News

Harvard Law School Makes Online Zero-L Course Free for All U.S. Law Schools Due to Coronavirus

News

For Kennedy School Fellows, Epstein-Linked Donors Present a Moral Dilemma

News

Tenants Grapple with High Rents and Local Turnover at Asana-Owned Properties

News

In April, Theft Surged as Cambridge Residents Stayed at Home

News

The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Buckminster Fuller

Silhouette

By Michael S. Gruen

Buckminster Fuller, internationally renowned architect, inventor of the Dymaxion house, the geodesic dome, and the Dymaxion World Map, is living at Quincy House during his term as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry.

Buckminster Fuller is technology incarnate. Or at least he sounds that way. He thinks of the entire world in terms of mechanical efficiency: his speech is punctuated by "output-input ratios." Man he describes as a "regenerative consumer." And of a daughter he has written, "It was visible to me that the 1922 death of our child in her fourth year resulted from then unheeded environment process integrations of comprehensively unattended yet design preventable factors."

Yet the sources of his fascination with technology lie in a fervid desire to create a world in which peace is possible and in which man can pursue his interests and desires wtih far greater freedom than known today. His writings only hint at this humanity; for only in his frequent use of conception-pregnancy-birth metaphors does a humane tone hesitatingly emerge.

But in conversation, his style mellows into something more comprehensible, and he puts a listener quite at ease. "Listener" I use advisedly, for Mr. Fuller does indeed like to talk. His talk may be circuitous, verbose and disorganized--it is also seldom anything less than brilliant. He speaks with an obvious respect for those listening, and imports an aura of friendliness, if not of vibrant warmth. Having a rather inexpressive face, he relies heavily on gesticulation--vast and frequent sweeps of the arm. He has a large head, set on broad shoulders and a stocky frame. His clothes fit loosely.

Decades ago, Fuller (who is now 66) drew from the Malthusian and Darwinian theses the implication that man, in order to survive, has adopted a "you-or-me" philosophy. To continue living in an over-populated world, man has taken to war. The consequent development of "weaponry" has, however, also produced improvements in the art of "livingry": progress has been especially notable, for example, in transportation and in mass production.

With the goal of helping to raise man's living standard still higher, and at a faster rate, Fuller has devoted his life to inventing construction systems of extreme economic efficiency, and to applying these to "livingry" rather than "weaponry." Perhaps his greatest contribution in this respect has been his work with the tetrahedron, a four-faced pyramid which Fuller has discovered to be the most resistant of all polyhedra to external pressure. By combining many tetrahedra into a spherical shape (the sphere can withstand the greatest internal pressures), Fuller constructed his geodesic dome, an extremely light and economical structure of extraordinary strength.

Another of his earlier mass-produceable structures, the Dymaxion house, revolutioned architecture during the 'twenties. Utilizing production techniques from the aircraft and automobile industries, Fuller made this the first attempt to apply modern technology to dwellings. The hexagonal house had no foundations; it hung from a central mast, thereby minimizing the danger from earth-quakes and obviating the usual necessity to grade the site before construction could begin; it was possible to erect the Dymaxion house in less than twenty-four hours. All utilities, including cesspool, water tank, and a diesel engine to supply power, were located in a mechanical core beneath the mast, thus making it possible for a family to live totally independent of any township--and to move from place to place at will, since the dwelling could be easily carried by helicopter. The house never went on the market before the war because of the state of housing technology; immediately after the war Fuller could not find sufficient financial backing.

Fuller especially values the transportability and independence of the Dymaxion house. For many reasons--the 20th century's great progress in transportation, modern industry's need for extra large warehouses in the country, and the high taxes and utility costs in town--man can and frequently must live outside of cities. Dymaxion makes this possible.

Making things possible is precisely the essence of Fuller's work. Whether it is good for man to live outside of cities, whether it is good for man to whimsically move his house from desert to mountaintop to forest without extending his own roots anywhere, does not directly concern Fuller. He wishes only to make possible what others want: he refuses to judge the ethical value of his work. The Dymaxion houses may make Americans even more rootless than they now are, he remarks. "All I'm talking about is a degree of freedom. In the future, those who want can stay on Beacon Hill and those who want can travel."

To those who disdain a mechanistic appearance in house (the Dymaxion house has often been called a "machine for living"), Fuller answers, "There was a moment when industrialism began to advance when men were apprehensive. Such men as Emerson and Thoreau were afraid that everything would become stereotyped. In fact, what has happened in the industrial revolution has been quite the contrary. Different models develop all the time: passenger planes, bombers, small planes, large planes. The species is multiplying fabulously. There's no such thing as a stereotype."

And he continues his technological analysis of aesthetics, "I never think about looks per se. I'm only convinced that if you're really economical you'll have an inherent beauty. When I've finished a building and she doesn't look beautiful, then I know she's no good."

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags