Facts So Romantic

The Secret of Buckminister Fuller’s World-Changing Ideas Was Serendipity

Dome Over Manhattan—Buckminster Fuller & Shoji Sadao, 1960 | josephbergen/Flickr

In his 2016 book, You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats sets out to release Buckminister Fuller from “the zany sci-fi designs that made him notorious, and rescue him from the groupies who have impounded him as a cultish prophet.”

Keats, a writer and artist who whips up his own world-changing ideas through trickster gallery and museum exhibitions, comes to Fuller’s rescue by venturing beneath the veneer of his infamous inventions—the geodesic dome, flying car, world peace games, and dome over Manhattan—to expose their broader significance. 

That significance can be summed up in the unwieldy title that Fuller gave himself: “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” The most succinct definition of the title is Fuller’s determination, he said, “to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

The reason he wanted to make a flying car was because his first daughter died of meningitis.

As Keats points out, Fuller’s 100 percent ethos was prophetic “and only becomes more resonant in a society where half the world’s wealth is held by the wealthiest 1 percent.”

One of the qualities Keats most admires in Fuller, who was born in Massachusetts in 1895, is the inventor’s conviction that people learn through serendipity. His bewitching inventions, books, and lectures were designed to spur serendipitous thinking in others. Fuller knew, Keats writes, that “new ideas might emerge from the chance meeting of disparate information in a curious mind.” 

In his own life Fuller courted the lucky discovery. “He was an autodidact and a generalist, meaning that ideas from many realms could intermix freely in his mind,” Keats says. “Society needs generalists, who can bring essential creativity to the world’s problems.”

Fuller’s vision of an interactive world, and antipathy toward specialization, was a theme that ran through an interview I did with Keats before an audience at the AC Institute, an “art think tank” and exhibition space in New York City. Keats and I adapted our talk for the interview below.

In person, Keats is as provocative as he is in print—a quality Nautilus readers know from his essay, “Famous for Being Indianapolis: How Cities Are Like Kim Kardashian.” He is constitutionally incapable of swimming in the mainstream.

You’re good on Fuller’s infamous inventions in your book, Jonathon, but those aren’t what really drew him to you, are they?

As beautiful and alluring as the artifacts are, what drew me to Fuller was the way he put ideas together. It was his comprehensive anticipatory design science—the name he gave to his practice—that to me is fascinating, necessary, and increasingly challenging in a world that has become more and more specialized.

What’s a good example of specialized culture now?

TED talks. The Internet, TV streaming, and educational shows on demand are ideas that Fuller had in the 1950s and ‘60s. So we have all the structures in place for the sort of big thinking that Fuller was engaged in. But what is wrong with TED talks is that to appease the presumed attention span we have today, they are condensed and simplified and all spontaneity is eliminated. Even worse, they’re premised on the cult of expertise. All the assumptions they’re built on are totally  contrary to Fuller’s.

And what were Fuller’s assumptions?

To me, Fuller really was one of the first people to articulate the idea that we now call “world changing.” That has become almost the house religion of techies, and has become a mission for many tech companies, most emblematically Google. What’s interesting in the case of Google is you have a comprehensivism that is superficially similar to Fuller’s. The difference is that with Google this is being done ultimately for the sake of the bottom line, for the sake of profit . It is pure delusion—and one that I believe exists within the company itself—to think that there is some other deeper motive.

So what was Fuller’s deeper motive?

In the case of Fuller, it really was about wanting to make the world more efficient in a way that makes it more sustainable. The bedrock of his thinking is altruism. He famously described his life as “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.” 

Granted, that altruism often resulted in very bad ideas. For instance, he reckoned that it would be most efficient  to put a geodesic dome over Manhattan as a way of controlling the city’s climate. It was the ultimate nightmare of technocratic urban planning.

He really wanted to build the dome. It wasn’t a metaphor for sustainability, he wasn’t being ironic, right?

I have looked long and hard for any sign of irony in Buckminster Fuller, and I have yet to find it.

Let’s look a little deeper at the dome, though. It could be about addressing climate change before anybody used that term.

Right. In terms of addressing climate change, there is this madcap, mad-scientist idea of geoengineering. You spray aerosol into the atmosphere and you keep the temperature down—if only you keep the aerosol machine running in perpetuity. All of this is a little bit scary.

Fuller’s underlying idea of putting a dome over a city has to do with what he referred to as “valving.” You make a temperate climate in which it’s no longer necessary to use air conditioning or heating. Essentially you are able to valve the city thermodynamically, so that you can control how hot or cold the city is relative to the planet. In theory it remains temperate throughout the year.

What’s interesting is to take this idea of thermodynamically modulating a city, but to use less invasive technologies to do it. You can think about the reflectivity of surfaces. You can use thermochromic tiling to switch between absorbing and reflecting heat in different seasons. Also, you can use heat exchange systems, where you exploit the constancy of the temperature underground. You can use the earth for heating and cooling.

These ideas are employed by architecture and city planners now.

Well, they are, but they’re being employed in piecemeal fashion—for this building, that project.

And Fuller’s genius was to connect the city to the planet and climate?

It was to say the city is the unit to think about in terms of thinking about climate. I call it metroengineering. Geoengineering is too risky, with too many unknown unknowns, but you can safely achieve a lot by  controlling the climate within a city. If you throw away the dome, you can see that Fuller got the scale right and got the principle right. That’s the point at which you can walk away from Fuller and say we have an idea, let’s go ahead and try to figure out how to do it.

Let’s talk about one more of his crazy ideas, the flying car. I love that you flesh out the personal story behind it. It wasn’t a purely intellectual idea.

No, it wasn’t. It’s this beautiful object and indeed it was meant to fly. But the reason he wanted to make a flying car was because his first daughter died of meningitis. This is the greatest tragedy of his life. He blames himself for her death because of the circumstances that he put his family in through his serial failure. They are living in slum conditions. It really wasn’t quite that bad, but he comes to think that many of the world’s problems come out of the slum, that slum conditions make for illness and misery. He wants to vindicate his daughter’s death and stop this cycle of poverty and sickness.

So he decides that housing should be mobile. Why? Because it needs to be cheap. The way to make anything cheap is to make it in a factory, like a Model T. But you can’t roll a house out of a factory. So you have to make houses mobile. And if you can transport housing out of the factory, you can get it out of the city. You can have houses everywhere, if only you make them light enough.

What’s wrong with TED talks is they’re condensed and simplified and all spontaneity is eliminated.

Fuller figures out a way to do this by using tension rather than compression. Instead of piling up bricks, you use steel wires in tension, and make the house out of plastic. Then you hire a fleet of zeppelins to fly around until you decide where you want to live. You drop a bomb that makes a big hole in the ground, and then another zeppelin comes along and drops a pole. Then a third zeppelin suspends your house from the mast.

Of course, there’s the problem of visiting your neighbors. There are no roads because everybody can put their houses wherever they want. How do you navigate that? You need a flying car. If you need a flying car, then you need a ground-taxiing mechanism for that flying car. So Fuller goes into the car business and actually builds several of these cars, just the ground-taxiing mechanism because he can’t figure out how to make inflatable wings. Then the car business goes under because of an unfortunate accident, probably for the best because he’d completely lost sight of what he was originally doing. The point is, one thing leads to another, which is so characteristically Fuller, both for better and worse

He really was a remarkably prescient, holistic thinker. The problem, as you point out, was his visions often resulted in follies. So what should we take away from Fuller’s career?

It isn’t going to be easy to achieve what Fuller attempted, but we need to try now more than ever to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity. The way to do it is not to wait for the next Fuller to come along, but for all of us, each of us, in our own small way, to attempt to become comprehensive anticipatory design scientists. Fuller pioneered an incredibly powerful way of thinking, which was often stymied by his crackpot implementation. We need to get past the cult of personality. We need not to become Bucky’s acolytes, but to internalize Fuller’s mindset.*

Kevin Berger is Nautilus’ features editor.

*Note to our Southern California readers: Keats is featured on a panel discussion about Buckminister Fuller at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art tonight. Details here.

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The lead image is courtesy of josephbergen via Flickr.

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