Buckminster Fuller's Futuristic Projects Are on View at New York's Whitney Museum
By Linda Yablonsky, Bloomberg News
New York, N.Y., August 2, 2008 - Bloomberg News – If important people had listened to Buckminster Fuller in the 1930s, we'd be living in affordable, energy-saving homes and driving cool, fuel-efficient three-wheelers.
Fuller's humanitarian approach to the good life is on poignant display at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. He did much more than dream of geodesic domes.
"Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe" offers so many plausible ways to meet our needs today for sustainable resources in housing, energy, transportation and communication that it hurts to see how few have become reality.
In part that's because Fuller, who died at 90 in 1983, was either too uncompromising to collaborate successfully with others, or because the technology he needed to produce his inventions was still far off. We have it now, however, and the Whitney has done the public a favor by putting his ideas back on the table now that oil is over $120 a barrel.
The hexagonal dome made Fuller famous for good reason: It is the clearest expression of his belief in the tetrahedron as the most stable form of all structures, natural or man-made.
There is only a 9-by-12-foot cardboard version of the dome in this exhibition, which makes do with schematic drawings, architectural models, maps, books, patents and photographs, though they are no less tantalizing for that.
An early proponent of branding, Fuller gave many of his inventions the consumer-friendly name "Dymaxion," indicating their all-encompassing character and flexibility. They included a 1934 three-wheeled, bullet-shaped car, on display in the Whitney's lobby, and the sort of lightweight, prefabricated homes that have now become fashionable.
Fuller's name for the house was "Dymaxion Dwelling Machine." One 1946 model on view, based on a 1929 design, is clad in airplane aluminum, with hexagonal floors suspended from a central mast and built-in utilities dependent on a hydroelectric power supply.
Even if it resembles the flying saucer from the classic Cold War science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still and came out of Fuller's push to convert wartime munitions factories into low-cost housing production units, it still seems viable.
In an old documentary included in the show, Fuller points out that we live on a sphere, not in a cube, and that our housing ought to accommodate the fact. (More chillingly, he also says that an airplane could crash into his house without causing it too much damage.) Many people ordered the house right away, but when Fuller fell out with the manufacturer, the project fizzled.
Fuller's other waste-not- want-not ideas similarly create impressions of wacky or frustrated brilliance. His solution to New York's air-pollution problems was to put a transparent dome over the whole city. He also proposed floating a city offshore, within commuting distance of land that could be put to agricultural use. A cross between a huge high-rise apartment building and a cruise ship, it looks like something out of another movie, Blade Runner.
Fuller's holistic "Spaceship Earth" philosophy may have made him a hero to hippie idealists of the 1960s, but his vision of the world as an integrated system with limited resources actually is more urgent for us.
It's almost shocking to realize that his most workable ideas stem from his designs of the 1920s. Almost a century later, we are still behind the curve.Plan your life
"Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe" is on view through Sept. 21 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street, New York City. 212-570-3676, www.whitney.org.