“A designer,” Richard Buckminster Fuller once mused, “is an emerging synthesis of artist, innovator, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.” Fuller, who was born 120 years ago last week, built his career on such synthesis. As a professional, he was a synthesis of many different fields and occupations: architect, engineer, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician, to name a few. Not many other figures of the twentieth century accomplished as much in as many fields as “Bucky”, and not many other engineers in all of history have had such a profound influence on their successors or made the field so popular, relevant, and accessible. His tensegrity structures, space frames, and, most famously, his geodesic domes still inspire the public imagination, and his legacy can be seen throughout modern cities.
Fuller’s prototype Dymaxion House
Fuller’s career did not start auspiciously, to say the very least. Born into a wealthy family in MIlton, Massachusetts, he was expelled not once but twice from Harvard University. Between his first expulsion and his readmittance, Fuller spent time working at a textile factory, and his experience with mass production and machines there probably influenced him more than his Ivy League education. He came to believe that as the human population exploded it would come to rely on mass production for more and more of its needs. In the late twenties he created a sort of brand, called Dymaxion, which comprised of a series of designs which Fuller intended to model future living. These included a completely prefabricated house- a very novel concept at the time- and a cheap but hardy three-wheeled car. His inventions popularized at the great interwar world’s fairs, greatly influenced the futurism of the mid-twentieth century.
Designs and patents for octet trusses influenced Fuller’s later domes
Dymaxion generated intrigue but not commercial success, so by the forties Fuller had taken on teaching jobs at colleges, where he continued with his utopian experiments. It was at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he developed the concept of the geodesic dome. Its genesis came in Fuller’s wish to create a structure that was efficient in as many ways as possible and had as broad a range of applications as possible; he saw such promise in the simple sphere. Of all solids, spheres have the greatest amount of volume per surface area, allow optimal air circulation, and undergo the least amount of heat loss or gain. However, domes were expensive and time-consuming to construct, full spheres even more so, requiring structural gymnastics to prevent collapse.
The Montreal Expo dome
Fuller’s mathematical studies inspired him to invent “tensegrity” structures, ones that stayed upright through the knife-edge balance of struts in tension and compression. Though incapable of carrying large loads, they are self-supporting and, as space frames, capable of enclosing large areas. Fuller incorporated tensegrity principles into first a series of octet trusses, which he patented, and then into the geodesic domes. While traditional domes relied solely on compressions, using either solid masonry or heavy metal ribs, geodesic domes used tessellations of triangles, which, held rigid by tensegrity, could be constructed of very light materials.
A now-demolished dome in Baton ROuge
Buckminster Fuller realized that structurally, geodesic domes are virtually perfect. They can be built with extremely light materials due to the inherent strength of their geometry, and can therefore be built in incredibly large proportions. In fact, the larger they are, the more additional support they receive from air pressure acting on the interior side of the dome. Fuller spent decades developing the complex tessellations, and over time built a great number of the structures. His most famous was the US pavilion at the ‘67 Montreal World Expo. Their efficiency and mechanical aesthetic have inspired some of today’s most prominent architects, especially those of the high-tech style such as Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell, and Nicholas Grimshaw, whose Eden Project is a clear homage to Fuller’s designs. Norman Foster considers Fuller his greatest influence. Beyond the architectural world, geodesic domes can often be found in science fiction and other visions of the future.
Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project, Cornwall
In all of his work, Fuller adhered to his personal philosophies, which he remains well-known for. An early environmentalist, he believed his developments could eventually be incorporated into megastructures that could protect their occupants from the elements and the outside from pollution (while, of course, using as few resources as possible). He saw his own designs as thoroughly connecting their users to technology and progress, creating a utopian future where everyone was happier and smarter. Despite, or perhaps because of, bouts of depression Fuller’s design theories were always irrepressibly optimistic, a trait which contributed to their popularity.
Fuller with a tensegrity model
One short article cannot possibly cover all of Fuller’s innovations, designs, and philosophies in all of their depth and connectedness- it took Fuller himself many books to do so- nor can it fully express the man’s genius (he was one of Mensa’s first presidents) or fascinating eccentricites. Anyone seeking a greater range of information about his legacy can find it at the website of the institute he founded.
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