Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller
Fuller was born on July 12, 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts, the son of Richard Buckminster Fuller and Caroline Wolcott Andrews, and also the grandnephew of the American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. He attended Froebelian Kindergarten. Spending his youth on Bear Island, in Penobscot Bay off the coast of Maine, he was a boy with a natural propensity for design and construction. He often made things from materials he brought home from the woods, and sometimes made his own tools. He experimented with designing a new apparatus for human propulsion of small boats. Years later, he decided that this sort of experience had provided him with not only an interest in design, but a habit of being fully familiar and knowledgeable about the materials that his later projects would require. Fuller earned a machinist’s certification, and knew how to use the press brake, stretch press, and other tools and equipment used in the sheet metal trade.
Fuller was sent to Milton Academy, in Massachusetts, and then began studying at Harvard, but was expelled from the university twice: first for entertaining an entire dance troupe, and then, after having been readmitted, for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By his own appraisal, he was a non-conforming misfit in the fraternity environment.Many years later, however, he would receive a Sc.D. from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Between his sessions at Harvard, Fuller worked in Canada as a mechanic in a textile mill, and later as a labourer in the meat-packing industry. He also served in the U.S. Navy in World War I, as a shipboard radio operator, as an editor of a publication, and as a crash-boat commander. After discharge, he returned to the meat packing industry, where he acquired management experience. In 1917, he married Anne Hewlett. In the early 1920s, he and his father-in-law developed the Stockade Building System for producing light-weight, weatherproof, and fireproof housing – although the company would ultimately fail. In 1927, at the age of 32, bankrupt and jobless, living in inferior housing in Chicago, Illinois, Fuller lost his young daughter Alexandra to complications from polio and spinal meningitis. He felt responsible, and this drove him to drink and to the verge of suicide. At the last moment, he decided instead to embark on “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity”.
By 1928, Fuller was living in Greenwich Village and spending a lot of time at Romany Marie’s, where he had spent a fascinating evening in conversation with Marie and Eugene O’Neill several years earlier. Fuller took on the interior decoration of the café in exchange for meals, giving informal lectures several times a week, and models of the Dymaxion house were exhibited at the café. Isamu Noguchi appeared on the scene in 1929 –Constantin Brâncuşi, an old friend of Marie’s, had directed him there – and Noguchi and Fuller were soon collaborating on several projects, including the modelling of the Dymaxion car. It was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.
Fuller taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the summers of 1948 and 1949, serving as its Summer Institute director in 1949. There, with the support of a group of professors and students, he began work on the project that would make him famous and revolutionize the field of engineering: the geodesic dome. One of the early models was first constructed in 1945 at Bennington College in Vermont, where he frequently lectured. In 1949, he erected the world’s first geodesic dome building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. It was 4.3 meters (14 ft) in diameter and constructed of aluminium aircraft tubing and a vinyl-plastic skin, in the form of a tetrahedron. To prove his design, and to awe non-believers, Fuller hung from the structure’s framework with several students who had helped him build it. The U.S. government recognized the importance of the discovery, and employed him to make small domes for the army. Within a few years there were thousands of these domes around the world.
For the next half-century, Fuller contributed a wide range of ideas, designs and inventions to the world, particularly in the areas of practical, inexpensive shelter and transportation. He documented his life, philosophy and ideas scrupulously in a daily diary (later called the Dymaxion Chronofile), and in twenty-eight publications. Fuller financed some of his experiments with inherited funds, sometimes augmented by funds invested by his collaborators, one example being the Dymaxion Car project.
The Montreal Biosphère by Buckminster Fuller, 1967 International recognition came with the success of his huge geodesic domes in the 1950s. Fuller taught at Washington University in St. Louis in 1955, where he met James Fitzgibbon, who would become a close friend and colleague. From 1959 to 1970, Fuller taught at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Beginning as an assistant professor, he gained full professorship in 1968, in the School of Art and Design. Working as a designer, scientist, developer, and writer, he lectured for many years around the world. He collaborated at SIU with the designer John McHale. In 1965 Fuller inaugurated the World Design Science Decade (1965 to 1975) at the meeting of the International Union of Architects in Paris, which was, in his own words, devoted to “applying the principles of science to solving the problems of humanity”.
Fuller believed human societies would soon rely mainly on renewable sources of energy, such as solar- and wind-derived electricity. He hoped for an age of “omni-successful education and sustenance of all humanity”.
Fuller was awarded 28 US patents and many honorary doctorates. On January 16, 1970, he received the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects, and also received numerous other awards.
Richard Buckminster Fuller died on July 1, 1983, at the age of 87, a guru of the design, architecture, and ‘alternative’ communities, such as Drop City, the community of experimental artists to whom he awarded the 1966 “Dymaxion Award” for “poetically economic” domed living structures. In the period leading up to his death, his wife had been lying comatose in a Los Angeles hospital, dying of cancer. It was while visiting her there that he exclaimed, at a certain point: “She is squeezing my hand!” He then stood up, suffered a heart attack and died an hour later. His wife died 36 hours after he did. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.