Inside the 20th Century’s Weirdest Architectural Breakthrough

Inside the 20th Century’s Weirdest Architectural Breakthrough

Buckminster Fuller, one of the most eccentric designers and futurist thinkers of the 20th century, helped define what “the future” meant for a generation of people trying to find their place in the world. And perhaps none of Fuller’s countless ideas have captured the spirit of that struggle better than the inventor’s geodesic dome.

Today we have an excerpt from Inventor of the Future by Alec Nevala-Lee, the latest biography of Buckminster Fuller that tackles the inventor’s life and legacy nearly 40 years after his death in 1983.

When we say “we think,” our feedback has variable lags that may take overnight or months of time, for all we know. Because we want to understand — that is, to know the interrelationships of clusters of experiences — our first great discovery is dismissing irrelevancies, the macro-micro characteristics. Add: forgotten questions; different rates of feedback; persons’ names; random questionings; the challenging set you would like to understand; our friend intuition.

— Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics

In the fall of 1947, Buckminster Fuller visited the industrial designer George Nelson in Quogue, New York. They had first met in the thirties, when Nelson was working as an associate editor at Architectural Forum and Fortune, and had remained in touch ever since. At his Manhattan studio, Nelson had emerged as a powerful figure in American modernism, and as the design director for the furniture company Herman Miller, he had recruited Charles and Ray Eames.

Fuller spent a pleasant weekend in Quogue with Nelson and the Eameses, whose lives had clear parallels to his own. At forty, Charles Eames was attractive to women and capable of drawing devoted followers, and he had left his first wife to marry Ray Kaiser, his ideal partner. Working together, they had perfected the famed plywood chair that bore their name, drawing on advanced materials and methods to solve problems that had frustrated Fuller in housing.

At Nelson’s home, Fuller showed them his timeline of the elements and his drawings of the Dymaxion Car, which moved Charles to comment, “How blind people can be.” Charles told the former Cynthia Lacey, now married to Dave Floyd, that the encounter had been “like lungs full of fresh air, and cool drinks of water, and a Finnish bath all at one time,” and he thanked Fuller for his discourses on geometry: “Ray of course wanted to hear every word, but I am afraid that I could do little more than whip up a few additional tetrahedrons.”

As Charles took snapshots of Fuller, they spoke of more practical matters. Fuller was out of money: he was selling his two small planes, and he would soon be forced to ask Allegra to cover her tuition at Bennington. He was trying to overcome his reputation for erratic behaviour, but his only source of income was his doubtful arrangement with Mike Goldgar, and when Nelson offered him additional work as a scientific consultant, Fuller accepted gladly.

Fuller and Charles also discussed an invitation from the Institute of Design in Chicago, formed in 1937 to perpetuate the principles of the Bauhaus. It had obvious affinities with Fuller, who had once been considered as a candidate to succeed its founder, the late László Moholy-Nagy, with whom he had corresponded about the Dymaxion Bathroom. The current director, Serge Chermayeff, had assisted in exhibiting the bathroom at the Museum of Modern Art, and in July he had written to Fuller, “I had a long talk the other day with our mutual friend, Charlie Eames, here in Chicago, who tells me that there might be a possibility of your coming to lecture to us here at the institute.”

Fuller’s asking price of $US500 ($694) was more than the school could afford, and although he might have compromised for another institution, his competitive streak made him reluctant to show vulnerability. In Quogue, Charles advised him to reconsider, which he eventually did, telling Chermayeff that he would participate for a lesser amount in “a public appearance through joint auspices.” It was a fine distinction that allowed him to save face, and Chermayeff offered $US100 ($139) for a talk in January 1948.

In his standard narrative of this period, Fuller portrayed himself as cut off from the world, as he concentrated on mastering the geometry behind the geodesic dome. His connections with design circles remained strong, however, and he was visibly active on numerous fronts. One involved the mathematician Ernst Straus, Albert Einstein’s assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Straus hinted that Einstein, who remembered Fuller, might agree to a meeting if he received a written synopsis to distinguish the request “from the hundreds he is approached by every day.”

Fuller was excited enough to prepare six drafts of an introductory letter describing his ideas. He sent “a woeful bit” for mailing to Cynthia Floyd, who was handling his administrative work, but the result, finished shortly before he flew to Chicago, did little to separate him from the legions of cranks. If it ever reached Einstein, Fuller would have lost him by the opening of the second paragraph: “In all humility, I state that I seem to have articulated aright the ‘open-sesame’ to a comprehensive system of sublime commensurability.”

At the Institute of Design, the reaction was more encouraging. On January 22, 1948, Fuller spoke from nine in the morning until ten at night. After a standing ovation, Serge Chermayeff took the podium to announce that he had extended Fuller an invitation to teach in the fall. In his upcoming class, Fuller would present a course on Comprehensive Design Technique, moving from “an unsolved social problem to demonstrated mechanical product in full scale operation.”

Fuller’s hopes of doing similar work for Mike Goldgar had generated just a handful of uninspiring assignments, including one for leather bands for men’s hats, and he quit to join Nelson’s office, which was far more promising. For a modest retainer, he focused on designing furniture, including an aluminium “seating tool” that turned out to be less than comfortable. After a sketching session late one evening with Fuller and Noguchi, Nelson returned to find a drawing of what became the firm’s iconic ball clock, recalling years later, “I don’t know to this day who cooked it up.”

Nelson told Fuller that he didn’t want to distract from his geometrical investigations, which became a private refuge as he struggled for professional traction. Fuller tended to fall back on less costly activities after his larger plans faltered, and for geometry, he could use materials from a hardware store. He built small models and performed calculations by hand, and the operational nature of the work was well suited to an autodidact who distrusted his own abilities at higher mathematics.

Fuller often worked at home until three in the morning, prompting his downstairs neighbours to pound on the ceiling to complain. His efforts climaxed in a feverish period of activity in the first four months of 1948. One thread focused on the packing of spheres within polyhedra, especially the cuboctahedron, which Fuller later called the vector equilibrium. In a series of detailed diagrams, he related its patterns to the structure of the atom, excitedly proclaiming that it was “what Archimedes sought and Pythagoreans and Kepler and Newton.”

He also explored the transformations of one polyhedron into another. Years earlier, he had described the vector equilibrium as “a railroad station to the different units,” and now he experimented with this concept in a tangible form. Building a vector equilibrium with rigid edges and rubber joints, Fuller found that if he pressed down on it, the entire construction twisted and contracted. As the six square faces were compressed, each became the equivalent of two triangles, which made twenty in all when combined with its eight triangular faces.

In other words, the vector equilibrium became an icosahedron. When he pushed the model down farther, the triangles nested into one another to produce an octahedron, and from there it collapsed into a flat structure — consisting of four smaller triangles — that could be folded into a tetrahedron. This sequence of polyhedra was an original discovery that delighted Fuller, who named it after a dance that he would have seen at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem: the jitterbug.

Fuller’s work on the jitterbug transformation and the arrangement of spheres in closest packing, which he related to the “identical axial rotations” of the vector equilibrium, led him to take a closer look at the patterns made by rotating polyhedra. When a polyhedron was spun on an axis, as a gambler might twirl a die between a thumb and forefinger, its equator traced a circle perpendicular to its line of rotation. An axis could be formed by any two opposing points, and he focused on the circles that were generated by spinning a polyhedron around its faces, vertices, and edges.

The vector equilibrium, for instance, had fourteen faces, twelve vertices, and twenty-four edges, each of which could be paired with the opposite side to form an axis. Rotating the vector equilibrium around each axis made twenty-five different circles. Each polyhedron produced a unique rotational set — thirty-one circles for the icosahedron, thirteen for the octahedron — that could be mapped onto a sphere, where they intersected in a network of triangles.

As Fuller sketched diagrams of the great circles that resulted from rotating different polyhedra, he noticed that they resembled an architectural framework. On March 1, 1948, he did a rough drawing of what he called the “Atomic Buckalow”: a curved lattice shell enclosure made out of a tensed system of flexible aluminium or plastic strips, which he based on the “triangular intertension” of the twenty-five great circles of the vector equilibrium.

In this sketch lay the origins of the geodesic dome. It had arisen almost inadvertently from his geometric explorations, and he based it on a network of great circles for reasons that had less to do with engineering than with the aesthetics of his geometry. The approach yielded an overly complicated pattern of different triangles, but it had many points in its favour. As a hemisphere, it enclosed the maximum space within a given surface area; it was a clearspan structure that required no internal supports; and, best of all, it could be prototyped at a price that he could afford.

Fuller claimed retroactively that the dome had emerged from the mast and metal stays of the Wichita House, which he expanded into a triangulated “spherical mast” that doubled as both shell and support, and he never mentioned that he had kept what amounted to a miniature dome in his office for years. In Fuller’s patent for the Dymaxion Map, he had recommended using a transparent plastic hemisphere to transfer information from a globe, and its grid of triangular crossings had been staring him in the face for most of the forties.

For the rest of his life, Fuller retold the story of the dome repeatedly, but he never revealed the pivotal decision that followed. He lacked the resources to start another business himself, and the dome might have remained another unrealized concept if he hadn’t been in a position to show it to someone ideally placed to make it happen. Within a month of his first sketch, he brought the idea to George Nelson, who saw its value at once.

As a first approach, Nelson contacted Henry Sonnenberg, the founder of the window treatment company Hunter Douglas, which would be a useful source for a project that needed large quantities of flexible tension members. On April 6 Nelson confirmed to Fuller that Sonnenberg was interested in developing a structural system that utilised thin strips of metal, and he advised him to build a model in time for a meeting around the end of the month.

Working in Nelson’s studio, Fuller used venetian blind strips to quickly put together a small dome based on the twenty-five great circles of the vector equilibrium. Although it was only four feet in diameter, it was visually striking, and Fuller proudly brought it to show off to Christopher Morley. At the threshold, he tripped, shattering it, and they spent the rest of the afternoon picking up the pieces. Fuller, undaunted, was already looking ahead to a version with the thirty-one circles of the icosahedron, which he thought would be stronger.

Apart from its potential as a shelter, Fuller wanted to promote its mathematical properties. After an informal visit to MIT, he went to Princeton to see Ernst Straus, who he still hoped would reintroduce him to Einstein. He told Thornton Wilder that the encounter went well, but Cynthia Floyd wrote in a letter to Fuller that she had heard otherwise: “[Straus] didn’t believe that you had anything new and startling. He said that your lack of formal training in mathematics was probably a great handicap.” She also warned him that his inability to accept criticism would cause problems in the future.

The dome’s practical applications were considerably more compelling. When Serge Chermayeff proposed that the class at the Institute of Design develop “a greenhouse enclosure, a living garden,” Fuller responded with an uncredited reworking of the “outside-in” dome from the Museum of Modern Art. It was a transparent dome with a world map on its inside surface, positioned to allow its occupants to see the stars at the correct zenith points, and it could even be placed above a hemispherical pool to show the southern constellations.

His work on his “private sky” was interrupted by a fateful call from the architect Bertrand Goldberg, asking if Fuller would be interested in teaching at the summer session of the experimental Black Mountain College outside Asheville, North Carolina. Goldberg’s schedule had forced him to decline, and Leland Atwood, one of the architect’s former associates, had suggested Fuller as a replacement. The call was soon followed by another from Josef Albers, the college’s head of arts, who said they could pay him twenty-five dollars a week.

It was less than what Fuller supposedly charged, and it would take him out of New York at a crucial time, but Allegra urged him to accept. When he agreed, it was partly out of financial necessity, but he also sensed that it could introduce the same random element in his life that he had discovered at Romany Marie’s. The college’s founders, John Andrew Rice and Theodore Dreier, had conceived of Black Mountain as a program to build complete individuals, with students granted equal voices with teachers as they engaged in meaningful labour. In practice, a lack of structure led to cults forming around figures such as Rice, who compared its dynamics to “the Oedipus complex.”

As a result, Black Mountain was one of the few places where Fuller fell into an existing template. In his 1973 history of the college, the author Martin Duberman noted that the summer institute, which was designed to raise funds, differed in fundamental respects from the academic year: “The summer artists generally viewed Black Mountain simply as a nice spot in the country, a pleasant change of pace, an agreeable refuge. . . . The summer people weren’t trying to make a life at Black Mountain; they were trying to put together a concert or an art show.”

It was an ephemeral program in every sense of the word, and it gave Fuller what he needed at exactly the right moment. Leaving his family behind yet again, he loaded his models into a trailer and arrived on July 12, 1948, his fifty-third birthday. In a remarkable coincidence, it was the exact date that he had specified a decade earlier for the fulfillment of his list of predictions in Nine Chains to the Moon.

When Fuller showed up, the summer session had been under way for two weeks, and the campus in the meadowlands of the Blue Ridge Mountains was filled with the shrill buzzing of cicadas. Emerging from his car, Fuller introduced himself to the onlookers with his full name, but he added reassuringly, “Call me Bucky.”

The students helped the new instructor to unload his equipment. One of them, an aspiring twenty-year-old artist named Kenneth Snelson, was studying painting with Albers, who had asked him to help Fuller prepare for a talk that night. Snelson had expected little more than a few miniature house models, and upon entering the trailer, he was astonished to find “cardboard polyhedra of all shapes and sizes, spheres made out of great circles, metal-band constructions, plastic triangular items, and fragile globs of marbles glued together.”

Fuller gave his first lecture after dinner. At first, he stood before his listeners for a long time with his eyes closed, and Snelson thought that he seemed “unknown, humble, even a bit pathetic.” The instructors in the audience included the abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning and his wife and creative partner, Elaine, who murmured, “He looks stuffy.”

“Wait until he opens his mouth,” Willem replied. At first, Fuller stammered slightly, but he rapidly built momentum. In his talk, he said that his listeners — there were around seventy students that summer — had the power to save mankind, but his most convincing arguments were visual. Taking a small dome of venetian blinds, which was bound into a tight package, Fuller removed its rubber bands and tossed it gently into the air, demonstrating how it sprang into shape at once.

By the time he finished, it was after midnight, and they could hear the tree frogs croaking outside. Elaine was entranced by the jitterbug, his praise of “the numbers nine and three, the circle, the triangle, the tetrahedron, and the sphere,” and “his complex theories of ecology, engineering, and technology.” When he sketched a diagram on the blackboard of “our old friend, the hypotenuse,” she was won over for good, whispering to her husband that she’d decided to attend Fuller’s classes. Willem responded, “I knew you would.”

Fuller struck the German mathematician Max Dehn as a charlatan, but the other teachers were impressed. One was Albers, a leading member of the Bauhaus with an interest in efficient materials and the properties of folded paper, whom Philip Johnson had recruited for the college along with his wife, Anni, the groundbreaking textile artist. Fuller admired Theodore Dreier, whose aunt Katherine had been one of his art world friends, as “a great idealist,” and he discussed geometry with the Moscow-born Natasha Goldowski, a former ballerina who taught physics and chemistry. Their letters afterward hinted at more than casual affection, with Goldowski telling Fuller, “I love you very much.”

The de Koonings found Fuller fascinating. Willem rode with him on supply runs into town, and the artist instantly solved a cube puzzle that had stumped Fuller’s students for more than an hour by looking “for the least logical way.” Elaine thought that Fuller had “the eyes of a visionary, a saint,” while the American sculptor Richard Lippold compared his talks to hearing “Zoroaster speaking Islamic.”

His other colleagues included stage director Arthur Penn, there to teach method acting; composer John Cage; and choreographer Merce Cunningham. The latter two men were romantic partners and collaborators — Cage was in his thirties, Cunningham several years younger — and both were instantly drawn to Fuller. Cage, who had briefly had an affair with Philip Johnson, was best known at the college for playing the piano with the window open, and he was years away from the experiments with silence and chance that would make him famous.

The three of them often met for breakfast under the trees, where they joked about starting a caravan school. Cage loved Fuller’s “liveliness and optimism and generosity,” and, he recalled, “From the beginning of my knowing him, I had, as he did, confidence in his plan to make life on earth a success for everyone.” Cunningham, who had worked with Noguchi, was struck by Fuller’s observations on space: “Oh, isn’t that marvellous — that’s what I think of dance.” His lectures on geometry, during which he dramatically opened a curtain to reveal his polyhedra, reminded Cunningham of the Wizard of Oz, and he spoke fondly of “Bucky Fuller and his magic show.”

In his attic room, where he set up his models, Fuller prepared for the construction of a real dome. Before he departed for North Carolina, Henry Sonnenberg’s partner at Hunter Douglas, Joe Hunter, had sent Fuller six rolls of a new kind of aluminium blind strip, which George Nelson thought would be enough “to rehouse Black Mountain.” With thousands of yards of material at his disposal, Fuller decided on a dome based on the great circles of the icosahedron, measuring forty-eight feet in diameter and weighing less than fifty pounds. The complicated structure had to be measured precisely, and he worked on the calculations late into the night, as students undertook the tedious job of punching holes for aircraft bolts.

At last, they assembled the dome in a field on a slightly rainy day, with observers under umbrellas watching from a nearby bluff. As Fuller’s assistants, including Penn and Elaine de Kooning, bolted together the colour-coded segments, the others waited for the structure to ascend.

Instead, it sat on the ground in what the student Ruth Asawa later compared to “a giant’s plate of spaghetti.” Going up on a roof to study it from above, Fuller claimed that it formed the exact pattern of the chromosomes of a fruit fly as seen under a microscope, and everyone politely agreed.

Fuller said later that he had meant to fail in order to discover the “critical point” at which a dome would collapse. Penn backed him up, saying, “It was predicted to fall down.” In reality, it was so much larger than any size that the aluminium could plausibly support that it provided no useful information. According to Elaine de Kooning, who jokingly dubbed it the “supine dome,” they lacked the material to double the strips, which would have increased their strength, but Fuller felt that he had to proceed. “Let’s put it together anyhow,” he said. “One never knows the ways of the Almighty.”

Cage was reminded of his father, who was also an inventor, and Fuller told him that he was delighted by the outcome, explaining, “I only learn what to do when I have failures.” In subsequent accounts, Fuller spun it into an outright success, saying that he managed to get a section to stand by taping wooden struts to the blinds but ran out of supplies before it could be salvaged. Elsewhere, he indicated that when the dome “gently collapsed” as he was about to complete it, he miraculously restored it in full view of the crowd. No evidence of either solution survived.

Despite this setback, Fuller remained popular on campus. Accompanying Elaine de Kooning to a local watering hole called Peek’s Tavern, he diagrammed the steps of the folk dancers there, using the icosahedral notation of the Austrian choreographer Rudolf Laban, which Cage and Cunningham encouraged him to explore for mapping patterns of forces. Another lead resulted from a visit by James Fitzgibbon, an architectural professor at North Carolina State College in Raleigh, who raised the possibility of Fuller’s presenting a guest lectureship next year.

Fuller captivated most of the students, with many adopting his experimental sleep schedule and joining him for hikes in the mountains. His admirers included Paul Williams and Albert Lanier, both future architects, and the twenty-two-year-old Ruth Asawa, whose coiled wire sculptures would one day be hailed as masterpieces. As the campus barber, Asawa gave Fuller a haircut — he held his thumb and finger apart to show that he wanted it trimmed to a quarter inch — and was rewarded with a pole made of red and yellow blinds.

His most devoted fan was Kenneth Snelson, who reportedly said of the jitterbug, “I wish you hadn’t discovered this first,” although he also noticed how Fuller would chuckle nervously “to skip over a discrepancy or a claim short on evidence.” The more sceptical students joked that Fuller had invented the tetrahedron, and one confessed, “When I listen to Bucky talk, I feel I’ve got to go out and save the world. Then when I go outside, I realise I don’t know how.”

Apart from the supine dome, the other high point of the summer came through Cage, who had been performing the music of the French minimalist composer Erik Satie. Cage followed Satie in disparaging Beethoven, which led to a mock duel with the harpsichordist Erwin Bodky, with Fuller serving as the referee as students and teachers fought using crepes and sausages.

Cage’s performances culminated in Satie’s 1913 absurdist play The Ruse of Medusa, in which musical interludes alternated with short scenes translated for the occasion by the poet Mary Caroline Richards. Lippold worked on the costumes, the de Koonings on sets, and Asawa and Lanier on a throne of venetian blinds, while the cast featured Fuller as the elderly Baron Medusa, Elaine as his daughter, and Cunningham as his mechanical monkey.

Arthur Penn, recruited as a play doctor, staged the action so that it spilled out into the audience, and he encouraged the actors to depart from the script. To his surprise, he found that Fuller — who provided the Baron’s magnifying glass and thermometer from his personal possessions — had trouble acting in public. The rehearsals were open to the entire campus, and Fuller confessed to the director, “I’m afraid of making a damn fool of myself.”

Penn, who was just twenty-five years old, gave him exercises to break down his mental barriers: “We skipped around, did giddy things, laughed artificially, and rolled on the floor.” Fuller enjoyed the finished production, in which he wore striped pants and a top hat, and in the second performance, he allowed himself to improvise. He said later that the lessons with Penn shaped his style of public speaking, encouraging him to embrace a more theatrical approach. The experience, he concluded, “let me learn to be myself on the stage.”

When Fuller left at the end of August — he narrowly missed the arrival of an art student named Robert Rauschenberg — he had made friends whose careers would become as legendary as his own. Cage proposed that he design a studio in New York for a performance of The Cantos by the poet Ezra Pound, while Snelson wrote that he was using energetic geometry in his sculptures, including a “tinker toy” model and a cube made out of wire and thread.

Fuller replied with what he called the most important letter that he had ever written. He told Snelson that the jitterbug was proof of the unified field theory for which “Einstein has been searching the last quarter century,” and he closed with his conviction “that this communication must eventually bear important fruit.” He forwarded part of their correspondence to Cynthia Floyd, who thought that he had found “a wonderful young protégé,” while Snelson was left dreaming that he “might turn out to be a reincarnated, young Buckminster Fuller.”

In October Fuller headed to Chicago to teach at the Institute of Design for the 1948–49 academic year. Compared with the myth of Black Mountain, his time there would fade from his standard biography, in part because it complicated the question of credit. If Black Mountain was a story about teachers, with John Cage and the de Koonings as his peers, the Institute of Design was about his debt to his students. To recruit a permanent group of followers, he put the summer’s lessons to use, plunging into his role as eagerly as though he had internalized Baron Medusa.

He wound up living in an Airstream trailer — a true example of mobility — in a parking lot in the Chicago Loop. Before Fuller’s arrival, Serge Chermayeff had asked a carpenter to build drawing boards for a classroom in the armory basement, only to have the new instructor immediately push them against the walls to use as shelves. Occasionally, he used them in other ways, as the critic Peter Blake, a protégé of Philip Johnson, learned when he asked to meet Fuller. Advising him to try after lunch, Chermayeff said enigmatically, “He seems to be conducting some kind of experiment on himself.”

Blake waited in the basement until Fuller appeared. On seeing the young stranger, Fuller announced without any preamble, “What I have just discovered is that bebop has the same beat as the new mathematical shorthand I have been working on.” Leaping up onto one of the drafting tables, Fuller started to tap his feet and snap his fingers in time, calling out what Blake remembered as “an incomprehensible sequence of numbers.” Fuller, still dancing, called down to the bewildered critic, “You see what I mean, don’t you, dear boy?”

His triumphant return to Chicago was scored by bebop. Like many of the instructors, Fuller became obsessed by this novel form of jazz, which was based on breakneck tempos and complicated syncopation. He referred to himself to his followers as “your bebop representative,” and he made the rounds of jazz clubs with Chermayeff and designer Robert Brownjohn, the director’s talented assistant, who later became famous for his title sequences for the James Bond movies.

Fuller often assumed the role of a harmless eccentric, and Blake was amused when he flung himself downstairs to practice his football moves: “The next time I saw Bucky, he was lightly bandaged, and beaming.” His colleagues spoke about him with an affection that bordered on condescension, but he was an overwhelming presence for impressionable admirers such as Brownjohn, whose insecurities led him to become addicted to heroin, a friend said, “because he was mixing with these gods at the Institute of Design — people like Buck- minster Fuller.”

In general, Fuller was too busy to notice. He gave six lectures a week to his students, whose models filled the basement studio that Chermayeff compared to “a Merlin’s cave.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, then the architectural chair of the Illinois Institute of Technology, attended his talks, and Fuller found a kindred spirit in the architect Konrad Wachsmann, another German modernist, who had designed a “packaged house” with Walter Gropius, although Fuller was careful to downplay their similarities.

Like many magicians, Fuller was only as good as his assistants, and at the Institute of Design, he found protégés who possessed the skills and imagination that he needed, notably Jeffrey Lindsay, Donald Richter, and a Black student named Harold Young. He promptly commenced a technical program that few at Black Mountain would have been capable of pursuing, based on the separation of the house into a shell and a utility core, which Fuller still treated as a pair.

In the classroom, he placed equal emphasis on the dome and on the utilities of what he called the Autonomous Living Package, drawing on the Mechanical Wing trailer that he had published in Architectural Forum. Instead of a camping trip, the exercise now took place against the backdrop of a wartime evacuation, with Fuller challenging his students to fit everything that a household needed into one portable unit, including a “kenning space” with television and maps.

Another element, a bathing device known as the fog gun, had appeared in his earliest housing plans. Fuller said that his idea of washing with atomized water had been inspired by his patrols in the navy, in which he had noticed that the fog would wipe the grease from his face. Taking photos to show how dirt clung to pores, he sent students to interview dermatologists, who allegedly agreed that “the worst thing you could have for your skin is soap.” A prototype made from an air compressor delivered a pressure bath for an hour using a pint of water, and Fuller hoped to combine this with a packaging toilet to minimise plumbing.

Although the utility core took up much of his attention, the most important research was done on the shell, which his students developed in a workshop on Kedzie Avenue that they shared with a gambling den. One attempt consisted of a small dome made of venetian blinds covered in cement, while another was a structure of aluminium pans that were shaped into wedges, assembled into a hemisphere, and cinched with a strap around the equator.

The most successful effort was the Necklace Dome. Instead of strips that followed the arcs of great circles, it used short chords of aluminium tubes threaded with aircraft cable, which were connected with hubs like Tinkertoys. After all the components were strung loosely together, the turnbuckles at the base were tightened with a wrench, raising it to its full height. At ten feet across, it was smaller than its Black Mountain counterpart — and thus considerably more practical — but Fuller was already imagining a version that covered eight thousand square feet.

In January 1949 he gave a talk at the Illinois Institute of Technology that linked synergy — the behaviour of a whole unpredicted by its parts — with industrialisation, which had benefited from the unexpected properties of alloys. He also related his work to the Cold War. Since America and the Soviet Union would be evenly matched in combat, he advocated a strategy of decentralization based on the dome, predicting, “The winner will be that side which has the most effective defence.”

Instead of privately funding a complete prototype for the military, Fuller decided to present a rudimentary concept to secure the green light for additional development, allowing him to avoid the outside investments that had produced so many disputes in the past. Early in 1949 he reached out to an old friend, Reginald E. Gillmor of the Sperry Corporation, for an introduction to the Army Air Forces, and they arranged for a demonstration in Washington.

In advance of the meeting, Fuller drove with Anne to North Carolina State College, where James Fitzgibbon had invited him to conduct a seminar in March. His ideas tied into existing dispersal studies at Raleigh, but other faculty members thought that his lectures were difficult to follow, and even the artist Manuel Bromberg, who later became a colleague, remembered of Fuller, “He seemed to be a thinker and con artist at the same time.”

From there Fuller headed for the Pentagon. With Dave and Cynthia Floyd in attendance, he installed a fourteen-foot Necklace Dome in the garden, assisted only by “a civilian stranger and a GI passerby.” If he had known that it would be outdoors, he added, he could have built one that was fifty feet in diameter. Officers whose windows overlooked the site sent subordinates to investigate, and an engineer reportedly remarked that it was “as good as a tent.”

Fuller had also brought a model by student Harold Young of the Garden of Eden, also known as the Skybreak House, with greenery enclosed by a transparent skin, based on Serge Chermayeff’s idea of connecting a shelter with nature. His military contacts were more interested in the Necklace Dome, which they discussed testing in a cold hangar to evaluate it for deployment in polar regions. Fuller had even loftier goals in mind, and on returning to Chicago, he asked his students to work on a hydraulic dome that could be “shot to the moon” to open under its own power.

In April he returned to the theme of dispersal at a lecture at the University of Michigan, arguing that America’s defensive advantage resided in its ability “to dodge widely and without loss of poise.” For most of history, Fuller said, mankind had limited itself to linear solutions, such as a highway or railroad, which he compared to a pipeline for the commuter: “His car or his train is a section of pipe surrounding him.” The future demanded an omnidirectional perspective that would usher humanity into the trackless phase.

Fuller’s answer was the dome, “a super-camping structure” designed to eliminate the outdated notion of the house itself by addressing shelter as a purely mechanical problem. If it seemed uncomfortably radical, he advised his listeners to see the accelerating rate of change as a return to fundamentals: “We need only revolve our charts to ninety degrees of angle, so that we may see the curves descending precipitously from the old heights of ignorance and abnormality.”

His tone had grown more prophetic, but he maintained casually affectionate relationships with acquaintances from Black Mountain. In New York, he reunited with Cage and Cunningham for an evening that included Le Corbusier and Maya Deren, as well as the mythologist Joseph Campbell and his wife, the dancer and choreographer Jean Erdman. Ruth Asawa wrote to him of a visit to the Wichita House: “I felt as though I was spreading the wings of a dragonfly to see what made it move.” When she became engaged to Albert Lanier, Fuller designed her a silver ring modelled on the vector equilibrium.

Fuller was closest with Kenneth Snelson, who saw him in Forest Hills and Chicago. Snelson had moved back home to Oregon, where he built models out of drinking straws in his basement, and he mailed two small constructions of cardboard and thread to Fuller. He clearly looked up to his former instructor, and he even asked Fuller for advice on sex: “How did you solve this problem of the ever-present demon of desire?”

It was a question that Fuller had yet to answer to his own satisfaction, and he was distracted by word of some drama back at Black Mountain. In September the science lab had burned down, and tensions were rising over dwindling funds, leading Natasha Goldowski to describe the college to Fuller as “a concentration camp.” Albers and Dreier both resigned, and Goldowski, remaining as secretary, was tasked with bringing the financial situation under control.

The summer session had always been a reliable way of raising money, and Goldowski asked Fuller, who she hoped would build them a new lab, to serve as dean. Fuller agreed to return for six weeks, and he recruited instructors from the Institute of Design, along with fourteen students, including Richter, Lindsay, Young, and Masato Nakagawa, who had won a Silver Star for heroism during the war. Snelson wrote gladly, “I shall be there if it means riding my bicycle all the way.”

Fuller’s followers in Chicago, who would be in charge of building a dome at Black Mountain, had formed a community of their own. Its members called themselves Spheres Inc., and Fuller charged one dollar for a licence that allowed the beneficiary to use the title “Student Dymaxion Designer.” The team headed to Asheville, where they soon became aware of a cultural divide between their rigorous approach to design and the “somewhat escapist tradition of a mountain school.”

At the end of the spring 1949 semester, Fuller and Anne drove down to North Carolina with a trailer full of models. Fuller would be the dean for around fifty students, with a curriculum that he outlined in an essay titled “The Comprehensive Designer.” In the tradition of Black Mountain, he focused on the creation of an exceptional individual, “the comprehensive harvester of the potentials of the realm,” who would play the same role in the future as the architect did in feudal times.

“Man has now completed the plumbing and has installed all the valves to turn on infinite cosmic wealth,” Fuller said, and its realisation called for generalists who combined the strengths of artists, inventors, and economists. In the past, such thinkers had clashed with capitalists, requiring them to achieve their goals “by indirection and progressive disassociations,” but politicians would soon be forced to empower designers to increase the standard of living. Fuller’s own example was more inspiring than any one project, but it required physical artifacts, and it was no coincidence that his myth appeared in its mature form at the same time as its most potent symbol.

On July 15, 1949, Fuller supervised the construction of the Necklace Dome at the north end of the studies building, below his studio window. Its latest feature, a transparent cover of inflatable plastic, transformed it into a gossamer inverted bowl. As Nakagawa took pictures, the Chicago group unfolded the frame, raised it using a temporary mast, and tightened the turnbuckles that slowly expanded it into a complete hemisphere.

After three students lifted it on their fingers to demonstrate its lightness, it was fixed to a ring of posts. Fuller and his team hung from it like children on the monkey bars, testing its strength, until it held fourteen of them at once. A wooden platform was suspended inside, allowing an observer to stand upright to look through the opening in the centre. Fuller lay down on it, gazing up at the sky, and switched to a chair as the plastic skin was filled with air.

Once the covering was ready, three women, including Anne, stood on the inner platform as the dome was hoisted upward. Perching on a student’s shoulders, Fuller emerged up to his waist from the central aperture, beaming upward for several photos taken from a neighbouring roof. Just as they finished, a thunderstorm broke, and they sheltered in the dome, looking out at the mountains in the rain.

At dinner that night, Fuller’s achievement received a standing ovation, and the dome stood in place until September. Students tossed stones at the plastic to simulate hail, and Fuller found that its interior was cooler than the outside, in an apparent example of the circulation effect that he had noted in the Dymaxion Deployment Unit. The only setback was an unsuccessful effort by Jeffrey Lindsay to make fibreglass panels, which failed to harden properly and were thrown into a ravine.

It was a triumph of engineering, but the most significant development that summer came from another direction entirely. Kenneth Snelson had travelled separately from the others, and he arrived at Black Mountain one sweltering day, encountering Fuller on the dirt path between the dining hall and the studies building. They shook hands, and Snelson asked if they could discuss his latest construction, which he was carrying in a cardboard box.

Inspired by a children’s toy and the mobiles of Alexander Calder, Snelson had been building sculptures with wire elements balanced on a vertical framework. He wanted to eliminate the balancing members entirely, keeping it upright through tension alone, and came up with a pair of plywood pieces, each shaped like a cross, that he connected with string. When the tensile components were uniformly tightened, the compression units seemed to float without visible support.

Snelson had described it in letters to Fuller, but nothing compared to seeing the result in person. “When I showed him the sculpture, it was clear from his reaction that he hadn’t understood it from the photos I had sent,” Snelson recalled. “He was quite struck with it, holding it in his hands, turning it over, studying it for a very long moment. He then asked if I might allow him to keep it.”

Although Snelson had intended only to show it to Fuller, he agreed, relieved that his teacher wasn’t upset that he had used energetic geometry for a mere work of art. Fuller gave no sign that anything important had occurred, but the next day, he informed Snelson that the piece should have been based on a column of stacked tetrahedra. Snelson had already tried this approach with an earlier sculpture, and he had even sent Fuller pictures, but he was willing to do it again.

At a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in Asheville, Snelson bought a dozen telescoping curtain rods to build a mast out of tetrahedra, which he finished the following day. Fuller loved the tetrahedral version, which stood five feet high, and asked if he could stand beside it for a picture. “As I photographed him with it, I felt a numbing inside from what was happening, but I was not yet distrustful,” Snelson remembered. “After all, Bucky knew as well as I did whose idea it was — and, besides, teachers don’t go around stealing students’ ideas and claiming them as their own.”

Fuller’s account was very different. During his lectures that summer, he presented the mast as his own design, and he subsequently insisted that Snelson had found only “a special case demonstration of a generalized principle for which I had been seeking.” In fact, even if Fuller had inspired the sculpture, which would later be known as Early X Piece, it was a novel development that had been enabled by distance, and it had been influenced to a considerable extent by Calder.

Snelson always thought that it had more to do with art than engineering, while Fuller would make it central to his life’s work. “No one else in the world but I could have seen the significance I saw in what you showed me,” Fuller wrote long afterward to Snelson, but it was equally true that no one else could have made it, and although the original was soon lost — Fuller said that someone stole it from his room — its reverberations would be felt for decades to come.

The rest of the summer passed quickly. Fuller lectured on geometry and prototyping, tinkered with polyhedral models based on Snelson’s discovery, and asked a guest to read aloud one of his poems at a party — it turned out to be two hundred pages long, and several attendees dozed off. Anne had tea with the students, whom she delighted in telling that she had designed a cottage in Connecticut long before her husband had ever built a house, while Snelson busied himself with a structure of rotating model aeroplane wheels, which Fuller quietly copied years later.

Tensions arose between the Black Mountain circle and the group dismissively known as “Christ’s Dymaxion disciples,” and by the summer’s end, Natasha Goldowski had stopped speaking to Fuller. Anne went home early, while Fuller lingered to make his farewells to a school that would play an outsized role in his legend. One student recalled of his departure, “I can see him still, in the back of that old, open convertible, waving good-bye to us with one bare foot.”

Fuller’s clownish behaviour, with its shades of Baron Medusa, concealed his true intentions toward his students. In the essay “Total Thinking,” which he finished at Black Mountain, he evoked the philosopher Alfred Korzybski, writing that man was the only animal to participate “in the selective mutations and accelerations of his own evolution.” Actively directing this process demanded an awareness of historical trends, and he advised designers to learn to use statistics to plot “not informative but provocative curves.”

Once a trend had been identified, it could be guided by the comprehensive designer, or synergist. In practice, large projects required more than one person, along with independence from fixed institutions, and Fuller achieved this by combining two developments. One was a post-war rise in college enrollment that offered an abundance of students, many of whom were veterans with practical experience. The other was the dome, which embodied his ideas in a form that he could prototype on his own. Fuller would fail again, but there would never be any question of control.

At that point, no one had expressed any concerns over who would receive credit for concepts originated by students or how the effort might change Fuller himself. The only person to sense these issues was the poet Charles Olson, the other dominant figure at Black Mountain that year. Prior to the start of the summer session, he had written to Fuller to ask him to take the lead in a play that he hoped to stage. It was titled Kyklops II, and Olson wanted Fuller to play Odysseus.

Olson’s darker counterpart to The Ruse of Medusa was never performed, but its identification of Fuller with Odysseus was remarkably shrewd, and the part was manifestly shaped with him in mind. In the opening scene, Eurylochus, the ship’s second-in-command, describes his captain: “Every night he sleeps encyclopedic dreams.” When Odysseus appears, he tells his crew, “This is not a trip to gather beauty. I take back only strength, bold form, lines that boldly form a sphere.”

Not surprisingly, Olson failed to get along with Fuller, whom he dismissed in a letter to the poet Robert Creeley as “that filthiest of all the modern design filthiers.” Some observers thought that they were contending for the soul of Black Mountain, although Fuller was already turning his attention elsewhere, while Olson would long be associated with the college. Nevertheless, the clash between their philosophies was undeniable. After they argued over industrialisation one day, Olson threw Fuller out of his house with an unanswerable question: “In what sense does any extrapolation of me beyond my fingernails add a fucking thing to me as a man?”

On August 16, 1949, Myron Goldsmith, an architect in the Chicago office of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, sent a letter to Fuller to follow up on a recent conversation. In a description of the photograph that he had enclosed, Goldsmith wrote, “As nearly as I can tell, it is a photo of the dome of a German planetarium. I was able to find another photo which clarified the pattern somewhat.” It was evidently the Zeiss Planetarium in Berlin, which featured a domed roof derived from a design that the engineer Walther Bauersfeld had demonstrated in the German city of Jena in 1922.

Bauersfeld had developed a patented method of geodesic construction that predated Fuller’s work by more than a quarter century. The Jena planetarium was twenty-five meters across, with a thin concrete shell over an iron framework, using a triangulated pattern based on the icosahedron. Bauersfeld had been more interested in the projection system that displayed the stars inside the hemisphere than in the geometry of the dome itself, which Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy had studied while it was only partially complete.

Whether Fuller had known about Bauersfeld’s work was a question that would persist for decades, but the evidence indicated that he was unaware of it until he received Goldsmith’s letter. Fuller’s dome had arisen independently from his interest in great circles, and it had yet to occur to him to utilise the icosahedron, which he had already rejected as a cartographic projection. It would have been simpler and sturdier than the designs that he had used so far, and he would have been unlikely to deliberately ignore such an obvious solution.

All the same, it complicated his claim of discovery. Fuller wrote much later to Snelson, “If the Zeiss engineer had in 1922 anticipated geodesic domes’ unlimited spanning capability, [Hermann] Göring would have used geodesic domes for his Luftwaffe hangars during World War II. . . . No one was the inventor of geodesic structure. I was the conceiver of the engineering theory which showed that they had no limit of clear span enclosing capability and of their practical and economic realizability.”

Ultimately, the dome was less innovative as a structure than as the organising principle that Fuller had sought since Wichita. In the privately circulated essay “Universal Requirements for a Dwelling Advantage,” in which he revised a list of the basic functions of shelter that he had been updating for two decades, he furnished an entire manual for a lean start-up. An invention, Fuller wrote, began with one person, whom he advised to keep a detailed journal, while the next stage called for associates to build models and study production curves. He described his hypothetical company all the way to public relations, which was guided by rules that he would follow only erratically:


  • General magnitude of product, production, distribution. But no particulars that will compromise latitude of scientific design.
  • Publicise the “facts,” i.e., the number of steps before “consumer realisation.”
  • Understate all advantage.
  • Never seek publicity.
  • Have prepared releases for publisher requests when “facts” ripe.

Excerpted from Inventor of the Future by Alec Nevala-Lee. Copyright © 2022 by Alec Nevala-Lee. Reprinted courtesy of Dey Street Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

Image: HaperCollins Publishers
Image: HaperCollins Publishers

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