Progression of Art
The Dymaxion Car
Fuller's futuristic vehicle was a total reimagining of family travel. With its engine positioned in the rear, the three-wheeled aerodynamic "Zeppelin" car was big enough to carry a dozen passengers (and a picnic), ran for 30 miles on a single gallon on alcohol fuel, and featured air nostrils, air-conditioning and rear view periscopes. Fuller also considered the comfort of his passengers, allowing for them to maintain an "inertial poise" while in motion. Never intended for mass production - only three prototypes were ever produced - Fuller goal was to present his vision as what "flying cars" might look like once they took to the "ocean of the sky".
Fuller, with help from his close friend, the Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, had started designing the car in the late 1920's, but had to wait several years to secure the funds needed to realize his vision. The prototype was built in a factory in Connecticut in 1933. It was to be the middle stage in a technical revolution that might result in a vehicle that could be airborne, road bound and even sea fairing. Whether or not it was an effective mode of road travel at the time was of little consequence to Fuller who wanted rather to inspire other designers. And inspire it did, enthusing the cream of 1930s American society, including Amelia Earhart, Henry Ford and Diego Riviera, and many years later, the famous British architect Norman Foster.
The three Dymaxion prototypes suffered different fates. Due to high interest from the media, the first Dymaxion was involved in a fatal accident at the gates of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Fuller biographies tell it that, overeager to get a first-hand look at what some elements of the print media had branded a "freak car", a Chicago South Park Commissioner accidentally drove his own car into the Dymaxion which rolled over, killing the driver and injuring its passengers (including a Scottish spy and French government minister). The Commissioner's car was hastily removed from the scene, and once the police arrived, the "clumsy" Dymaxion design was blamed for the accident. The first Dymaxion prototype was repaired, but was later destroyed in a refuelling accident; prototype three was cut up for scrap metal, while prototype two was thought to have been lost forever until it was discovered on a farm by a group of Arizona State engineering students. The farm owner had bought the car many years earlier for a dollar and was using it as a makeshift chicken coop. The last original Dymaxion Car was acquired circuitously by casino magnate Bill Harrah who restored it to its original glory and placed in on display at his National Automobile Museum in Reno.
Sheet aluminium on ash wood frame - National Automobile Museum, Reno
The Dymaxion Map (Life Magazine's 1943 version) (
First published as an article in Life magazine in March 1943, Fuller's map eradicates much of the distortion than effected earlier maps. He wrote, "for the layman, engrossed in belated, war-taught lessons in geography [...] The Dymaxion World map is a means by which he can see the whole world fairly at once". The map was presented as a pull-out section that allowed Life's readers to assemble the map into a globe. The globe's surface is seen thus as a continuous surface without bisecting areas of major land mass. As the Open Culture journalist Josh Jones put it, the map "was intended to be folded in different ways though in its most common orientation it shows an archipelago of almost uninterrupted continents and allows the plotting of migratory paths and flow particularly well". The Buckminster Fuller Institute stressed, meanwhile, that the map was "the only flat map of the entire surface of the Earth which reveals our planet as one island in the ocean, without any visually obvious distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and without splitting any continents".
In spite of his enormous ambition, many of Fuller's contemporaries found his view of the world, expressed through his overarching "spaceship earth" analogy, romantic and impractical. Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker summarized the sceptical attitudes towards his projects (which were only heightened following the unveiling of The Dymaxion Car) when she noted that his "schemes [...] had the hallucinatory quality associated with science fiction (or mental hospitals)". Yet these reservations seem somehow unjustified given that Fuller presented himself, not as an inventor at all, but rather as an "anticipatory design scientist" who promoted the maxim, "if you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them [...] give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking".
In this sense, Fuller's "tool", the Dymaxion Map (and Fuller's modified icosahedron Airocean world map which was published in 1954), can be claimed as an unqualified success because it prompted many imitators and instigated nothing short of what Jones called "a revolution in mapping". It led indeed to maps based on ice, snow, glaciers and ice sheets, maps that illustrate flight paths and, later still, to the "Googlespiel", an interactive Dymaxion map developed by Google Maps. One might add that the design also extended its influence to the world of contemporary art through Jasper Johns's painting Map (1967).
The Dymaxion House
Fuller's idea for new living solutions was conceived of as early as 1928 with a design he named the "4-D house". At the time he was destitute and the idea was roundly dismissed as a viable economic venture. Undeterred, Fuller pushed on with his development until it was picked up in 1944 by the U.S. government which was looking for ways to keep wartime aircraft factories busy. Because of bureaucratic interference, The Dymaxion House, in spite of securing several thousand advanced orders, was only ever developed into one fully working prototype (the Wichita House).
The Dymaxion House was mathematically precise and polished; designed to be delivered fresh from the factory floor and flat-packaged so that it could be easily shipped world-wide. The height and shape of the house would prevent flooding and protect against earthquakes, and the octagonal symmetry would streamline the plastic shell so that it could withstand a tornado. The design was streamlined in order to optimize the internal climate which was also controlled by floor and roof vents that allowed for natural air conditioning in summer and efficient heat influx in the winter. In what at the time seemed like pure science fiction, Fuller thought of automating appliances with devices such as an instantaneous dishwasher and the shower replaced with a water-saving "fog gun". The fuel for the house was to be derived from human waste in order to achieve a sort of self-sufficiency to the home while it used tension suspension from a central column (which allowed for a change in floor planning - a bedroom could be squeezed to allow for a bigger living room for parties for instance) with the lightweight structure able to be airlifted to a new location as-and-when desired. The Dymaxion House was, finally, to be leased, or priced like a car, and paid off in instalments over five years.
Architectural historian Peter Reed, writes, "The unconventional shape, structure, and materials of the Dymaxion House stood in sharp contrast to buildings by leading modernists such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Le Corbusier had described his own mass-produced housing as a 'machine for living in,' and the Dymaxion House was unabashedly machine-like, but Fuller was highly critical of modern European architects, who he felt were preoccupied with cosmetic concerns that merely symbolized or aestheticized functional elements without a clear and honest display of function and efficiency". Reed also observed that Fuller's prototype "inspired many architects" though some accused him of being "overly technical". Fuller himself took exception at that criticism, insisting, "I never work with aesthetic considerations in mind, but I have a test: if something isn't beautiful when I get finished with it, it's no good".
Aluminium sheet metal shell on a stainless steel strut - Wichita, Kansas
Fuller gained full acceptance amongst the international architectural community following the 1954 Milan Triennale at which he claimed the Gran Premio, the event's top prize. The Triennale's mission was to present the most innovative achievements in the fields of design, crafts, architecture and city planning with the theme for 1954 being "Life Between Artifact and Nature: Design and the Environmental Challenge". Fuller's 42-foot paperboard Geodesic Dome came with simple printed instructions on how the Dome could be shipped and assembled. It was Fuller's first significant success with the Dome which he had begun working on, with help of the artist Kenneth Snelson, in the late 1940s. According to the BBC science journalist, Jonathan Glancey, Fuller had till now been mostly considered "a practical dreamer" but "what fascinated architects was Fuller's claim that the geodesic dome offered the greatest volume for the least surface area, a case of doing very much more with very much less".
The Geodesic Dome was based on a triangular structure of rods. The surface area of the structure was minimal in comparison to the internal volume; it provided, in other words, a solid structure of unparalleled strength that allowed for a living area that was more open and spacious than regular housing designs. In light of the postwar housing crisis, and the lack of availability of new building materials, Fuller created what was a workable, cost effective housing solution. Added to that, the structure benefitted from less exposure to outside temperatures thanks to the nature of its spherical shape, and yet it also worked to concentrate heat within, resulting in a substantial energy reduction. Notwithstanding the practical issues of how a modern nuclear American family could divide up the dome's space to everyone's satisfaction, and how would existing furniture fit into a structure formed of continuously curved and sloping walls, Glancey pointed out, that few people "either then or now wanted to live in a dome that looked as if it would have been more at home on Mars than Dallas or Des Moines".
Though the Dome never took off as a domestic housing option (Fuller and his wife did live happily in a geodesic dome in Carbondale, Illinois) the US Marine Corps commissioned thousands of small geodesic domes that were delivered to the military around the world by helicopter. Meanwhile, larger domes were put to use as weather stations, long range radar stations and storage depots. The most impressive of the Domes in scale, such as the Montreal Expo '67 Dome, the NASA Epcot Center and (the biggest of all at a height of 216m) in Fukuoka, Japan stand as monuments to Fuller's futuristic vision, while the first large Dome to make its impression on the general public was built for the 1964 New York World's Fair and which stands today as the aviary at Queens Zoo.
Steel rod structure with acrylic cells
Writing with his usual enthusiasm in his 1962 book Education Automation (itself a transcript of his lecture programme at Carbondale), Fuller predicted the following: "The new educational technology will probably provide also an invention of mine called the Geoscope - a large two-hundred-foot diameter (or more) lightweight geodesic sphere hung hoveringly at one hundred feet above mid-campus by approximately invisible cables from three remote masts. This giant sphere is a miniature earth". Applying the same logic he used on his Geodesic Dome, the Geoscope resembled that of an outdoor planetarium, or, rather, a giant world telescope. The gigantic transparent dome, with its inner and outer surfaces covered with closely-packed electric bulbs, was to be used to visualize current world events; anything from migration and climate patterns to warfare.
By adapting his dome structure, Fuller believed he could capture the world in microcosm by creating what would be in effect an artificial sky: "This giant, 200-foot diameter sphere will be a miniature earth -- the most accurate global representation of our planet ever to be realized" he declared. Fuller believed that being able to immediately visualise global events would be commensurate with following the same story in a newspaper or watching it in a brief coverage on the 6 o'clock news, only more immediately. The Geoscope was envisioned thus as a more feasible interconnection between a person living in, say, New York, and the rest of the world. It was an idea that overlapped with that of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan and his famous (but somewhat less grandiose) "Global Village" theory.
Fuller had wanted his dome to benefit the work of the United Nations, but his humanitarian ideal was, if inspired, somewhat over-ambitious: "All the world would be dynamically viewable and picturable and radioable to all the world, so that common consideration in a most educated manner of all world problems by all world people would become a practical everyday -hour and -minute event", he proclaimed. Fuller had successfully conceptualised the accessibility, display and sharing of global news and data but it was beyond the technical reach of his age. He nevertheless envisioned, perhaps inspired, future developments in media and screen technology.
Fuller had started to formulate a mental picture of his techno-utopian game as early as 1927. It was not until 1961, however, that the World Game was finally launched as the core curriculum at the new Edwardsville Campus at Southern Illinois University (SIU). The World Game was essentially a premise, one that would prompt students to think about their future responsibility towards interconnected global systems and natural resources and, in time (since as Fuller acknowledged, "to play it one needs the computer tools, which are not yet commercially available"), grow into global agents who could implement new ideas for future world economies, resource flows, and ecologies. Fuller's global vision quickly gained traction and was even adopted as a theme for the U.S. Pavilion at Montreal's 1967 Expo. And though it never came to fruition, by the turn of the decade Fuller was claiming, with some justification, that the World Game had become "the main tool in the design of an environment for planning where good thinking about Spaceship Earth could prosper".
The World Game itself was to provide a simulation for the planet and its resources where designers, scientists, artists, engineers, and possibly even political figures, could suggest policies on how, in Fuller's words, to "make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone". The Dymaxion Map provided the topographic playing board for Fuller's "learning game" and it would be projected onto a series of Geoscopes suspended over every major city on the planet as a way to share information and ideas that might make the world work for the benefit of the whole planet.
The sheer ambition of the game meant that it remained an academic exercise that existed largely in research reports, resource studies and group workshops. This fact, according Thomas Broussard Turner, director of Fuller Projects at Southern Illinois University, should not be allowed to diminish the importance of Fuller's vision. In his preface to Fuller's World Game Series: Document One (1971), Turner placed Fuller in a group with Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton and Einstein. He wrote, "Each of these men evolved a powerful script around which a cast of people gathered to test out [a] new metaphor, to enlarge upon it, if possible, and to ultimately form a production ensemble of gigantic proportions to achieve a new science of action in testing out [their] script. That is what a metaphor can do when it is powerful enough and when it is successfully delineated by the consummate artist of his era - that is what Buckminster Fuller has done with the design of his World Game".
While still in the process of developing his Geodesic Domes, Fuller collaborated with a number of contemporary artists in a special "Theater Piece" at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the Summer of 1952 (Fuller having taught there in the summers of 1948 and 1949). Later claimed as the first-ever "happening" event, it was a piece of performance art featuring "separate and unrelated activities". While Fuller acted, John Cage conducted a lecture (punctuated with lengthy silences), Charles Olson recited a poem, David Tudor played piano, Merce Cunningham danced and Robert Rauschenberg played records while his paintings were suspended and rotated above the audience. It was in fact through an attempt to create a piece of performance art that Drop City came to be some 14 years later.
In 1965 a group of University of Kansas art students, JoAnn and Gene Bernofsky, Clark Richert and Richard Kallweit, acquired a six-acre goat pasture on the outskirts of Trinidad, Colorado. Having been involved in one of Allan Kaprow's "happenings" in New York - happenings being a challenge to the category of fixed, or static, art that required that the viewer inadvertently participate in each event on the premise of bringing art into every-day living - Richert and Gene Bernofsky invented the concept of "Drop Art". It involved "dropping" small, colorfully painted, rocks from their apartment window in Lawrence (Kansas) into the path of unsuspecting pedestrians and to observe their reaction. From Drop Art they developed the much more ambitious project of a Drop City; a City situated in the sprawling barren no-man's-land between the American and Mexican border where creative individuals could "drop in" to create a "live-in sculpture".
Drop City's various buildings were based on Fuller's Geodesic Domes and the crystalline designs of Steve Baer (a pioneer in solar energy). The "Droppers" as they were labelled (the commune drew the interest of the media who interpreted the "drop" in Drop City as a reference to "dropping acid", taking LSD, and to "dropping out" of society) were short on building experience but they learned to build their colorful Domes which cost next to nothing, from salvaged materials. In 1967 Fuller himself honored Drop City with his inaugural Dymaxion Award. In his message of congratulation, Fuller wrote: "Gentlemen: I take great pleasure in informing you that you have won the 'Dymaxion Award' for 1967, for your remarkable initiative, spirit, and poetically economic structural accomplishments. Faithfully yours, R. Buckminster Fuller". Fuller's public profile was raised as Drop City garnered fervent international attention and inspired a whole generation of alternative communities (it is estimated that as many as 2,000 rural communes emerged across America). But the excessive media attention that Drop City drew led to overcrowding and by the early 1970s the world's first Geodesic Dome City was all but abandoned, left to transients.