In the summer of 1948, the maverick inventor Buckminster Fuller was teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and his audacious reputation preceded him. "Here comes Bucky Fuller and his magic show!" said Merce Cunningham, the choreographer and fellow teacher. Fuller indeed attempted an act of levitation, of sorts. He had his students take slats from aluminum Venetian blinds, lay them on the ground and connect them according to his mathematical calculations. The precise triangular configuration Fuller devised for the slats was meant to transform them into a semispherical frame for a structure of unusual strength, stability and lightness. Unfortunately, the damn thing barely rose before it collapsed, as if he'd opened the oven door too soon on a soufflé. It was quickly dubbed the "Supine Dome," though Fuller eventually managed to perfect the design—and the geodesic dome became his most ubiquitous invention.
Fuller—or Bucky, as Cunningham and everyone else called him—is an impossible figure to pigeonhole. He was an architect without a license, an artist who couldn't do perspective drawing, a professor who'd been thrown out of Harvard (twice) and never earned a college degree. He was also called a poet, a philosopher, a futurist, a visionary, a genius and sometimes a crackpot. Fuller spent decades developing his theories and inventions, but he hit it big in the 1960s—the decade he turned 70—as a kind of guru for the Woodstock generation. Legions of fans flocked to his marathon lectures as if they were happenings—he would speak for hours to rapt audiences, even though they didn't necessarily understand the ideas and data he was somehow roping together. He was an inspiration to counterculture figures like Stewart Brand, who created the Whole Earth Catalog (and dedicated the first one to him). But unlike love beads or Jefferson Airplane, Fuller, who died in 1983, has never really gone out of fashion. And now, the guy who once proposed solving the population explosion by settling people at the North Pole under a climate-controlled dome is being rediscovered.
He has always had a devoted core of followers, but an exhibition opening this week at the Whitney Museum in New York, called "Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe," is a chance for a wider public to assess the surprising shelf life of his ideas. Just for openers, Fuller was a passionate environmentalist—Al Gore likes to quote him and his words are in the Kyoto Protocol—whose credo was to do "more with less." His outlook was global, not national, and he believed that technology, if properly harnessed, could solve the problems of what he referred to as "Spaceship Earth." Nature held the key to those new technologies: the geometries he employed in projects like the geodesic dome were based on natural patterns and systems, he said. When physicists discovered the soccer-ball-shaped carbon C60 molecule in 1985, they named it the "buckminsterfullerene"—or "buckyball," for short—for its resemblance to Fuller's favorite geometric forms.
Once you get Bucky in your head, he seems to turn up everywhere, whether his influence is credited or not. A new book by Alastair Gordon about the '60s, "Spaced Out," prominently features the geodesic dome as a favorite shelter of hippie communes—Fuller himself gave an award to one such commune, Drop City in Colorado, which had 10 domes, built out of construction scraps. Later this summer, "Between Earth and Heaven," a book and exhibit on the futurist architect John Lautner, opens at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and it may make you wonder if Fuller's fairy dust was sprinkled over Lautner's drawing board when he started to design those fantastic houses that look like flying saucers. Then there's the timeliness of Fuller's holistic approach. He called himself a "comprehensivist": he was an interdisciplinary thinker who blurred the boundaries between art and science, and liked to use the then new term "synergy"—all of which resonates with the current backlash in business against "silo thinking." And he's a hero in Silicon Valley. No, Fuller didn't invent the Internet, but if he'd stuck around a little longer, who knows what he might have done with it.
Fuller was born, in 1895, into a long line of progressive New Englanders. His great-aunt was Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century Transcendentalist, editor, journalist and friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet Fuller's two expulsions from Harvard—one involved some chorus girls—were an early sign that, even in his liberal family, he was going to march to his own drummer. When, in his early 30s, he was living in Chicago and was broke, with a wife and baby, he claimed he grew so depressed, he thought about suicide. But then, as he liked to tell it, he heard a voice say that he didn't have that right—that he belonged to the universe—and he decided on the spot to devote himself, through experiments and invention, to helping humanity. Within a couple of years, he'd developed the idea for the Dymaxion House, a futuristic circular metal dwelling that could be mass-produced and plugged into a central mast containing wiring and plumbing. (Though Fuller loved to coin new words, "Dymaxion," a contraction of dynamic and maximum, was actually dreamed up by the PR department at Marshall Field's, where a model of the house was first displayed.) Later, he created a Dymaxion bathroom—a one-piece unit containing all the necessaries that could be easily fabricated, and moved, like an icebox or a sofa, when a family changed houses—but the plumbers' union helped doom his deal to get it manufactured. His fuel-efficient (30mpg) three-wheeled Dymaxion car, designed in the early 1930s, caught the attention of Henry Ford but never went into production. The only extant prototype will be in the Whitney show.
A catalog of his inventions doesn't do justice, though, to the free-ranging ideas that scratched around inside Fuller's own dome. He reinvented the world map to correct the Mercator version that distorts the land masses toward each pole; he dreamed up fantastical structures that floated in the sky, which he called "Cloud Nine"; he proposed a clear dome over Manhattan; a tetrahedron suburb in San Francisco Bay, and he patented a scheme for an underwater city. But his overarching project was his own life and mind—which, like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison before him, he recorded in staggeringly fine detail. His "Chronofile"—scrapbooks of letters, ideas, sketches, projects, clippings—had grown, by his death, to 270 linear feet. (The archives of everything he saved—and he was a packrat extraordinaire—are at Stanford University, still being explored by scholars.) He published many books, including "I Am a Verb," and had a vast circle of friends, such as Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder, John Cage, John Huston and John Denver. And he reveled in his celebrity and demand as a speaker, which kept him on the road, all over the world, until days before his death at 87.
What to make of the enormity and complexity of the Buckminster Fuller enterprise isn't easy. The Whitney show dips a toe into very deep and swirly waters. Fuller's work, the catalog points out, was often exhibited in art galleries in the 1960s, and he inspired artists then and now. (One is the Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson, whose projects, using mathematics, expand on natural wonders.) In 1967, when a 20-story geodesic dome was chosen to be the U.S. Pavilion at the Montreal Expo, Jasper Johns proposed a painting for the interior based on Fuller's Dymaxion map. (Johns reworked the painting extensively a few years later, and after it sold for a considerable price, Fuller said he was miffed not to have shared in the proceeds.) Most architects, however, didn't rush to claim Fuller as one of their own ("You can't put a door in a dome," sniffed Philip Johnson). But he appears to have affected the work of Louis Kahn—think of those tetrahedral shapes in the concrete ceiling of the Yale Art Gallery—and was a mentor to Norman Foster. Today Fuller seems to be touted once again by younger architects, maybe because he championed the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation that's emerging from contemporary studios, thanks to the computer.
In fact, if it's hard to plot straight lines of Fuller's influence, it's easier to see his long shadow across our exploding and diverse world of digital information and virtual reality. Fuller, like his contemporary Marshall McLuhan, was a futurist who believed technology held the key to social transformation—that people could be united in vast networks of information. In his fascinating study, "From Counterculture to Cyberculture," Fred Turner argues that the West Coast '60s scene—particularly Brand's Whole Earth project—helped feed the digital revolution, an unlikely merger of back-to-nature hippies and the cyberpioneers.
Fuller was full of contradictions himself. Despite his global outlook and ideas, points out K. Michael Hays, the co-curator with Dana Miller of the Whitney show, he remained quintessentially American, an Emersonian with a powerful belief in the individual. He could be almost perversely rational. He insisted children be taught that there's no such thing as a sunrise or a sunset because it's Spaceship Earth that turns, not the sun. Or he could just be perverse. He told Calvin Tomkins in a 1966 New Yorker article that eons before, he'd been a Maori sailor adrift in the Pacific without the tools of celestial navigation.
Yet what captures our collective imagination most about Fuller may be just how vast his imagination could be. The limitlessness of his thinking can sometimes strike you as kind of arrogant or even nutty, but it's inspiring nonetheless. And his central message, if you can boil it all down, still hits home. "We are on a spaceship, a beautiful one," he wrote. "It took billions of years to develop. We're not going to get another. Now, how do we make this spaceship work?" Earth to Bucky: we're still trying to figure that out.