Jul 122021

Today is the birthday (1895) of Richard Buckminster Fuller, who styled himself R. Buckminster Fuller but preferred to be called Bucky, which I will here. He was, without doubt, the quirkiest individual I have ever come across and it is my great misfortune never to have met him, although I did have some dealings with his daughter, Allegra, who has been hailed in circles that focus on the ethnography of dance – my specialty. I’ll let that connexion lie – it was disturbingly fraught – and concentrate, instead, on Bucky’s eccentricities.

Bucky himself recounted how 1927 was a pivotal year of his life. His daughter Alexandra had died in 1922 of complications from polio and spinal meningitis just before her fourth birthday. Bucky dwelt on his daughter’s death, suspecting that it was connected with the Fullers’ damp and drafty living conditions. This provided motivation for his involvement in Stockade Building Systems, a business which aimed to provide affordable, efficient housing. In 1927, at age 32, Bucky lost his job as president of Stockade. The Fuller family had no savings, and the birth of their daughter Allegra in 1927 added to the financial burdens. Fuller drank heavily and reflected upon the solution to his family’s struggles on long walks around Chicago. During the autumn of 1927, Bucky contemplated suicide by drowning in Lake Michigan, so that his family could benefit from a life insurance payment. Bucky said that he had experienced a profound incident which would provide direction and purpose for his life. He felt as though he were suspended several feet above the ground enclosed in a white sphere of light. A voice spoke directly to Fuller, and declared:

From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.

Bucky often talked about how this experience led to a profound re-examination of his life. He ultimately chose to embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” Later commentators have doubted the authenticity of this experience, but I see no reason to doubt it.  The human mind is capable of extraordinary things.  He did achieve great things and his ideas did benefit humanity.

He appears to have re-invented the geodesic dome, with which his name is most closely associated, and he did popularize its use in architecture. It had originally been created, built and awarded a German patent on June 19, 1925 by Dr. Walther Bauersfeld. Bucky was awarded the United States patent in 1954, and his patent application made no mention of Bauersfeld’s self-supporting dome built 26 years prior. One of his early models was first constructed in 1945 at Bennington College in Vermont, where he lectured often. Although Bauersfeild’s dome could support a full skin of concrete it was not until 1949 that Fuller erected a geodesic dome building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. It was 4.3 meters (14 feet) in diameter and constructed of aluminum aircraft tubing and a vinyl-plastic skin, in the form of an icosahedron. The U.S. government recognized the importance of this work, and employed his firm Geodesics, Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina to make small domes for the Marines. Within a few years, there were thousands of such domes around the world.

Bucky was a Unitarian, like his grandfather Arthur Buckminster Fuller who was a Unitarian minister. He was also an early environmental activist, aware of the Earth’s finite resources, and promoted a principle he termed “ephemeralization,” which, according to futurist and Fuller disciple Stewart Brand, was defined as “doing more with less.” Resources and waste from crude, inefficient products could be recycled into making more valuable products, thus increasing the efficiency of the entire process. Fuller also coined the word synergetics, a catch-all term used broadly for communicating experiences using geometric concepts, and more specifically, the empirical study of systems in transformation; his focus was on total system behavior unpredicted by the behavior of any isolated components.

Though Bucky was concerned about sustainability and human survival under the existing socio-economic system, he remained optimistic about humanity’s future. Defining “wealth” in terms of knowledge, as the “technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life,” his analysis of the condition of “Spaceship Earth” caused him to conclude that at a certain time during the 1970s, humanity had attained an unprecedented state. He was convinced that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of major recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level, such that competition for necessities had become unnecessary. Cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy. He declared: “selfishness is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable … War is obsolete.” He criticized previous utopian schemes as too exclusive, and thought this was a major source of their failure. To work, he thought that a utopia needed to include everyone. In his 1970 book I Seem To Be a Verb, he wrote: “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.”

His use of language was idiosyncratic and imaginative.  Bucky Fuller spoke and wrote in a unique style and said it was important to describe the world as accurately as possible. He often created long run-on sentences and used unusual compound words (omniwell-informed, intertransformative, omni-interaccommodative, omniself-regenerative) as well as other single words he invented (which give my spell-checker a headache). His style of speech was characterized by progressively rapid and breathless delivery and rambling digressions of thought, which he described as “thinking out loud.” My students will attest that I can relate well to this style. He used the word Universe without the definite or indefinite articles (the or a) and always capitalized the word. He wrote, “by Universe I mean: the aggregate of all humanity’s consciously apprehended and communicated (to self or others) Experiences.”

The words “down” and “up”, according to Fuller, are awkward in that they refer to a planar concept of direction inconsistent with human experience. The words “in” and “out” should be used instead, he argued, because they better describe an object’s relation to a gravitational center, the Earth. “I suggest to audiences that they say, ‘I’m going “outstairs” and “instairs.”‘ At first that sounds strange to them; They all laugh about it. But if they try saying in and out for a few days in fun, they find themselves beginning to realize that they are indeed going inward and outward in respect to the center of Earth, which is our Spaceship Earth. And for the first time they begin to feel real ‘reality.'”

“World-around” is a term coined by Fuller to replace “worldwide”. The general belief in a flat Earth died out in classical antiquity (except with the lunatic fringe), so using “wide” is an anachronism when referring to the surface of the Earth—a spheroidal surface has area and encloses a volume but has no width. Fuller held that unthinking use of obsolete scientific terms detracts from and misleads intuition. Other neologisms collectively invented by the Fuller family, according to Allegra Fuller Snyder, are the terms “sunsight” and “sunclipse”, replacing “sunrise” and “sunset” to overturn the geocentric bias of most pre-Copernican celestial mechanics.

Bucky also invented the word “livingry,” as opposed to weaponry (or “killingry”), to mean that which is in support of all human, plant, and Earth life. “The architectural profession—civil, naval, aeronautical, and astronautical—has always been the place where the most competent thinking is conducted regarding livingry, as opposed to weaponry.” As well as contributing significantly to the development of tensegrity technology, he invented the term “tensegrity”, a portmanteau of “tensional”and “integrity.” “Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder.”

Bucky also helped to popularize the concept of Spaceship Earth: “The most important fact about Spaceship Earth: an instruction manual didn’t come with it.” In the preface for his “cosmic fairy tale” Tetrascroll: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Fuller stated that his distinctive speaking style grew out of years of embellishing the classic tale for the benefit of his daughter, allowing him to explore both his new theories and how to present them. The Tetrascroll narrative was eventually transcribed onto a set of tetrahedral lithographs (hence the name), as well as being published as a traditional book.

We cannot speak about Bucky’s books without mentioning a cookbook written for him: Synergetic Stew — Explorations in Dymaxion Dining. It was originally presented to him as a gift on his 86th birthday, in 1982, by the staff of the Fuller Institute in Philadelphia. It’s not the sort of cookbook you’d buy — then or now — for the recipes, unless you’re desperate for dated instructions for shrimp salad or chocolate mousse. Synergetic Stew is instead a document of a magical, idiosyncratic life with contributions by a rainbow of celebrities.  It has been re-issued and you can find it in various places.  Here’s a sample:

(click to enlarge)

Otherwise, Bucky lived on gallons of strong black tea, steak, spinach, and Jell-o.