Friday, July 04, 2008

Reexamining Bucky

The abundance of R. Buckminster Fuller in New York City this summer -- the "Starting with the Universe" exhibition (and catalog) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, an exhibition and series of events at the Center for Architecture's "Dymaxion Study Center", reprints of three of Fuller's books, and reruns of an American Masters profile on PBS -- raises the same question that the Robert Moses retrospective last year sparked: why now?

[Geodesic dome and moon | image source]

A quote from the exhibition site makes the timing of the reexamination somewhat clear, as Fuller "endeavored to see what he, a single individual, might do to benefit the largest segment of humanity while consuming the minimum of the earth's resources." This emphasis of "more with less" certainly relates to our current situation of dwindling natural resources coupled with a growing global population, and adopting a similar position would advance us towards reversing rather than continuing the negative trends we've created, from climate change to homelessness and poverty.

Glancing at the exhibition materials, there's a number of points, including the one above, that make reexamining Bucky's ideas prescient to today's crisis-filled world:
:: Doing "more with less"
:: Consilience over specialization
:: Technology's ability to improve humanity
:: Rethinking the automobile
While the first two are certainly not in widespread practice in the United States today, and the third is definitely rooted in society but severely misguided, the last -- the least theoretical or broad in application of the four -- may just be the real reason why Bucky's resurfaced 25 years after he died. Because even though America, and the world, could really benefit from the paradigm shifts that the first two engender, leaders in this country would rather have us drive, keeping the American dream and way of life alive.

[Dymaxion Car in Brooklyn in 1944 | image source]

This view is surely cynical, but it makes sense to me. Just as Moses was resurfaced when the Mayor and others were tackling urban projects on larger and larger scales, the country and the world are faced with problems that require the type of BIG and comprehensive thinking that Fuller stands for. That the Dymaxion Car resulted from such an approach illustrates that the conceptual basis for invention and discovery must be in place, not just the desire to build a better automobile. In other words, paradoxically, Bucky didn't necessarily set out to make a car; a car resulted from Bucky's investigations into doing more with less, thinking comprehensively, and embracing technology for the common good. So for change to occur now a la Bucky, an adoption of the first three points must occur for the fourth to happen. Of course a car might not be the result; a completely new means of transport, or an improved means of energy production, or more likely something unexpected might also occur. But this type of "gambling" isn't what leaders, corporations, or a large chunk of the American public burdened by rising oil and gas costs want to deal with.

All this makes me wonder if any answers can be found in this summer's plethora of Bucky exhibitions, books, and visuals. Surely Fuller's infectious optimism about humanity's future is a good start, as a pessimistic view is like preparing for failure before it happens. His embrace of technology is already shared by most of society, but it must be used towards equalizing rather than increasing the rift between rich and poor, so technology is not for the benefit of the former while being at the service of the latter in appearance only. (Are personal communication devices really the technological answer today?)

[Geodesic dome over Midtown Manhattan | image source]

What hopefully won't be taken from the materials on Bucky is his predilection for tackling problems via megastructures, such as his wacky proposal for enclosing Midtown Manhattan in a giant, climate-controlled dome. I agree with the notion that tackling big problems with equally big solutions creates even bigger problems; in a way Modernism is one self-affirming example after another of such a scenario. It seems like big solutions are needed over small ones, but I would counter that small solutions when instituted on a large scale are more fitting and would have great positive impact. So the framework for making small solutions happen is today's design problem, what Bucky might be tackling if he were still with us.


  1. Ok the rest isn't that crazy but the dome.

    oh my god.
    THE DOME. why would they put a dome in middle of manhattan. i could understand maybe they would in the cold war cause of ussr but LOL

    A DOME.

  2. I very much agree that small solutions to big problems on a grand scale (or at least a large one) are best as they are the most flexible in terms of both implementation and maintenance, where the latter will be cause for even the most progressive constructions to be eliminated simply because the upkeep cannot be justified or afforded. The attraction of the small solution for the general market is also a strong argument in its favor in that it can usually be adapted or retro-fitted as a variety of spin-offs in home usage or the like.


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