Richard Buckminster Fuller

Architect and philosopher, United States

The American Richard Buckminster Fuller has been variously labeled architect, engineer, author, designer-inventor, educator, poet, cartographer, ecologist, philosopher, teacher, and mathematician throughout his career. Although not trained professionally as an architect, Fuller has been accepted within the architectural profession, receiving numerous awards and honorary degrees. He thought of himself as a comprehensive human in the universe, implementing research for the good of humanity. Born in Milton, Massachusetts, on 12 July 1895, he was the son of Richard Buckminster Fuller, Sr., and Caroline Wolcott (Andrews) Fuller. His father, who worked as a leather and tea merchant with offices in Boston, died when Fuller was 15 years of age. Fuller’s first design revelation came to him when, in kindergarten in 1899, he built his first flat-space frame, an octet truss constructed of dried peas and toothpicks. As a boy, vacationing at his family’s summerhouse on Bear Island, Maine, he became an adequate seaman and developed an appreciation of nature’s provision of principles of efficient design. He followed the philosophy of Pythagoras and Newton, that the universe comprises signs, or patterns of energy relationships, that have an order to them. Fuller used the term “valving” for the transformation of these patterns into usable forms. According to Fuller, these patterns in nature were comprehensive and universal. “Syn-ergy” was the name that Fuller gave to the integrated behavior patterns discovered in nature.

Fuller attended the Milton Academy (1904–06) and Harvard University (1913–15) and was expelled twice while at Harvard. He worked in a few industries and then enlisted for two years of service in the U.S. Navy (1917–19). This experience in industry and with the Navy helped him gain knowledge of technical engineering processes, materials, and methods of manufacturing, which he would apply this knowledge to future  inventions.
When one of his two daughters, Alexandra, died of influenza at age four (1922), Fuller became obsessed with her death. Five years later, on the brink of suicide, he decided instead to devote the rest of his life to helping humanity by converting ideas and technology designed for weaponry into ideas for “livingry.” At the age of 32, he started an experiment, Guinea Pig B (the “B” stood for “Bucky,” his nickname), to discover how an individual with a moral commitment and limited financial means could apply his knowledge to improve humanity’s living conditions by technological determinism. This experiment continued until his death at age 88. Thus, his technological and economical resources belonged to society. He believed in the same moralistic drive to develop better housing for the masses through mass production that many of the European modernists
did, but Fuller’s forms and design principles were quite different.

Among the proliferation of books that Fuller published during his life, the first, 4D Time Lock (1928), propagated his lifetime philosophy. The term “4D” meant “fourth-dimensional” thinking, adding time to the dimensions of space to Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 900 ensure gains for humanity instead of personal gains only. The first patent of the 4D designs was a mass-production house, first known as 4D and
later as the Dymaxion House (1927 model; 1928 patent). A hexagonal structure supported on a mast, the house was to be air deliverable and based on his strategy of “design science,” which sought to obtain
maximum human advantage from minimum use of energy and materials.

Using the analogy of airplane technology, he chose materials such as steel alloy cables and the Duralumin mast. After developing the Dymaxion House, Fuller was to engage in developing prototypes of the Dymaxion
Vehicles (1937) and the Dymaxion Bathroom (1940). Later he developed the Dymaxion Deployment Unit (1944), a lightweight corrugated-steel shelter made from modified grain bins. Thousands of these units were
bought by the U.S. Army Air Corps for use as flight crew quarters. The Dymaxion Deployment Unit became the basis for Fuller’s Wichita House (1946). These houses were built to be used as full-size family dwellings, weighing four tons each, and were to be assembled on aircraft production lines built during the war. Another of Fuller’s Dymaxion inventions was the Dymaxion Airocean World Map (1946). This map transferred the spherical data of a globe onto a twodimensional surface.

Fuller, however, is best known for inventing the geodesic dome (1954), a triangulated space-enclosing technology. According to Fuller, this type of structure encloses the maximum internal volume with the least surface area. Designs such as the domes were based on synergy and its connection with mathematics, using such forms as the tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron. Fuller brought into the dome structure ideas
concerning the dome’s tensile ability by introducing a new structural geometry and advancing mechanics into the dome form. He tried to emulate in this structure the atom’s form, including the compound curvature trussing of its dynamic structure. Although this domical design was not new in its elementary form, it was new in its manner of employing these principles in a human-made structure. Numerous domes have appeared all over the world for domestic as well as large-scale industrial use, including the Union Tank Car Company (1958), Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the Climatron Botanical Garden (1961), St. Louis, Missouri; the U.S. Pavilion (1967) at Expo ‘67, the World’s Fair, Montreal, Canada; and the Spruce Goose Hangar (1982), Long Beach, California.

As noted by architectural historian Kenneth Frampton in his book, Modern Architecture: A Critical His tory (1980), Fuller has influenced future generations of architects, most notably the Japanese group the Metabolists, the British group Archigram, Moshe Safdie, Alfred Neuman, Cedric Price, and Norman Foster. A few semiotician scholars liken him to Joyce, but whereas Joyce sought to obscure language intentionally, Fuller sought to emphasize a precise meaning.

Often he would invent words for this purpose, as displayed in his numerous writings and lectures. Later in life, he entered into partnership with Shoji Sadao in New York and Sadao and Zung Architects in Cleveland, Ohio (1979–83). Fuller died on 1 July 1983 in Los Angeles, California, from a massive heart attack; his wife died three days later.

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