An Unorthodox Primer on How to Be Great. As a 20th century futuristic practitioner and iconic philosopher, “Bucky” Fuller was and is, an architect’s architect and a scientist’s scientist.

An Unorthodox Primer on How to Be Great

As a 20th century futuristic practitioner and iconic philosopher, “Bucky” Fuller was and is, an architect’s architect and a scientist’s scientist. As an omnidirectional “superstar,” he very strongly influenced several other luminaries such as I. M. Pei and Sir Norman Foster (as dramatically manifested in their avant-garde geometric works-of-architecture), as well as other stellar design leaders and firms.

In recorded history, there is no other A/P/E as honored as Bucky, with the eponymous allotrope Carbon 60 named “buckminsterfullerene,” nicknamed “buckyball.” And rightfully so, because his insightful geometric explorations and foresightful synergistic discoveries, e.g., his “bible” in Synergetics: Exploration in the Geometry of Thinking, have poignantly created a global multidisciplinary nanotechnological revolution with phenomenal economic benefits for all of mankind dwelling on what he coined “Spaceship Earth.”

British editor and author Martin Pawley notes, “Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), inventor, engineer, scientist, philosopher and poet, bequeathed more guidance to posterity than any of the great pioneers of ‘modern architecture,’ whose influence and thinking has already waned under changing circumstances … He died loaded with honors from the ‘world of architecture,’ a profession that had earlier rejected him, only later recognizing the limitless possibilities that his concept of ‘design science’ offered for the future. Today, the reality of this bequest is larger than life and to be seen everywhere.”

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, to Dr. R. Buckminster Fuller (at age 87), in appreciation of his contributions to science and education. Bucky also far surpasses any of the modern architectural masters in that of the more than 66,000 listings in Who’s Who in America, his entry is the longest, at 139 lines. For comparison, only 23 lines are afforded to President Richard Nixon.

In 1954, Bucky received his first of 53 honorary doctorate degrees—not bad for an AIA Fellow and Gold Medalist who never graduated from college or even attended architectural school. Bucky lectured and conducted design-build field experiments and interdisciplinary seminars at leading schools of architecture, design and planning in the U.S., including Harvard, MIT, the Universities of Michigan and California and others. He used his self-designed aerodynamic “Dymaxion” aluminum trailer as a mobile office to store free-flowing ideas, scribbled notes, drawings, photos, sketches and models of his experimental synergetic structures. Bucky adroitly managed to persuade professors and students that, “Experimental evidence is the very best teacher.” They cut their regular university classes to devour his lectures and seminars and participate in his “high risk/high reward” field experiments.

Bucky had an international reach; his influence touched many practicing designers. Along with Le Corbusier, he identified the need to address mass produced affordable housing as the problem of their time—something which remains to be answered completely in this new century, institutionally and industriously—beyond academic and professional design studios.

There has been another recent tribute to Bucky. His single-pole, demountable, recyclable and ecocentric “Dymaxion House” designed to hover above the landscape with minimal impacts upon its sloping terrain, has been reconstructed at the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. The exhibit opened to the public in 2001.

Bucky would probably find it ironic that early in the last century, it was possible to purchase a few houses for the price of a single automobile; now with mass production strategies, computer-controlled assembly lines and prefabrication engineering, it is possible to buy several automobiles for the price of a single family home. This is due to an antiquated construction industry lacking fundamental knowledge on geometric triangulation and structural integrity. Bucky’s “Dymaxion” prototypes (including the single fixture bathroom) demonstrated that A/E collaborating with industrial designers could contribute significantly and successfully to the imbalance in natural and man-made resource allocation and management. Long before the formation of Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Impact Statement regulations, Bucky espoused that construction materials, supplies and equipment should go directly back to the original manufacturers, thereby preventing environmental devastation and degradation of natural resources and obviating many landfills.

Bucky was a prolific author and inventor; he held 28 patents. In the design practice tome on Inventions he demonstrates “less is more” far better than any of his environmental design colleagues.

“When I invented and developed (design-built) my first clear-span, all-weather geodesic dome Henry J. Kaiser at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the two largest domes in the world were both in Rome and were each (only) 150 feet in diameter. They are St. Peter’s, built around A.D. 1500, and the Pantheon built around A.D. 1. Each weighs approximately 30 thousand tons. In contrast, my first all-weather dome installed in Hawaii weighs only 30 tons—one-thousandth the weight of its masonry counterpart. An earthquake will tumble both the Roman 150-footers, but would leave the (almost 200-feet in diameter) geodesic unharmed.” However, it was demolished by an O/A/C team that only superficially appreciated the unique attributes of Bucky’s “Synergetic Geometry” and his inherent structural integrity systems. It was taken down just five years before it was eligible for the National Historic Register. An alternative A/P/E consultant would have found a symbiotic creative solution to safely accommodate the preserved geodesic “pineapple dome” along with another high-rise hotel tower, as creative design and planning professionals had already accomplished in Boston and New York City. It took less than 24 hours to assemble the Hawaii Fuller Dome from prefabricated parts and open the doors to an outstanding Honolulu Symphony performance. In a process reversal, however, it took more than three weeks to demolish the dome with heavy wrecking equipment—much to the bewilderment of local contractors and the chagrin of hotel managers who couldn’t believe that this “big tin can” shelter was so strong. It repeatedly refused to collapse or tear itself apart as they had hoped. At the University of Hawaii, we did manage to retrieve a semi-hexagonal dome panel sample for further analytical structural and architectural design research.

Wisely, Bucky and his associates on geodesic dome structures (sculptor Isamu Noguchi and structural engineer Shoji Sadao) decided to create a very special unprecedented work-of-sculpture for the landscaped oasis surrounding state and city government buildings. It symbolically resembles one unpaneled hexagonal spine structural system within a typical geodesic dome that was planted in the mid-‘70s. On an AIA Honolulu city walking tour, I spent more than 20 minutes at Noguchi”s “Skygate” with a group of perceptive and knowledgeable chemical and bio-phys-chemical engineers who were vitally interested in the geometrical assemblage and fascinated with its imagineering, macromolecular architectural form and content.

In Bucky’s first published book Nine Chains to the Moon, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, “… Nature gave you antennae, long-range finders you have learned to use … you valuable “unit”. The Buckminster Fuller Institute provides a wealth of historical information on Bucky and his lifetime achievements and alliances in creating artifacts.

—Andrew Charles Yanoviak