R. Buckminster Fuller, Architect and Philosopher

(1895-1983)

Richard Buckminster Fuller in front of a geodesic dome, the design of which he invented, c. 1960
Richard Buckminster Fuller in front of a geodesic dome, the design of which he invented, c. 1960. Photo by Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Famous for his design of the geodesic dome, Richard Buckminster Fuller spent his life exploring "what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity."

Background:

Born: July 12, 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts

Died: July 1, 1983

Education: Expelled from Harvard University during freshman year. Received training at the U.S. Naval Academy while enlisted in the military.

Fuller developed an early understanding of nature during family vacations to Maine. He became familiar with boat design and engineering as a young boy, which led him to serve in the US Navy from 1917 to 1919. While in the military, he invented a winch system for rescue boats to pull downed airplanes out of the ocean in time to save the lives of pilots.

Awards and Honors:

  • 44 honorary doctoral degrees
  • Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects
  • Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects
  • Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize
  • January 10, 1964: Featured on the cover of Time magazine
  • 2004: Featured on a commemorative stamp by the US Postal Service. The artwork was the painting of Fuller by Boris Artzybasheff (1899-1965), an image that originally appeared on Time magazine.

Important Works:

  • 1926: Co-inventor of a new way to manufacture reinforced concrete buildings. This patent led to other inventions.
  • 1932: The portable Dymaxion house, an inexpensive, mass-produced home that could be airlifted to its location.
  • 1934: The Dymaxion car, a streamlined, three-wheeled automobile that could make extraordinarily sharp turns.
  • 1938: Nine Chains to the Moon
  • 1946: The Dymaxion Map, showing planet Earth on a single flat map without visible distortion of the continents.
  • 1949: Developed the Geodesic Dome, patent in 1954.
  • 1967: Biosphere, the US Pavilion at Expo '67, Montreal, Canada
  • 1969: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth
  • 1970: Approaching the Benign Environment
  • 1975: Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (read Synergetics online)

Quotes by Buckminster Fuller:

  • "Whenever I draw a circle, I immediately want to step out of it."
  • "You must choose between making money and making sense. The two are mutually exclusive."
  • "We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before--that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment."

What Others Say About Buckminster Fuller:

"He was really the world's first green architect and was passionately interested in the issues of ecology and sustainability....He was very provocative—one of those people that if you met him, you would learn something or he would send you away and you would pursue a new line of inquiry, which would later turn out to be of value.

And he was totally unlike the stereotype or the caricature that everybody assumed he was like. He was interested in poetry and the spiritual dimensions of works of art."—Norman Foster

Source: Interview by Vladimir Belogolovskiy, archi.ru [accessed May 28, 2015]

About R. Buckminster Fuller:

Standing only 5'2" tall, Buckminster Fuller loomed over the twentieth century. Admirers affectionately call him Bucky, but the name he gave himself was Guinea Pig B. His life, he said, was an experiment.

When he was 32 years old, his life seemed hopeless. Bankrupt and without a job, Fuller was grief stricken over the death of his first child, and he had a wife and a newborn to support. Drinking heavily, Buckminster Fuller contemplated suicide. Instead, he decided that his life was not his to throw away—it belonged to the universe.

Buckminster Fuller embarked on "an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity."

To this end, the visionary designer spent the next half century searching for "ways of doing more with less" so that all people could be fed and sheltered. Although Buckminster Fuller never obtained a degree in architecture, he was an architect and engineer who designed revolutionary structures. Fuller's famous Dymaxion House was a pre-fabricated, pole-supported dwelling. His Dymaxion car was a streamlined, three-wheeled vehicle with the engine in the rear. His Dymaxion Air-Ocean Map projected a spherical world as a flat surface with no visible distortion. Dymaxion Deployment Units (DDUs) were mass-produced houses based on circular grain bins.

But Bucky is perhaps most famous for his creation of the geodesic dome—a remarkable, sphere-like structure based on theories of "energetic-synergetic geometry'' which he developed while in the Navy during WWII. Efficient and economical, the geodesic dome was widely hailed as a possible solution to world housing shortages.

During his lifetime, Buckminster Fuller wrote 28 books and was awarded 25 United States patents. Although his Dymaxion car never caught on and his design for geodesic domes is rarely used for residential dwellings, Fuller made his mark in areas of architecture, mathematics, philosophy, religion, urban development, and design.

Visionary or Man With Wacky Ideas?

The word "dymaxion" became associated with Fuller's invention. It was coined by store advertisers and marketing associated, but is trademarked in Fuller's name. Dy-max-ion is a combination of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion."

Many concepts proposed by Buckminster Fuller are ones that today we take for granted. For example, way back in 1927, Fuller sketched "a one-town world," where air transport over the North Pole would be viable and desirable.

Synergetics:

After 1947, the geodesic dome dominated Fuller's thoughts.

 His interest, like any architect's interest, was in understanding the balance of compression and tension forces in buildings, not unlike the tensile architecture work of Frei Otto.

Like Otto's German Pavilion at Expo '67, Fuller showcased his Geodesic Dome Biosphere at the same Exposition in Montreal, Canada. Lightweight, cost-effective and easy to assemble, geodesic domes enclose space without intrusive supporting columns, efficiently distribute stress, and withstand extreme conditions.

Fuller's approach to geometry was synergetic, based on the synergy of how parts of things interact to create the whole thing. Similar to Gestalt Psychology, Fuller's ideas struck the right chord with visionaries and non-scientists especially.

Source: USPS News Release, 2004

Architects on US Postage Stamps:

  • 1966: Frank Lloyd Wright
  • 2004: Isamu Noguchi, Landscape Architect
  • 2004: R. Buckminster Fuller
  • 2015: Robert Robinson Taylor, Architect