Thursday, November 05, 2009

All Tomorrow's Architects

After the watching his construction company go bankrupt, losing his home, and finally losing his daughter to spinal meningitis, Buckminster Fuller spent much of 1920's drunk. He considered killing himself, but somehow found the resolve to continue living. He decided to transform his own life into an experiment; an attempt to determine how much positive change a man could bring to the world. While this experiment was hardly traditional, the results indicate even one man can have considerable, lasting impact.

Fuller, a certified machinist, had a lifelong interest in design and engineering. As a child, he had assembled small boats and even attempted to construct "flying machines" (although none of the latter met with success). Despite his scientific aptitude, he was expelled from Harvard twice.

After getting a job as an interior decorator at a restaurant, Fuller began work on a scale model of a futuristic home. The house (which resembled a hybrid of air-stream trailer, teapot, and flying saucer) was designed for ease in assemblage and energy-efficiency. Searching for a unique name for the design, Fuller consulted an advertising expert who helped him develop the catchy term Dymaxion (for Dynamic Maximum Tension). Fuller displayed his model at the restaurant, which caught the eye of architect Isamu Noguchi. The two men became friends and together the developed a design for the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car. Meanwhile, Fuller was commissioned by the Army to build Dymaxion homes.

By 1945, Fuller was an established, if unorthodox, figure in the world of engineering and earned a living as a lecturer. He became interested in the architectural potential of the geodesic dome, building his first prototype at Bennington College of Vermont. Subsequent models proved the dome's structural strength, and won more attention from the Army. Within a few years, geodesic domes became a common feature in architecture all over the world.

Fuller, meanwhile, went on to become an early proponent of sustainability and alternative energy, while famously declaring war to be "obsolete." He was also unflinchingly eccentric in a time when it could damage one's career. He created his own distinct vocabulary, wore three watches (each set to a different time-zone) and often wore pages of newspaper between shirts to keep warm during long airplane flights. All of this endeared him to many counter-culture figures, particularly the inhabitants of the Drop City commune.

In addition to his design work, Fuller devoted much of his time to an experiment that expanded upon a journal he had started back in 1915. It was called the the Dymaxion Chornofile, and it consisted of an meticulous, comprehensive record of his daily activities, which he updated every fifteen minutes under optimum conditions. The Chronofile contained copies of letters, receipts, newspaper clippings, invoices, and design notes and sketches. He added to the Chronofile until his death in 1983, suffering a fatal heart attack while visiting his cancer-stricken, comatose wife. By that point, the Chronofile had grown to a total length of 270 feet and it remains the most complete record of a human life ever created; a record of curiosity and innovative thought.

Would you like to know more?
-Read more about the Dymaxion Chronofile here.
-Read about Fuller at the Synchronofile.

1 comment:

  1. Hm. Documenting the minutiae of his every day life? Seems Buckminster Fuller was ahead of his time in more ways than one. I wonder what he would think of the life in the 21st century?

    I never knew much about Fuller, and I enjoyed reading this short biography. I think his experiment was ultimately a noble one.