The man with the crazy ideas, and the vision from heaven vindicating them.
Buckminster Fuller grew up in the great surge of technology–first car ride at 8 years old, first plane flight at 16, etc.
But at 27 years old he fell apart. He lost his 3 year old daughter to polio and drank himself into a suicidal funk. He almost threw himself into the river but didn’t because he realized he didn’t belong to himself. He said a white light appeared to him and a voice spoke to him, literally, saying:
From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.
And so he became an obsessive man, one who Alvin Toffler described as “one of the most-powerful myth-makers and myth-exposers of our time … a controversial, constructive, endlessly energetic metaphor-maker who sees things differently from the rest of us, and thereby makes us see ourselves afresh.”
The main way Buckminster innovated was through his passion for generalization. In an age of increasing specialization, he provides us a case-in-point of what cross-disciplinary pollination can do for scientific and intellectual thought.
We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.
I am more inspired by this contribution–the appeal for generalization in knowledge and education–than anything else he did. But, he had some really crazy ideas.
Crazy Idea Number 1
Buckminster (what a name!) was typical for an intellectual of the 20th century, which means he went crazy with all the untapped potentials which were new and which provided infinite imaginings and ideas (e.g., Picasso, Stravinsky, etc.).
His first crazy idea was to build a house which could fly in on a Zeppelin. He applied himself to housing because it had seen the least progress in human history. He felt that modern houses were crude and outdated, so he made circular houses that hang on masts. He called his house the Dymaxion House, and dubbed them the “machine for living” in the machine-age.
Crazy Idea Number 2
In 1933 he had his next crazy idea. He dreamed up a car which was far beyond expectations. It was an airplane and car in one–oh, and it floated too!–and he called it the “Omnidirectional plummeting device.” What a name! When he realized this wouldn’t work, he lowered his ideals to the Dymaxian Car, an 11-seater, three-wheeled car with a Ford V8. It got an incredible 30 mpg and could turn on a dime. He loved showing it off, and on several occasions would get speeding tickets for showing off for celebrities like Amelia Earhardt, once doing 110 mph–totally unheard of back then. (Yes, this is the Great Depression era.)
Financially the car and its company crashed and was shut down after a freak accident at a Chicago world’s fair.
Crazy Idea Number 3
One day, as he was driving through the farmlands, he noticed the all-metal grain silos and had his next epiphany: He would make fire-proof houses from grain bins.
Everyone mocked his idea, but he stuck with it. His philosophy of architecture was more function over form, and his diatribe for the beauty of functionality is something reminiscent of what Steve Jobs said about design being about elegance in performance more than mere aesthetics.
You’re gonna have to find out what needs to be done, and that is the design responsibility, so when you hear everybody out here talking about ecology’s over, it’s because your architecture’s not doing anything. People can just sit around and draw pictures, and well it’s pretty, so that’s enough. You don’t ever have to worry about beauty or pretty because if you really understand your problem, if you solve it correctly so that life really goes on–this is the regeneration of life–and you do it so economically that it is realizable, it always comes out beautiful. That is why a rose is beautiful. It is just one of those parts to the great regenerative process where there is an a priori design of the universe that had the universe working. You want to be a part of that, you can’t miss beauty. Your joy will be there; it will be just as much with a beautiful sunset.
Crazy Idea Number 4–Finally, a Winner
The last and greatest idea Fuller is remembered for is the Geodesic Dome. One colleague said Buckminster was placed on the earth for this one reason: the dome.
Some people responded with praise and others with raised eyebrows, but nobody denied he was a veritable idea factory. His brilliance came from his ability to relate everything to everything and come away with a fresh innovation. He ended his lectures with the dome even though he began with philosophy and ethics.
The marine corps picked up his domes in the 1950’s. It was his first and greatest true business success. His dome was 1% the weight of traditional domes. Hawaii put one up for their symphony house, and it took 30 men only 22 hours to construct it. Americans used the dome for churches, barns, homes, schools, movie theaters, concert halls, the stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and so forth.
It is doubtful any other piece of architecture received more fame or had greater influence. But, reminding us of his life mission, Fuller said:
I did not set out to design a house on a pole, a three wheeled car, or geodesic structures. My objective has been humanity’s comprehensive welfare in the universe. I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers.
In 1967, he built the US pavilion for the world’s fair. It was a huge dome, 250 feet in diameter, the largest clear spanning structure in the world. He felt it vindicated his life’s struggles. And in 1968, he received the World gold medal for architecture.
Later on, he built a dome for himself and his wife and they lived there for 12 years. “Fuller died on July 1, 1983, 11 days before his 88th birthday. During 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, at age 87. His wife of 66 years died 36 hours later. They are buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
- Buckminster Fuller - Thinking Out Loud Youtube Video.
- Wikipedia Article
- Maria Popova’s post on Synergistics and the Wellspring of Reality
- Image Source: Time Magazine
Lloyd Steven Sieden. Buckminster Fuller’s Universe: His Life and Work. New York: Basic Books, 1989. pp. 87–88. ↩
His contemporary, Robert A. Heinlein, also felt strongly about specialization: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” Charlie Munger (business partner of Warren Buffet) does too. ↩