling and mapping data showing the distribution and consumption of the world’s resources. He firmly believed that we live on one interconnected world—“spaceship earth”—as he called it, and that each individual’s success depends on the well-being of all its passengers. 

Clearly an enthusiast of neologisms, Fuller conceived the term “livingry,” meaning the opposite of weaponry, and “ephemeralization,” a word that perhaps best sums up his techno-optimistic outlook: With the help of knowledge, design, and technology, people can live more while consuming less. At the exhibit’s end, one can’t help but must that big thinkers like Fuller are just what the world needs today.

For more information on Fuller and his legacy, visit the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

Details: “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe”
When: Now through September 21, 2008
Where: Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021
Upcoming: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Summer 2009
Hours: Wed., Thurs, Sat., Sun, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday 1p.m.-9 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $15; senior citizens and students, $10; children (11 and under) free
More information: The Whitney Museum of American Art

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