Last edited 10 Oct 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Revisiting Buckminster Fuller

Fuller's Fly's Eye Dome.png
A prototype of Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Photo: Wmpearl, Wikimedia).

In David Nobbs’s 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin the character ‘CJ’ described actions he disparaged as ‘I didn’t get where I am today’ doing them. This begs two questions. First, how did such an epitome of incompetence get to where he is today? We can park that one. Second, should we not all consider how we got to where we are today from time to time?

In such a vein I recently got to thinking about my early fascination with the work of the American engineer and futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller; and ended up re-reading a collection of his writings for the first time in 40 years. I was amazed at how much of my present thinking about the world started there.

Buckminster Fuller first came into my life in the 60s. We architectural students referred to him as ‘Bucky’, as if we were personal friends, built structures with floating compression members in balsa wood and thread, and used the word ‘synergetics’ a lot. While most innovation in the built environment came from incremental changes to the way things had always been done, here was somebody who started with pure science and applied it in totally original ways.

Fuller’s work in structures is best known. It emanated from his interest in ‘ephemeralization’, achieving ever-increasing outputs from ever-decreasing inputs, which he labelled ‘Dymaxion’. His use of complex geometry gave us the geodesic dome, the most famous example of which still stands on the Expo 67 site in Montreal. It shows that extraordinarily large volumes can be enclosed with astonishingly small amounts of physical fabric. He received the Royal Gold Medal for architecture in 1968, the year after Nikolaus Pevsner.

One aspect that appealed particularly to me was the possible architectural application of the Archimedean solid called the cuboctahedron: a cube with faces joined at the corners rather than the edges. Just think what our 16th and 17th-century architecture might have been like if architects of the time had understood the timber-saving potential. Our historic towns might have had terraces of black-and-white houses in the vein of Piet Blom’s Cube Housing in Rotterdam – minus the pylons.

Regrettably, Buckminster Fuller’s command of the natural sciences did not extend to the human sciences. Regardless of its efficiency and cybernetic subtlety, nobody wanted a car that looked like a three-wheeled summerhouse. Similarly there was little enthusiasm for flat-packed circular houses that could be assembled on site in a couple of days by semi-skilled workers with apron pockets full of standardised colour-coded fixings, even given the houses’ high thermal efficiency by virtue of their aerodynamics. His confidence that if we look after the environment, humanity will look after itself ignored the fact that humanity is ‘we’.

Fuller’s real legacy is in the field of resource management. It is to him we owe the concept of absolute limits to the world’s resources a full 40 years before the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits to Growth. Strangely, to modern ears, he made little reference to energy as a resource because that is the one thing of which the earth has a limitless supply. Like everyone else he did not foresee our current climate difficulties arising from centuries of the world living off its carbon batteries. Were he alive today he would declare the problem to be purely a matter of engineering and exhort us to get on with harnessing the sun’s energy as we should have done nearly a century ago.

Resource conservation is on-trend today with the recent award of the Pritzker Architecture Prize to Anne Lacaton and Jean- Philippe Vassal for their work in repurposed buildings. This reinforces the IHBC’s belief that conserving historic fabric is a fundamental component of sustainability. Fuller himself believed that conservation is ‘the widest, active, practical usefulness’.

Buckminster Fuller is a hard read. His English style is impenetrable. He felt limited by plain English words and coined new ones, often stringing two or three polysyllabic words together with hyphens. Nevertheless, his work must not become disregarded and I did not get where I am today doing any such thing.

This article originally appeared as 'Bucky’s trust in engineering' in Context 168, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in June 2021. It was written by James Caird.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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