Magazine article The Spectator

The American Dream Writ Large

Magazine article The Spectator

The American Dream Writ Large

Article excerpt

Architecture Buckminster Fuller

(Design Museum, till 15 October)

If one American characteristic is excess, then Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was a typical case. He gave lectures that lasted for hours. He would not use a simple word if he could create a polysyllabic neologism in its place. He worked in so many fields of design and invention that it becomes wearisome to enumerate them. He never stopped all his life.

Fuller had some important things to say. Even so, he looks at first sight like a Boys' Own Paper mad inventor-scientist, with his three-wheeled `Dymaxion' car, lightweight houses delivered by airship (neither of them taken up for development) and, what was his most widely adopted invention, the Geodesic Dome, of which 200,000 are now believed to exist all over the world, assembled with frames made from straight, lightweight components. Fuller was an important inspiration to the English hightech school of architects in the 1960s Norman Foster and Nicholas Grimshaw sat at his feet. Perhaps it is no surprise that we have a dome at Greenwich, although not a geodesic one.

His vastness needs digesting and editing, and the exhibition Your Private Sky at the Design Museum, originating from the Museum fur Gestaltung at Zurich, does the job very well. The accompanying book of the same title (28) is even better, and may well reinvent Fuller for our time after a period of neglect. Much of what he was thinking required our current miniature and lightweight technologies and our computers to make it possible, while his prophecy that improved global communication would transfer the world's resources from armaments (`killingry') into the means of pleasure (`livingry') can be glimpsed through the clouds. Even the `World Game' which he proposed for the US Pavilion at Expo '67 (in one of his domes which still stands in Montreal) has finally been universalised through computers games like Civilisation and SimCity. And, as we all know, the 1997 Nobel Prize for Science was won by scientists who identified a molecular form which they called the Buckminsterfullerene in his honour.

Linking all Fuller's enterprises was a typically New England philosophical background. Fuller was excited to discover that his great-aunt, Margaret Fuller, had been a thinker revered by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the early 19th-century Transcendentalists. To some extent, Bucky merely translated their idealism through the medium of technology. His concept of `4D' denoted the continuous change and movement which Emerson identified in nature. Houses were unnecessarily solid and static, even cars were cumbersome and heavy. …

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