The atomic age is fading on its grainy analog newsreels, so it’s high time for the twenty-first century to place Buckminster Fuller in a romantically tinted retrospective. He’s quite an appealing figure, the space-age Thoreau, puffing like a summer breeze through the cold war.
Until his thirties, Fuller was a gabby, overbright college dropout, a sometime meatpacker and sheet-metal worker with a Yankee tinker’s streak. Then bankruptcy and the death of a child provoked a mystical experience, a Whitmanesque self-reinvention in which “R. Buckminster Fuller” suddenly appeared in a Greenwich Village café as an autodidactic, self-appointed expert on everything.
The danger signs of classic crankhood glow all over Fuller—for instance, he creates a tetrahedral “Dymaxion” geometry no one else can grasp—yet his mental breakthrough taps an awesome core of creative energy. On meeting him, people from all walks of life swiftly conclude that they are in the presence of a powerful, visionary seer. They are right.
And this guru is benign and generous, not an exploitative cultist. Rare among bohemian intellectuals, Fuller lacks radical politics and longhair affectations. “Bucky” is a limpidly placid one-man world-saving machine. Devoid of institutional credentials, he’s a miniature academy: an architect, engineer, designer, physicist, geometer, and poet, whose main occupation is explaining how to operate reality.
First, kindly artists befriend him. Then designers come to appreciate his out-of-the-box approach. Engineers discover his patents and wonder who thought up such alien innovations, and how. Architects are annoyed by his cocksure, philistine critiques yet pleased to have a new creative arsenal of geodesic strusses and tresses.
Students adore the man. On the conference circuit, he’s mesmerizing. Finally, in the 1960s, when the conventional wisdom has been tossed up into midair and is falling like pick-up sticks, his books start selling in droves. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth and Utopia or Oblivion (both 1969) are Fuller’s masterpieces, books so far-out that they achieve escape velocity. R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller has become the ultimate space-age techno-utopian.
Unlike his peer Timothy Leary, a scientist who imagined that lysergic acid was transformative, Bucky is not a one-trick pony. He has moved from autodidact to polymath in one long, blistering surge of omnivorous intellectual exploration and has answers for everything. He is not so much a Renaissance man as an entire alien civilization. In the ’60s, he has found a decade that suits his freakish gifts.
He’s the American beau ideal of a ’60s guru: nonviolent, nonideological, nonrevolutionary, drug-free, neatly dressed in a suit, with horn-rims, and close-cropped hair; he is optimistic yet thunderous, can-do yet contrarian, a firm believer in the scientific method, yet questioning received wisdom in ways that seem to offer broad, smooth paths into a radically transformed world.
The world in the twenty-first century is certainly not what Fuller imagined, yet his legacy lives—it stretches from his great-aunt, noted transcendentalist Margaret Fuler, straight through Fuller disciple Stewart Brand, Brand disciple Kevin Kelly (of Wired magazine fame), and about one million ranting Internet techno-enthusiasts muddling disciplinary boundaries with their weblogs and search engines.
If they knew themselves better, they would surely make a point of knowing him.
“Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe” will feature approximately 220 models, videos, photographs, and works on paper and the only extant Dymaxion car (a fuel-efficient vehicle designed by Fuller). The catalogue includes, among other items, essays by the curators and by Harvard University architecture historian Antoine Picon. A symposium about Fuller takes place at the Great Hall at Cooper Union on September 12 and 13. For more information, click here.