Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), American architect and engineer, was in a broad sense a product designer who understood architecture as well as the engineering sciences in relation to mass production and in association with the idea of total environment.
R. Buckminster Fuller was best known for his work on the Dymaxion House, Dymaxion Bathroom, and Dymaxion Car and as the inventor of the geodesic dome—as a means of attaining maximum space related to environment with minimal use of raw materials. "My philosophy," he wrote in No More Secondhand Gods, "requires of me that I convert not only my own experiences but whatever I can learn of other men's experiences into statements of evolutionary trending and concomitantly defined problem challenges and responses. My philosophy further requires that I at least attempt to solve the problems by inanimate invention." He also described himself as an "explorer in comprehensive anticipation design."
Fuller was born July 12, 1895, in Milton, Massachusetts, and attended Milton Academy. Even at an early age he was a nonconformist, and in 1913 he rejected formal education at Harvard, the college that had nurtured four generations of Fullers. During World War I he was commissioned in the U.S. Navy, where he had an opportunity to indulge his creative imagination; he designed a seaplane rescue mast and boom.
In peacetime Fuller's energies were channeled into the Stockade Building System, which failed because of ignorant contractors, inflexible building codes, and financial opposition. This failure, as well as the death of his daughter of rheumatic fever, forced him into an intense period of work, resulting in 1927 in the Dymaxion House. (The word Dymaxion is a compounding of the words "dynamism" and "maximum.") Circular in plan to prevent heat loss and with a tiny heating unit and air-conditioning unit, the house, 50 feet in diameter, weighed 6,000 pounds. It would have cost approximately $6,500 and could have been assembled from a 250-cubic-foot package transported anywhere. The cost of development would have been about $100 million.
In 1933 Fuller followed this with the three-wheel, front-wheel-drive Dymaxion Car. It was built like an airplane body, was air-conditioned, and could have traveled at 120 miles per hour.
Phelps Dodge Corporation developed the copper Dymaxion Bathroom in 1936. (Aluminum, plastics, and such materials were not readily available or reasonably priced in the mid-1930s.) The quart of water necessary for a 10-minute bath would, in addition, provide an invigorating massage. The bathroom would have been free of sewage pipes, and waste material would have been stored for pickup and processing.
Following World War II, Beech Aircraft Company at Wichita, Kansas, wanted to convert their aircraft production plant into an assembly line for a Dymaxion House, which became known as the Wichita House of 1945-1946. Labor unions supported the project in order to retain full employment, but financial backers and the industry decided against it. In this failure America lost a chance, in 1945, to work toward solving housing and allied problems that came to plague the cities by the 1970s.
Undaunted, Fuller began developing his ideas on geodesic domes, using the tetrahedron (of four triangular sides), economic in material and weight and thus of maximum efficiency, as a basic component. After numerous experimental prototypes, industry began to understand the advantages of such structures. In 1953 the Ford Company built a geodesic dome in Dearborn, Michigan, 93 feet in diameter; the Marine Corps built numerous smaller ones; and in 1958-1959 the Union Tank Car Company of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, constructed a dome 384 feet in diameter. Fuller's proposal for a hemispherical dome two miles in diameter to cover a portion of Manhattan Island, New York, to enclose a controlled environment was not acted on. But perhaps the best opportunity for a gigantic temporary structure of this kind was lost when the president of the 1964 World's Fair vetoed a proposed dome which would have covered 646 acres.
The United States Pavilion at Montreal's Expo 1967 was a three-quarter globe designed by Fuller, 200 feet high and 250 feet in diameter. Although the structure and its contents drew some sharp criticism, they represented "Creative America." Fuller's later experiments were geared toward an understanding of the world's resources and their efficient utilization.
Fuller functioned primarily as a catalyst. He was important to the 20th century not only because of his own inventiveness but also for his influence upon the new generation. The pioneers of the modern movement, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, have less influence than Fuller, who was the forerunner of concepts of the efficient utilization of materials and, with the Bauhaus, of mass production.
Fuller's philosophy of design contributed to the faith many contemporary architects have placed in the computer-age concept of "megastructure"—the idea of incorporating a city into a single giant structural complex, encompassing all functions of the urban environment, into which individual cells of habitation can be "plugged" or onto which they can be "clipped."
Although megastructure is impractical, with regard to structural feasibility and cost in the third quarter of the 20th century, when new structural techniques evolve and when the populace and its leadership understand the need for comprehensive planning then megastructure could be one possible solution to population growth and the habitation of man on a grand scale. Still, some critics argue that such an environment would be inhuman as well as impractical. British critic Kenneth Clark considers ideas such as megastructure "the most disreputable of all forms of public utterance," which "threatens to impair our humanity."
Fuller was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and held more than 2,000 patents. From 1959 until his death, due to a heart attack, on July 1, 1983, Fuller was a research professor in design science and a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, as well as a popular lecturer. During his life, Fuller wrote 25 books.
Fuller's ideas are presented in his Nine Chains to the Moon (1938); No More Secondhand Gods, and Other Writings (1963); and Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure (1963). Fuller's contemporary influence is examined in James T. Badlwin, Buckyworks: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas Today, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996. A biography is Robert Snyder, R. Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario, St. Martin's Press, 1980. The Fuller Research Foundation published Dymaxion Index: Bibliography and Published Items Regarding Dymaxion and Buckminster Fuller, 1927-1953 (rev. ed. 1953). Other works that discuss Fuller's influence include Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism; Ethic or Aesthetic? (1966), and Royston Landau, New Directions in British Architecture (1968).