He was the first to speak of a “design science” and even practised it. According to him, design science is the best way to secure wealth and the survival of all human beings on “Starship Earth” – much better than any political revolution with their attempts to re-educate people: Richard Buckminster Fuller would have celebrated his 110th birthday this year.
Text: Marco Siebertz
Pictures: Courtesy of The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller
After various personal strokes of fate, in 1927, at the age of 32, he subjected his life to a radical re-orientation. As his own “Guinea Pig B“, henceforth, he wanted to find out what he – a healthy young man of medium height, experience and talent, economically dependant with wife and kid, without any capital nor university degree – could do in order to effectively improve the physical protection of each living creature as well as the individual initiative of all people on earth.
With lots of courage and persistence, he pursued his goal perpetually without getting distracted by personal greed of gain. Despite his narrow means as a single person, he always looked at the earth as a whole including all its resources and the collective human store of knowledge.
His inventions are always based on the conviction that the most important thing is to use the existing resources of the “universe that will regenerate itself always and forever” in a more purposeful and efficient way, in order to thus eliminate the dissipation of energy and scarceness of resources on earth – those very factors which are, most of the time, responsible for wars and destruction. In his opinion, a higher standard of living is possible for everybody and wars are henceforth unnecessary. Thus he vigorously contradicted the theories of Malthus or Darwin, which say that there are not enough resources for all people on our planet and that only the fittest has a chance to survive.
His work led to the development of the “Dymaxion Car”, which was introduced to the public in 1933: a streamlined autocar made of aluminium sheet with rear axle steering. The low air resistance and its small weight made the car economical due to its low energy consumption and revolutionary as to its formal design – at a time when cars still looked like carriages without horses. A further invention which outstripped the zeitgeist, was the “Dymaxion House”: a round one-family house, suitable for serial production, made of aluminium and with an intelligent climate and heating technology.
Thanks to mass production and simple transport, it would be an economic and also a highly mobile alternative to the massive home for many people. Richard Buckminster Fuller realised very early that it was necessary to offer appropriate living concepts to a more and more mobile and constantly increasing population.
The fact that his concepts weren’t limited to national units but always considered the entire globe, made him a pioneer who recognised globalisation and based his entire design science on that – “Think global, act local”, was the motto he coined. The wish to make globalised correlations visible, was the trigger for a new kind of projection of the world map. In comparison to the Mercator projection, which is still predominantly used today, and which can only show an equatorial orientation displaying the Poles in a quite distorted way, the “Dymaxion Map” divides the globe into regular triangles. These triangles can be put together optionally according the respective point of interest, thus making global correlations more comprehensive.
One of his most famous inventions are the “Geodesic Domes“, huge orbs in light weight construction, which can overstretch wide surfaces using only a minimum of material. Thus, within the scope of the Great Exhibition in Montreal in 1967, he placed the pavilion of the USA into a geodesic dome which had a diameter of 150 metres – the biggest building of its kind at that time. He lived inside of one of his numerous “Geodesic Domes” himself – as a habitat, they have many advantages as, for example, an efficient distribution of sound and circulation of air. Its geodesic structures established themselves and are now frequently used in architecture and design.
Fuller sees it as an essential precondition for the further development of the world, to make those conceivable to himself according to his individual comprehension and on the basis of empirically gathered knowledge, because, in his opinion, this is the only way to get away from prefab experts’ knowledge. Thus, he moves between the most distinct scientific disciplines, which makes him today, posthumously, a visionary of a trend towards interdisciplinary action.
Issues, which are nowadays discussed as future models, were already of great significance for Fuller 30 years ago: in 1969, he had already realised the necessity of the introduction of a citizen money, which is currently demanded by, among others, the boss of German “dm“ drugstores, Dr. Götz Werner, as a sensible alternative to the model of the earned income: according to a study of oil geologist François de Chadenèdes, a gallon of crude oil should cost over a million dollars, if you calculated the effort nature makes (measured by energy prices for home electricity) in order to produce oil: the effort of heat, pressure and time, in order to produce billions of carbon molecules by photosynthesis, which are finally converted into crude oil. He says that if you compare this real value to how millions of people daily „waste“ this actually invaluable fuel on their way to work, it would be better to pay them money to stay at home. For sure, a perspective different from that in our times – but in times of a growing need of crude oil and the consequent increase in oil prices, at least, it becomes clear how necessary it seems to open a virtual bank account for our planet.
Buckminster Fuller was a designer, architect, artist, scientist, sociologist, historian and geologist in one person. He believed in the intuitive store of knowledge of the individual and argued for human individuality. In his opinion, that was the only way to set this collective store of knowledge, which could secure the survival of the human race, free. He considered the delegation of competences to experts to be a historical aberration – because, according to him, an expert could never have the foresightedness to integrate his specialised knowledge into a bigger system. For Fuller, the development of „expertism“ is a consequence of a conscious strategy made by the rulers following the principle of „divide et impera”: by dividing people into countless disciplines, and keeping track was exclusively reserved to the ruling minority, the citizens couldn’t endanger the rulers’ power. “Humanity was not only divided into religions, languages and colours, but also into special disciplines, so that nowadays the individual finds himself helpless and incapable facing the current crisis”. According to Buckminster Fuller, it’s especially the human beings, in comparison to all other (specialised) creatures on earth, who have the advantage of having been given a mind, predestined to recognise correlations and work in an interdisciplinary way.
The lifework of Richard Buckminster Fuller shows how important and sensible an unspecialised world picture as well as an independent formation of opinion is for the work of designers. He who wants to design the world of the future, cannot only put his trust into what experts and old traditions claim to be the truth, but he should create himself a comprehension of life on the basis of individual experiences and perception. Certainly, it takes a lot of courage to look at the world from our own perspective and to understand it, but it’s exactly this explorative attitude which is a guarantor for important and good ideas – as the lifework of R. Buckminster Fuller clearly shows – which will be rightly awarded with fame, recognition and existential happiness.
“If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.”
E. E. Cummings