Buckminster Fuller, 1972-3 tour at UC Santa Barbara
Photo © Dan Lindsay
As constructed by William Graham in 1948, the “Wichita House” was a hybrid version of the Dymaxion House.
Photograph courtesy of the William Graham family and Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village
The Dymaxion car designed by Buckminster Fuller in 1933
Image courtesy of Moebiusuibeom-en
Photo © Cédric THÉVENET
Biosphere de l'Île Sainte-Hélène (Montréal)
Photo © Jazmin Million
American inventor, lecturer, author, architect, and designer Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was a true visionary of the 20th century. For more than five decades, he devoted his life to finding new ways to use technology as a means to better human habitation and improve human lives.
Born in 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts, Fuller from an early age exhibited a keen awareness of the world around him, both the natural and manmade. His formative years coincided with era in which monumental historical and scientific transformations were rapidly taking place, and he optimistically embraced the promise of the future. Even as a boy, Fuller exhibited original thinking and a high aptitude for invention. He became fascinated by his own observation that right angles rarely occur in nature and questioned why humans tend to use structurally inferior squares and rectangles as the fundamental form of buildings.
Fuller attended Harvard University but was expelled twice and never graduated. Intermittently, he worked at a textile mill and as a laborer in the meatpacking industry. From 1917 to 1919, during World War I, Fuller served in the U.S. Navy, where he invented a winch for boats that could be employed for rescuing downed pilots.
In 1922, Fuller’s daughter passed away from polio and spinal meningitis at the age of four. He blamed his damp and drafty living conditions and decided to devote his life to the improvement of modern housing. In 1927, Fuller moved to New York, where he met and befriended designer Isamu Noguchi (1909-1988). The pair struck up a lifelong friendship and began collaborating on several projects, including the famous Dymaxion Car (1933). This three-wheeled car, which could turn on a dime, was radically different from any other that came before. Sadly, the car was never put into production due to an unfortunate accident. This was to be the first of many failures for Fuller. Over the course of his career, however, he learned to welcome failure, believing that he learned the most from projects that weren’t successful the first time around.
The Dymaxion name associated with a number of Fuller’s designs is an amalgamation of “dynamic” and “maximum,” two words that encapsulate Fuller’s original design aesthetic and his efficiency-driven, “doing more with less” design philosophy. Fuller’s projects always aimed at no less than resolving humanity’s universal global needs, from housing, shelter, and transportation, to education, energy, and ecology. The Dymaxion House (1927), originally known as 4D, was Fuller’s solution for mass housing. This modular apartment structure was inexpensive, easily erected, and could be airlifted to any destination.
From 1947 onwards, Fuller devoted most of his time to his most recognized design, the geodesic dome. He started the project with his students at the famous Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught in the summers of 1948 and 1949. Like his earlier housing projects, the geodesic dome was lightweight, easy to assemble, and relatively inexpensive—and the structural balance between forces of compression and tension was revolutionary. The geodesic dome design became an international success. Today, there are more than 300,000 geodesic domes worldwide; including the Montreal Biosphère built for the Montreal World Expo in 1967 by Fuller and Shoji Sadao, his partner in the architectural firm Fuller & Sadao Inc.
Fuller died in 1983 from a heart attack, just shy of his 88th birthday. In his lifetime, Fuller obtained 28 patents and was the recipient of many awards and accolades, including the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal Award (1970), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1983), and 47 honorary degrees. Fuller's ongoing impact on the world can be seen in the current generation of designers and architects who strive for sustainability.