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Buckminster Fuller: Designing for Mobility

“Buckminster Fuller: Designing for Mobility” by Michael John Gorman, Skira (2005)
Review by IanRitchie for Architectural Review, February 2006

This book set out to investigate the idea that Buckminster Fuller had a central ambition ­ to achieve the construction of the autonomous intellectual and practical individual home that could be deployed (by helicopter) wherever the owner wished. It begins at the time BF commits `egocide’ rather than suicide in Chicago in 1927. Fuller apparently decided at that moment to “make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone.”

The writer identifies Fuller’s strong philosophical approach while revealing his desire to physically demonstrate a new model home ­ not simply a construction but a way of living. Herein lies the most evident of many paradoxes in Fuller’s life ­ and it is carefully revealed by Gorman.

Fuller’s own hyperbole is that all his design work starts `with the universe’ and if Fuller’s goal was to transform the dwelling unit through the exploitation of industrialisation and geometry based upon his “unique” insight into nature, he also believed that this would change human behaviour.

Gorman writes a lucid explanation giving the reader an historical, geometrical, technical and philosophical trace throughout the story.

Fuller considered Henry Ford `the greatest artist of the twentieth century’ and dreamed of the industrially produced autonomous home air-lifted to the idyll island of your choice using the geodesic dome. It had its origins in Ford’s approach to standardised volume production and the post-war housing crisis. It was a seductive development of his prior hopes for both versions of his Dymaxion House and his Standard of Living Package, neither of which were commercially successful.

However, people found that living permanently in a dome was profoundly disturbing, and produced a lot of waste (space, energy, covering material off-cuts). Given the current archipolitical preoccupation with the inexpensive prefabricated approach to housing supply, this book is a timely reminder of the dangers of design hype.

The book also reveals aspects of Fuller’s persona that hitherto have remained relatively private. It conveys a sense that Fuller was brilliant in captivating and exploiting design students and others. The book captures this `I am the pilot of Spaceship Earth’ character rather well. The reality of the deployable universal lightweight home seems in the end to be less about sharing the planet, and more to do with single choice, economics and a last fling at a utopian idea of the home. Fuller, cocky, self-assured designer-architect-engineer-poetphilosopher-anticipator, who promoted his synergetic view of the world with his technological developments and vision of global unity, is certainly brought down to earth with a bump in this absorbing book.

It is also a visually rich book that contains many unknown illustrations from the forty five tonnes of archive inherited by the Stanford University Libraries, where the author was recently curator of the Buckminster Fuller Collection.

© Ian Ritchie 23.11.05

Additional commentary

I am reminded of the self-promotion of Le Corbusier and his reference to lightweight ships, cars and planes and the belief in the industrialisation of the home. These `vehicles’ were the architectural designer drug of their time, and for Buckminster Fuller it was combined with nature’s geometric secret that led him to triangulate most things ­ including the earth and its great circles into geodesic domes and spheres, even though others, such as Dr Walter Bauersfeld for the Zeiss Planetarium 1913-1922 and Kenneth Snelson’s work on tensegrity had produced these before Fuller exploited and promoted them with such panache. For a man concerned about the welfare of our planet, the book reveals also a man who struggled with acknowledging the work of others. Buckminster Fuller developed and named the geodesic dome from field experiments with Kenneth Snelson in the late 1940’s. Fuller exploited, patented, and developed the idea, and would even appear to have denied the development of tensegrity structures by Snelson. For a man concerned about the earth, the book reveals a man who struggled with the idea of acknowledging the work of others.

Ian Ritchie is Director of Ian Ritchie Architects, founder Director of RFR design engineers, Paris, and the Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Architecture.

[Ian Ritchie met RBF in 1972, had read in 1971 The Buckminster Fuller Reader, edited by James Meller (published by Cape in 1970), and owned an issue of The Whole Earth Catalogue and Dome Book 1 while a student. There was a dome culture among architectural students at this time. He has not read another article on Buckminster Fuller since, although he explored and created many unique spherical patterns with Ensor Holiday and Keith Laws in the mideighties when developing the Pearl of Dubai Monument. These were base upon the earlier work of Ensor Holiday in the 1970s which explored the patterns and mathematics behind arabesque tiling geometry and published books for children based upon them. Keith Laws is a mathematician who worked closely with Ensor Holiday]

© Ian Ritchie 23.11.05