Life as a Verb: Applying Buckminster Fuller to the 21st Century

Jonathon Keats’s new book “You Belong to the Universe” is rooted in two orthogonal pictures of Buckminster Fuller.

Life as a Verb: Applying Buckminster Fuller to the 21st Century

You Belong to the Universe by Jonathon Keats. Oxford University Press. 216 pages.

IF ONE BELIEVES the story, at the peak of his fame, Buckminster Fuller wore three wristwatches — one set for his current location, one for his previous one, and one for his next one. Jonathon Keats’s new book You Belong to the Universe appropriately situates the designer and autodidact in the present, past, and future — not just Fuller’s, but ours too. In fact, Keats’s central argument is that today’s would-be “world changers” can extract inspiration and even concrete examples from Fuller’s 20th-century life and apply them to 21st-century design futures.

His book is rooted in two orthogonal pictures of Fuller. One of them goes like this: Buckminster Fuller — “Bucky” to friends and family — was a true American visionary, a solitary innovator who forged ahead even as corporate research and development displaced the lone inventor. A kindly bespectacled blend of Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, Fuller was in fact so far ahead of his time that the future, let alone the present, has yet to catch up to him. From his sleekly experimental Dymaxion cars (designed in the 1930s to be driven and, eventually, even flown) to the grand geodesic domes that made him an international celebrity and unlikely counterculture guru, Fuller promoted environmentally conscious designs with the potential to benefit everyone on Spaceship Earth.

Reverse that image 90 degrees and you find a contrary perspective. A consummate bullshit artist, Bucky Fuller’s career was built on failure, if not outright fraud. With few of his ideas achieving commercial success, he amounted to nothing more than a hand-waving proponent of outlandish notions. Worse still, he was an aggressive manager of his own profile and patents, an authoritarian technocrat who sought not students but compliant disciples to disseminate his muddled messages. The lynchpin of this view: even the geodesic dome, Fuller’s greatest “success,” rested on a concept borrowed (to be charitable) from an aspiring student sculptor.

The reality in Keats’s book is a smeared superposition of these two representations — Fuller as a blend of the visionary’s own image-making and of the historical record. The book balances these complementary images — genius and crackpot — until they are in tension with one another like the trusses in one of Fuller’s geometrical structures.

It should be noted that Keats is a colorful character himself. An experimental philosopher and conceptual artist, in 2000 he sold his thoughts, priced by the minute, to patrons at a San Francisco art gallery. Even if we accept that he is tuned-in to aspects of Fuller’s “persona,” Keats still appraises him as a “cultish prophet.” He was “rightly renowned,” writes Keats, but “for the wrong reasons.” Disentangling his inventions from the cult of personality, Keats in fact concludes that Fuller has real legs, even practical gravitas. In particular, Fuller’s advocacy of what he called “comprehensive anticipatory design science” promulgates principles relevant to fixing today’s societal and environmental problems. In this century, “innovation” is far more than a corporate buzzword. As our new national mantra — “Be an entrepreneur! Innovate! Disrupt!” — it generates billions of dollars in tech sector investment and encourages a generation of students to pursue science and engineering careers. Places as diverse as university labs, art museums, and “maker spaces” promote the idea that the future can be — must be — consciously designed.

Finding a Fuller Life

Peeling away the myths that Fuller and his acolytes applied to his life like so many layers of fertilizer is no easy task. It’s not for a lack of historical sources. Fuller consciously, even obsessively, documented his own existence, referring to himself as an experiment: “Guinea Pig B,” as he phrased it. The Chronofile, assembled by Fuller and his assistants, is perhaps, Keats says, the most comprehensive record of any individual’s life. Now maintained by Stanford University, it challenges scholars with 1,200 linear feet of boxes containing manuscripts, drawings, and tapes of lectures (as well as overdue library notices and grocery lists). Fuller’s was not a life unrecorded. But it is a life practically un-examinable in any comprehensive way. The finding aid for the Fuller collection — the basic tool historians use to find something in an archival collection — is 1,283 pages long. Keats’s book just breaks 200 pages.

Fuller advertised those records as evidence of his commitment to autobiographical objectivity. Yet peeking through that smokescreen of self-mythologizing in fact provides ample evidence that, even when it came to basic moments in Fuller’s life, the visionary designer was anything but a reliable narrator. For instance, central to Bucky Fuller’s story was a winter evening in 1927 when, beset by financial woes and a string of business failures, he resolved to end his life in the icy waters of Lake Michigan. A voice, telling Fuller that he “belonged to the Universe,” convinced him that his life had purpose. Returning home in a trance, he then remained silent for two years (maybe); wrote 5,000 pages of notes (maybe); became a vegetarian (maybe); started to lecture, publish, and craft his own legend (certainly).

Readers who possess sufficient fortitude to brave the Chronofile, writes Keats, might be disconcerted at how little of Fuller’s autobiography agrees with facts. Clearly, interpretative flexibility with his personal life and professional accomplishments was central to Fuller’s success. It enabled him to appeal to audiences as diverse as Pentagon procurement officers and 1970s-era college students.

“I Seem to Be a Verb”

In 1970, when he was traveling 250 days or more a year, the kinetic Fuller noted that he had ceased being a noun. Instead, he wrote, “I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process.” Grammar aside, Fuller’s life was certainly a dynamic one. Born in Massachusetts in 1895, the same year that the x-ray was discovered and H. G. Wells published The Time Machine, Fuller believed in the power of technology to change society. Before Harvard University expelled him in 1915 for what Fuller once described as “general irresponsibility,” the future designer witnessed the appearance of Marconi’s wireless telegraphy, Taylor’s scientific management principles, and Ford’s assembly line. Presumably, these fired his imagination far more than did fusty university rules and traditions.

Fuller’s kineticism — his alleged verb-like quality — enabled him to vault between disparate communities and across disciplinary boundaries and link them. Yet for someone whom left-leaning university students embraced as an iconoclastic advocate for international peace and cooperation, his professional life was enormously shaped by the military. During World War I, Fuller offered himself and his family’s cabin cruiser to the US Navy for submarine spotting patrols. The Navy reciprocated by sending Fuller to Annapolis for officers’ training, which may well have been the making of him. Learning about ocean navigation, wireless communications, and mechanics would prove inordinately useful in helping him imagine and invent things in decades to come.

With the war’s end, Fuller, now married, turned his attention to business. Working with his father-in-law, he focused on improving the design of affordable modular housing. After years of effort, their company failed just before the Great Depression. Undaunted, Fuller then attempted to reinvent the average American’s two main possessions: house and car. He also trademarked the name “Dymaxion” — coined by a publicist at a Chicago department store who tried to meld three of Fuller’s favorite words: dynamic, maximum, and tension. He also built futuristic prototypes. These were summarily rejected by the design establishment and construction industry.

In 1940, he was again saved by the military. Fuller had developed a design for a Dymaxion Deployment Unit. This was a lightweight, circular metal structure inspired by the grain storage bins he saw while driving through the Illinois countryside. With war on the horizon, Fuller offered the units to the US Army to house troops and store supplies. By October 1941, the first ones were coming off assembly lines for deployment at Allied military sites throughout the world. At the same time, in New York, the Museum of Modern Art put one on display in its courtyard. Milking this first notable career success, Fuller was able to spend the war in Washington directing mechanical engineering for the Board of Economic Warfare.

While in DC, Fuller designed and patented his Dymaxion World Map. Eliminating the spatial distortions of traditional Mercator projection, Fuller broke the world into 20 equilateral triangles, projected onto a multi-sided polyhedron, which could then be unfolded and flattened. As Keats describes it — inexplicably, the book does not have illustrations — Fuller’s Dymaxion map was a “remarkably neutral platform.” One could use it to center the world around any one point instead of privileging a particular country or landmass. A March 1943 issue of Life included “Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion World,” a cuttable, colorful centerfold for the magazine’s 3,000,000 readers who could assemble and reconfigure it as they liked.

The success of his Dymaxion structures and map, after two decades of business failures, showcases two key aspects of Fuller’s acumen. One was his unrelenting perseverance in the face of skepticism and outright rejection. Connected to this was what we might rightly think of as Fuller’s greatest product: himself. The striving designer, writes Keats, “could easily have been an ad man himself.” But, in 1945, with the war coming to a close, Fuller had not yet succeeded in turning himself into a household name. That would take another global conflict and another geometric reconfiguration of his architectural ideas.

From Cold War to Communes

Playboy’s 1972 interview with the “visionary architect/inventor/philosopher” — he was then 77 years old — is classic Fuller. Nuggets of insights are scattered amid a morass of quasi-scientific monologue that must have tested the interviewer’s patience (e.g., humans are essentially “walking coral reefs […] an aggregate of electromagnetic waves,” the drug problem in the United States was caused by “Chinese psycho-guerrilla warfare,” etc.). If it weren’t for the incredible proliferation of geodesic domes throughout the world, Fuller confessed he “wouldn’t be very well known.” And, when asked whether he was bothered by the fact that his most famous innovation was used by the military, Fuller demurred. “How tools are used,” he explained, “is not the responsibility of the inventor.”

Even in his seeming candor, Fuller obfuscated. True, Fuller had not developed the geodesic dome for the American military, but without the catalysis of the Cold War and the military’s subsequent embrace of the structure, Fuller would not have achieved his global reputation. Before the structure became an icon of 1960s counterculture, it passed first through the crucible of the Cold War’s military-industrial complex. (Domes sheltered radar stations that served as the United States’s early warning system against a Russian bomber strike, for example.) And, because the Cold War was a global conflict that reached deep into every aspect of American life, geodesic domes built overseas at world’s fairs served as symbols of American technological prowess. Fuller’s dome design swiftly became a symbol and instrument of American power.

Fuller’s Playboy interview also strategically elides a historical detail that Keats reveals in You Belong to the Universe: the geodesic dome’s invention is contested territory. Fuller’s most prominent invention originated not in some military laboratory but in the avant-garde atmosphere of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. Fuller arrived there in 1948 as a visiting architecture professor with an Airstream trailer full of geometrical models. Under Fuller’s supervision, students first tried to build a structure using venetian blind slats as trusses held in place via tension. It collapsed.

Kenneth Snelson was one of the Black Mountain students mesmerized by Fuller’s blend of design and futurism. Over the winter of 1948–’49, Snelson built models whose parts were secured by taut wires, the balance of tension providing structural stability. Snelson showed Fuller his model. By the summer of 1949, the school’s students, guided by Fuller, successfully built a geodesic dome using metal curtain rods purchased at the Woolworth’s in Asheville.

A geodesic dome is a complex icosahedron — imagine some of those many-sided dice from Dungeons & Dragons — curved into a spherical shape. The dome’s basic design principle features a superstructure based on interconnected triangles. Adding triangles approximates a sphere more closely. The structure’s advantage comes from its strength-to-weight ratio and relative ease of transport and assembly.

Fuller began to refer to the engineering principle Snelson had used as “tensegrity” — a clever portmanteau of “tension” and “integrity.” He later patented this design concept just as he did the geodesic dome itself. Snelson’s name appears in neither patent application. (Fuller’s intellectual property claims notwithstanding, Snelson went on to have a successful career as a sculptor. His “Needle Tower,” a 60-foot-tall tensegrity piece, sits in front of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.) In historical research, playing the “who discovered it first?” game is a tricky and often unenlightening business. Examples of simultaneous invention litter the past. In this case, the truth likely lies somewhere between Fuller’s ready opportunism and Snelson’s years of protestations. Developing and promoting the geodesic dome — inventing something isn’t the same as nurturing its diffusion — certainly required some synergy between teacher and student.

As a skilled booster-cum-huckster, Fuller excelled at promoting the geodesic dome’s potential. Starting in 1949, he advertised geodesic domes as a technocratic tool for American success on Cold War battlefields overseas and at home. That same year, he oversaw the construction of a demonstration dome at the Pentagon and worked with MIT students to design a bigger one that could shelter Air Force planes and their crews. The Marine Corps, which eventually built 300 of them, envisioned their speedy deployment into combat hot zones. To manufacture his domes, Fuller set up companies on his own, and then, starting in 1966, he licensed scores of other firms to do so for a five percent royalty. As they migrated from military bases to trade fairs, the thousands of geodesic domes sprouting around the world became not just a product of American capitalism but a symbol of it as well.

The dome’s final, wonderfully ironic transmutation occurred at the hands of the United States’s counterculture. At places like Drop City, a Colorado hippie commune started in 1965, geodesic domes popped up like so many mushrooms. And, like many aspects of that groovy era, geodesic domes — promoted by venues such as The Whole Earth Catalog — were marketed and sold. Keats’s final chapter describes how Californian Lloyd Kahn converted to Fuller-ism after hearing him speak at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. “Enthralled by Fuller’s idea that waste could be eliminated by design,” Kahn produced books extolling domes as homes. Only years later did he renounce them as the universal panacea for housing shortages and environmental problems.

Over the course of three decades Fuller’s architectural icon had traveled from art project, to Cold War instrument of power, to countercultural icon, to a fading symbol of utopian aspirations. What a long strange trip it had been.

Spaceship Earth’s Captain

Geodesics — the domes themselves and their underlying geometry — made Buckminster Fuller into an international celebrity. When Time featured him on its cover in 1964, the now-familiar architecture dominated the picture, just as it did 50 years later when a US postage stamp honored Fuller. In 1985, when three scientists discovered a novel form of carbon, a molecule of 60 atoms arranged in a soccer ball-like shape, the new molecules — formally called “buckminsterfullerenes” — became known as “buckyballs.”

As Fuller told Calvin Tomkins in a lengthy profile for The New Yorker, his primary career goal was “to find nature’s geometry.” Although there isn’t a specific chapter devoted to geodesic domes in You Belong to the Universe, it’s hard to escape their presence in Jonathon Keats’s book. Whether he’s describing Fuller’s Dymaxion car or his World Game (an educational simulation Fuller began promoting in the 1960s as an alternative to the war-gaming of nuclear strategists at places like the RAND Corporation), Keats signals Fuller’s long obsession with geometries of space and power.

By the 1960s, Fuller’s attentions were shifting away from actual designs to global implementation. Having secured a professorship at Southern Illinois University, he spent increasing amounts of time on the road disseminating his ideas. Articles about him often called attention to the number of times he had circled the planet via plane and ship. He became an example of what Keats might call a “world-changer”, a person with an expansive view of our planet’s systemic shortcomings and how Big Ideas — specifically, Fuller’s — could fix them. His lecturing stamina became legendary. Picture a sprawling TED talk lasting for hours with dozens of ideas, concepts, and neologisms projected at the audience in a manic torrent of words. (Thanks to You Tube, one can get a sense of the Fuller experience.) He became, as one 1970s-era hagiographer called him, the “Dymaxion messiah.”

In the mid-1960s, the phrase “Spaceship Earth” — a term Fuller claimed to have coined (falsely, according to the Oxford English Dictionary) — entered the lexicon. A perfect phrase for the Space Race, the popularization of the idea began with Kenneth E. Boulding, an economist at the University of Michigan. In May 1965, Boulding declared that society needed to recognize earth as a “single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything.” Instead of wasteful consumption coupled with relentless pressure to increase production, this “spaceman economy” must be commensurate with life aboard “a tiny sphere, closed, limited, crowded.” The idea that the earth might be likened to a spaceship became much less abstract in December 1968, when Apollo astronauts sent back the first color pictures of the whole planet from space.

This planetary perspective was perfect fodder for Fuller. In his 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, he urged engineers, scientists, and world leaders to steer the planet away from imminent eco-catastrophe. Fuller was well-suited for an era when “the future” became an object of serious scholarly study and professional “futurologists” like Alvin Toffler became jet-setting celebrities. This anxiety about the future dovetailed with fin de siècle thinking as the 20th century drew to a close. Through his public talks, voluminous writings, and promotion of cooperation simulations like the World Game, he presented himself — by dint of his life experience and comprehensive approach to “whole systems” design — as the putative captain of Spaceship Earth.

Finding a Fuller for Today

Buckminster Fuller was different in an essential way from other future-tellers of his era. Not content with hand-waving prognostications about what was over the horizon, Fuller, and the students and designers he attracted, traded pencils and paper for the hammer and welder’s torch to build things they imagined as essential for the future. In this way, they acted not as visionaries but what I have called “visioneers.” The former offer only speculations, informed or not, about what the future, especially the technological future, might hold. The latter work to bring these over-the-horizon conjectures closer to physical reality. Being a visioneer demands a capacious view of the future — something Fuller had in spades — and a pronounced ability to rally people to one’s vision of the future (ditto) coupled with some modicum of real-world technical expertise and credentials. No mere speculator, Fuller transformed at least some of his ideas into artifacts in order to see how they might perform in the real world.

So, how, if at all, does this history of past “futures” matter for us in the present? Keats argues that the design principles embedded in Fuller’s innovations, even if they might not have been successful when first proposed, are “pertinent to Spaceship Earth in 2016.” Artifacts like the Dymaxion car are, he argues, “exemplars of design science.” For example, Fuller’s car anticipated, according to Keats, today’s use of biomimesis, in which features from nature are incorporated into designs. However, this said, unless Keats is a believer in intelligent design, nature is not the “world’s most experienced problem solver.” Evolution in nature proceeds via random events, not conscious choices. The author’s imagination occasionally runs too wild. A case in point is his suggestion that the “distributed decision making” of slime molds “can provide a new model for democracy.” And Keats misses some low-hanging opportunities as well. Fuller’s failed plan to mass produce houses for the post–World War II American family could easily have been juxtaposed with the commercial success of suburban houses built in assembly line fashion — at considerable environmental cost — in places like Levittown, New York. Yet his even-handed treatment of Fuller’s failures and successes enables him to tease out their lessons. One can read Keats’s book as a thought experiment about how the future might be designed.

Today, it’s common to think in terms of technological ecosystems, whether they are centered around specific products — your smartphone and its myriad apps — or a region such as Southern California. Familiar species of people in these ecosystems include engineers, designers, patent lawyers, and so forth. One certainly wouldn’t want an ecosystem populated with too many self-promoting, longwinded autodidacts. But a healthy innovation system certainly needs at least a few Buckminster Fullers to pipe compelling tunes that draw in aspiring comprehensive designers to new visions of tomorrow.


W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He’s the author or editor of five books including The Visioneers (2013) and, most recently, Groovy Science (edited with David Kaiser). He’s on Twitter at @LeapingRobot.

LARB Contributor

W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and the author of five books on the history of modern science and technology including Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture (MIT Press, 2020). McCray is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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