The Making of a Prophet
By Pradeep NiroulaAugust 2, 2022
Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee
During his lifetime, Richard Buckminster Fuller was the single most important American visionary. In a world reeling with Malthusian worries and the fallout from the Great Depression, he evangelized for technology’s total reorganization of civilization. With his roots in architecture and design, he himself was going to build a new world — a “Dymaxion” world as he branded it, mixing the word “dynamic,” “maximum,” and, for some reason, “ion.” His Dymaxion houses would be light enough to be airdropped, his Dymaxion cars would, one day, fly, and he would build a computer engine that inventoried the world’s resources and allocated them equitably. If the Earth was a spaceship, Bucky Fuller would be its stalwart captain, guided by his monk-like unity with nature. He was the spokesperson for a shrinking world ready for supersonic flights, and the futuristic vibes of his geodesic domes would turn him into a counterculture savant. A tiny, unassuming trim tab on the rudder of a boat turns its nose, no matter how colossal the boat. “Call me Trimtab,” Fuller’s epitaph reads.
It just so happens Fuller’s popular legacy is bloated, like the geodesic domes he is most easily identified with today. Alec Nevala-Lee’s new biography, Inventor of the Future, fact-checks Fuller’s legend and then corrects the record. Nevala-Lee himself discovered Fuller through the pages of the counterculture bible, Whole Earth Catalog, and grew up admiring him. But, in writing Fuller’s biography, he resists the hypnotic whirlpool surrounding Fuller. Known to be an unreliable narrator of his own life, Fuller inflated numbers, misrepresented facts, and invented stories of epiphanies and revelations. The legends and myths solidified with their countless retellings — but, really, how dare anyone doubt a sage? He lied about high school grades he never obtained, college courses never taken, daring rescues never made, and those are just the easiest to fact-check. Whenever possible, Nevala-Lee corrects Fuller as he cites him, the embellished version followed by the correct, less glamorous version. At other times, the reader is left wondering if what’s written on the page really happened.
That the Buckminster Fuller Estate does not agree with Nevala-Lee’s conclusions has to be the book’s most ringing endorsement.
For someone whose name has come to stand for solitary genius, Fuller owes a lot to others. For one, he was born into a very established family. One of his distant relatives had signed the Declaration of Independence. His aunt was Margaret Fuller, whom Susan Sontag would describe as “the first important American woman of letters.” Fuller thought she belonged to the class of “chosen women” destined to advise the “Frederick[s] and Czar Peter[s]” of the world. It was the kind of family pedigree that got you into Harvard with failing grades and ensured you landed on your feet even if you were expelled from the same college (twice!). Compounding Bucky’s advantages, he married the daughter of the famous Beaux Arts architect James Hewlett. Fuller would piggyback on his father-in-law’s artistic and architectural connections, even appropriating Hewlett’s obsession with “reducing the inefficiency of conventional housing.”
Skillfully milking these connections, Fuller moved from one elite artistic circle to another, chasing opportunities, sponsorships, and affairs. He would parade his outlandish visions to anyone who would listen, and people, including powerful people, found him mesmerizing. Such relentless marketing drew in investors, exhibitions spots at World Fairs, and opportunities to lecture at universities even as his own ventures crashed and burned.
Fuller’s keystone geodesic domes were an inadvertent discovery. Domes had long been a classic architectural element signifying historical grandeur — e.g., the Pantheon, Hagia Sophia, US Capitol. Fuller’s domes, by contrast, looked futuristic and, most importantly, they could be built cheaply. Wherever he went to lecture, he assembled students and built a dome. These required a single trip to a hardware store, and it was possible to erect one by following instructions that fit on one page. A perfect weekend project, their popularity spread through the pages of DIY magazines. Over time, these domes would graduate from weekend art installations to become the focal point of Fuller’s grander ambition of lightweight housing.
Nevala-Lee emphasizes that, like revolutionaries and religious leaders, Bucky had figured out the key to a lasting legacy: an army of young disciples. The charm of his prophetic ideas was accentuated by his austere appearance, with his signature “bank clerk’s clothing,” which he wore to emulate Corbusier, and the almost alien-like detachment in his voice and writings. Describing a human as “a self-balancing, 28-jointed adapter-base biped,” his own purpose was to “streamline man’s competitive volition, unbeknownst to him, in the direction of least resistance.” “I found myself being followed by an increasing number of human beings, particularly women, who were beginning to make me into some kind of messiah,” he acknowledged, encouraging the association. “I’m the only man I know who can sin,” he would say in a Playboy interview, adding, “I find everybody else too innocent.” Elsewhere, he branded himself a Prometheus guiding the world to fire: “I made a bargain with myself that I’d discover the principles operative in the universe and turn them over to my fellow men.”
Indeed, Buckminster Fuller’s most successful invention was his own brand, which he buttressed with prophetic tomes and lecture circuits around the world. In his heyday, he was traveling two-thirds of the year, giving lectures to an enchanted audience for hours at a time. The audience was kept awake with caffeine pills, and the aging Fuller resorted to using urine bags. His hypnotic lectures, much like his books, spanned geometry, design, economics, and whatever was on Bucky’s mind that particular day. Reviewers of his books noted that he had sound knowledge of one thing (architecture) and mere opinions on a thousand other things. In his writings, he would develop warfare strategies and visions of technocratic governance ready for experiments in Greece and Brazil. He positioned himself as the beacon of technological utopianism. Meanwhile, those who saw through the smokescreen had one of four words to say of him: crank, crackpot, charlatan, or conman.
If Fuller treated the world as his private heirloom, it is probably because he assumed a divine right over it. His path to high society had been paved; even his wife told him she didn’t mind his fooling around with secretaries and heiresses. It should come as no surprise that he felt similarly entitled to the works produced by his students and collaborators. Notorious for throwing tantrums and being hard to work with, he partnered with others only if they let him dictate their lifestyle and agreed to their ideas being absorbed into the Buckminster Fuller oeuvre. In fact, his closest collaborator, Shoji Sadao, was handpicked for his submissiveness. Another collaborator, Kenneth Snelson, who would end up being a renowned sculptor in his own right, had discovered Fuller when he was 20. Snelson presented Fuller with structures held together by tension, and Fuller not only shamelessly appropriated the ideas animating them, but coined a neologism, “tensegrity,” to describe them. Snelson felt so betrayed that he would daydream of cutting Fuller to pieces.
Fuller brazenly asserted personal dominion not just over collaborative work but also entire swathes of geometric and architectural motifs, all while posturing as a benevolent oracle. His large geodesic domes were simultaneously a signature of nature’s perfection that Buckminster had merely revealed to the world and an invention to which he had an exclusive, patented right. Imagine if the Egyptians had patented the pyramidal structure. Nevala-Lee observes, “[Fuller] survived by staking a claim in an undiscovered country, and he colonized more of it than anyone else ever would.” His ownership claims still linger. When chemists discovered that certain carbon molecules arranged themselves to make a domelike sphere, what else could they call them but Buckyballs?
Reading Nevala-Lee’s biography, one soon realizes that the exterior grandeur of Buckminster Fuller’s life is in stark contrast to its eerie hollowness. Even as he became a global celebrity, amassing legions of acolytes, he desperately sought affirmation from people he admired. Among scientists, no scientist had greater appeal than Albert Einstein. Fuller courted him, sending letters with ideas he thought would impress: “In all humility, I state that I seem to have articulated aright the ‘open-sesame’ to a comprehensive system of sublime commensurability.” Einstein never responded, but that wouldn’t stop Fuller from concocting stories of how pleased Einstein had been. In another act of flattery, he dedicated his book on the core of his geometrical ideas, Synergetics, to H. S. M. Coxeter, the dominant geometer of the era. Coxeter would dismiss the work as “a lot of nonsense.”
Among architects, Frank Lloyd Wright was his yardstick. Both Wright and Fuller were preoccupied with designing minimal housing units. For Wright, a house was a home, with a balmy hearth, and it was in harmony with nature. Fuller’s vision of a house was, on the contrary, a barely habitable protective casing, which he called “Dymaxion Dwelling Units.” After failing with several models, Fuller tried to pitch the domes as sustainable homes. Having no vertical walls, you couldn’t hang pictures or arrange furniture in them. Worse still, they leaked. When Fuller and his wife tried to live in one, he could be seen reading a book while holding an umbrella. These domes would never become the kind of affordable homes he had envisioned. They would serve, almost exclusively, as motifs for megastructures — stadiums, theme parks, and even oil refineries. After Wright’s passing, Fuller tried to leverage the limelight he now occupied alone to contemplate even grander projects. Why not build a dome to cover the entirety of Manhattan? Or a tower higher than Mount Fuji? Thankfully, these never materialized.
The most curious aspect of Buckminster Fuller’s arc is that he became a counterculture icon while entrenched in the very things that betrayed its spirit. He welcomed wars because they provided opportune times, not to mention funding, for experimentation — the tepid commercial success of his domes, for instance, came from their military adoption as radar stations. He was a messiah of ideas but would only preach when paid. When college students toiled for him, they were idealists and “hope freaks” but when they protested a war, they were unwitting soldiers under the spell of foreign propaganda. What’s more, for someone who evangelized scientific utopianism, he was deeply dogmatic, dispelling any idea that didn’t already fit into his framework. Among these: Darwin’s theory of evolution and the notion that civilizations arose from Africa. More hilariously, for someone synonymous with spherical structures, he found the number pi distasteful. “I’d learned at school that in order to make a sphere, which is what a bubble is, you employ pi, and I’d also learned that pi is an irrational number. To how many places, I wondered, did frustrated nature factor pi? And I reached the decision right at that moment that nature didn’t use pi,” reads his objection in a New Yorker profile.
Needless to say, in charting Buckminster Fuller’s invention of himself as a prophet, Nevala-Lee traverses a bedazzling cobweb of who’s who in 20th-century America. These were people Buckminster Fuller had courted and absorbed into his circle, including postwar avant-garde artists and civil rights activists, cult leaders and foreign dictators. Buckminster Fuller’s life is a reminder of two truths: to succeed in America, it really helps to come from a well-connected family; and, with the right marketing, anyone can become an icon. His illustrious life is testament to the influence a single con artist can have over a zeitgeist. Call him trimtab indeed.
Pradeep Niroula is a doctoral candidate in physics. He comes from Kathmandu, Nepal, and presently lives in Washington, DC.
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