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Stanford Report, January 9, 2002

University begins 'critical reflection' of polymath Buckminster Fuller


It was 1927, and R. Buckminster Fuller, who would become one of the century's most renowned thinkers and inventors, was standing on the shore of Lake Michigan, preparing to throw himself into the icy water.

With a wife and newborn daughter to support, Fuller, at 32, was jobless and penniless. But on the verge of suicide he had an epiphany: He would devote his life to working on behalf of mankind or, as he later explained, to "search for the principles governing the universe and help advance the evolution of humanity in accordance with them."

Architect Shoji Sadao and Buckminster Fuller stand outside the Student Religious Center at Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville in 1971. Photo Courtesy Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville

At least this is the story that Fuller, whom friends and colleagues called "Bucky," liked to recount. Fuller was fond of using such pithy anecdotes to highlight the trajectory of his life, which he recorded with an assiduousness that, depending on your view, reflects either an outsized ego or considerable sympathy for future researchers. Similarly, opinions about the inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet and cosmologist -- he preferred to call himself a "comprehensive designer" -- generally fall into two camps: Either he was a visionary genius or a puffed-up charlatan.

But people at the Stanford Humanities Laboratory and the University Libraries are hoping to dissolve these black-and-white viewpoints into more complex and subtle colors. The Fuller collection, which arrived at the Farm in 1999 as a new acquisition, now is the springboard for several events planned this quarter related to the famed polymath and his collaborators.

Fuller was born July 12, 1895, in Milton, Mass., and died July 1, 1983, in Los Angeles. He rose to great prominence as the darling of the 1960s counterculture, who readily embraced his geodesic dome and goal of using technology to end human suffering.

Many scholars have adopted the counterculture's view of Fuller, too, presenting him as an autonomous, monumental genius, according to Jeffrey Schnapp, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature and director of the Stanford Humanities Laboratory.

"Other people saw him as playing fast and free with the ideas of key contemporaries -- ideas that he made his own -- and others view him as a kind of self-promoter who built his career out of this sort of cult of himself," Schnapp continued. "None of those views are, by themselves, right in my estimation, and we're trying to launch a new phase of reflections about him that powerfully presents context. He was both innovator and borrower, and it's the richness of this texture that we're trying to capture. We want to launch a kind of textual and critical reflection that will take the conversation to a new depth."

First, an exhibition documenting the creative partnership between Fuller and architect Shoji Sadao is on view through March 18 in the Peterson Exhibit Gallery of the Green Library. A smaller exhibition is scheduled to go up in mid-February at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts (see sidebar). The main attraction there will be a roughly 12-minute video montage of footage from the Fuller collection, to be edited by Schnapp and Sean Quimby, assistant manuscripts processing librarian at the University Libraries. There also will be samples of Fuller's drawings and models.

Second, an informal conversation series will run through the quarter and feature some of Fuller's most notable collaborators, including Sadao (see sidebar).

Third, Schnapp and Quimby are teaching a seminar on Fuller open to both graduate and undergraduate students. As Schnapp explains it, the seminar will focus less on traditional methods of instruction, such as readings and lectures, and more on letting students get their hands dirty in the archives to produce critical, grounded history on Fuller and his work.

Naive, brilliant or both?

Fuller's ideas were championed by the progressive movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. Hippie communities lived in geodesic domes; the World Game Institute was founded. Adherents of New Age spiritualism also embraced his ideas.

Fuller aimed to develop a "comprehensive anticipatory design science" -- that is, a method of recognizing humanity's problems in advance and solving them with the best technology available, providing, as he put it, "more and more life support for everybody with less and less resources."

He believed the geodesic dome, which stands as his best-known invention, was one such piece of technology. Displayed for the first time in 1954, it promised a lightweight, cheap and sturdy alternative to conventional housing. Domes have been constructed of corrugated metal, wood and fiberglass, among other materials. The most famous is the 20-story behemoth constructed for the Expo '67 in Montreal, which was composed of close to 2,000 molded acrylic panels. Similar design elements have been used in the construction of sporting-event venues, such as the Georgia Dome. At present, about 300,000 geodesic domes exist on the planet.

But the domes weren't Fuller's only foray into shelters. In 1927, he designed the Dymaxion house -- he billed it as "the house of tomorrow" -- constructed of aluminum and hung on a "mast" running up the center. (Ever fond of creating new words through combination, Fuller coined "Dymaxion" as a contraction of "dynamic," "maximum" and "ion"; it became a Fuller trademark for resource-efficient, self-sustaining technologies). Only a few prototypes of the house were ever made.

In the late 1920s he also designed a Dymaxion car, a three-wheeled affair that could trundle over open fields like a jeep, accelerate to 120 miles per hour and make a 180-degree turn in its own length. Like the futuristic house, the car never made it to commercial production.

Fuller also attracted fans of his worldview and philosophy, and he is credited with being one of the first global thinkers: He believed that technology and science could be used to feed and shelter every person on earth. He coined the term "spaceship earth" and developed the first flat-surface map of the world without visible distortion. He used this "Dymaxion Map" for his World Game, which challenges players to figure out solutions for global problems by matching human needs with resources.

However, many have dismissed Fuller as idealistic, naive and tremendously egoistic, and he has been the subject of some withering criticism.

"In working with the papers every day, my relationship to Bucky changes constantly," Quimby said. "I say, 'Jeez, this guy's brilliant,' and then I say, 'This is way out there -- I can't follow this.'"

And not everything that Fuller designed actually worked the way he had planned. The Dymaxion car was involved in a fatal accident during an exhibition at the 1933 World's Fair. (Fuller insisted that the accident was not a result of the car's design.) And the World Game is blissfully unconcerned with geopolitical factors such as war and economic rivalry, which, of course, are why much of the world is poor or unsheltered.

Yet Fuller told people he would "dare to be naive" and, until the end of his life, maintained what he described as the possibility for "an omni-integrated, freely intercirculating, omni-literate world society."

But whatever one's opinion of Fuller's work, one thing is certain: It has greatly influenced modern thought. "You can find his ideas in places you never thought you would find them," Quimby said.