Pragmatic Utopias for Spaceship Earth
Inventor, architect, philosopher, poet, and global thinker—Richard Buckminster Fuller defies categories. The American visionary is considered to be one of the most important providers of impulses for contemporary architecture and an intellectual precursor of the organic movement. His work has also, however, inspired contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson and Andrea Zittel. Achim Drucks on the pragmatic optimist, who is held in high esteem by the Pentagon and hippies alike.
||Already at the age of 32, he seemed to have arrived at a dead end. Richard Buckminster Fuller had neither money nor a job; his daughter had just died. But then, all at once he was overcome by a kind of religious awakening. An inner voice told him: "You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe." Instead of drowning himself in Lake Michigan, he began dedicating his life to the common good. In 1929, Fuller began a long-term experiment that would last until the death of "Guinea Pig B"—which is how he liked to refer to himself—in 1983. His goal was to "find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity." In the process, the failed Harvard student and bankrupt former Marine radio operator metamorphosed into the "Leonardo da Vinci of our time," as the communication theorist Marshall McLuhan called him.
The portfolio from the Deutsche Bank Collection shows 13 of Fuller's patented inventions: the prefab Dymaxion House, the streamlined Dymaxion Car, his famous Geodesic Domes, as well as a floating city and models for constructions that were on show in 1959 in the Sculpture Garden at the MoMA in New York. Each of the 13 silkscreens in the portfolio consists of two sheets: the background of each is a photograph of the respective project, and above this is a transparent polyester overlay with various construction drawings printed in white ink. The method and motifs of the series, which was shown in the major 2008 Fuller retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, visualize the larger dynamics of these works. The term Dymaxion—a cross between DYnamic, MAXimum, and tensION—characterizes the pioneering spirit of these concepts, which merge visionary thought with science, technology, and design. Among other things, Fuller anticipated elements of cyber culture with his ideas on networking and synergy.
Fuller saw himself as an "anticipatory design scientist." While architects like Philip Johnson contemptuously called the autodidact an inventor, a guru, and a poet, but never accepted him into their inner circle, Fuller's interdisciplinary approach met with keen interest among artists. He worked together with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi to create the models of his Dymaxion Car. In 1948, Josef Albers invited him to teach at the legendary Black Mountain College. This is where he began experimenting with basic geometric forms, which shortly thereafter led to his Geodesic Domes, which he patented in 1954. While the Dymaxion projects barely made it beyond the model or prototype stage, the domes became Fuller's most successful invention. The forms, assembled together from an intricate web of triangles, embody his pragmatic motto "Doing more with less." A task should be solved with a minimum of resources—it's a matter of using a minimum expenditure of energy and material to maximum efficiency.
Apart from the military, which used the geodesic domes primarily as radio stations, hippies were enthusiastic fans of Fuller. In the Colorado countryside, the utopian commune Drop City built a village of domes inspired by Fuller. "With few resources but idealism and the conviction that they were 'total revolutionaries,'" the inhabitants of Drop City "believed they were 'rebuilding the world' as an open, communal society one dome at a time," writes Felicity D. Scott in her book Architecture or Techno-Utopia. Fuller's dome became the icon of the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal: a gigantic, yet almost immaterial-seeming construction of acrylic glass and aluminum that became a symbol for technological progress and the space age.
Along with works by Andy Warhol and Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns' painting Map made from 22 shaped canvases was also on show in the American Pavilion. The work is based on Fuller's Dymaxion World Map, which offers a considerably more realistic representation of the Earth's surface than conventional maps.
A large number of contemporary artists have also referenced Fuller in a variety of ways. While Pedro Reyes refers to Fuller's biomorphic structures and his Dymaxion Car in his sculptures and projects, among them the Parque Vertical (2002) and the Velotaxi (2007), which was conceived as an alternative to the car, Andrea Zittel refers to Fuller's prefab houses. Her Living Units are small, compact living units complete with storage space and areas for eating, sleeping, washing, and social activity; they are intended to rationalize everyday life. Similarly to Fuller, Zittel takes an experimental approach by actually testing the various units personally for a whole year.
Together with Yona Friedman's flexible Ville Spatiale that stretches over already existing cities, Fuller's architectural visions, like the floating city Cloud Nine, have inspired the work of Argentinean Tomas Saraceno. The artist created a Flying Garden in 2006 for the Frankfurt Portikus; for the show Psycho Buildings at the Hayward Gallery in London he created his Observatory, Air Port City, 2008—a transparent geodesic dome that exhibition visitors could enter. Saraceno's Air Port City is conceived as a habitable platform that floats in the air like a cloud and can change its form. The artist sees his air city as an answer to population growth and climate change that might seem utopian today, but could soon become quite realistic.
Fuller became involved with these challenges early on. Already in the 1950s he coined the term spaceship earth as a metaphor for a global view of our planet's ecological system. His popular book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) turned him into a guru for the incipient green movement; he is widely regarded to be one of the first advocates for sustainability. In contrast with this one-dimensional image, however, are designs such as the 4D-Towers—prefabricated buildings designed in the late '20s that a zeppelin was supposed to deposit on their appointed site, where they would be anchored in a crater hollowed out by a bomb. Fuller also drew up plans to populate the poles and pristine mountainous regions to give humanity new areas for settlement. For his Harlem Redesign (1965), he placed an ensemble of cooling tower-shaped skyscrapers in the middle of a part of the city that was completely desolate at the time. The mega-structures of these Instant Slum Clearance Projects pay no heed to the existing architecture and evince an almost violent claim to the absolute.
Despite this, Fuller's elegant geometries, pioneering principles, and holistic thinking have left their mark on contemporary architecture. Whether we look at Norman Foster, whose tower in London City recalls a gigantic pine cone thanks to its network of triangular windows, or at Santiago Calatrava's L'Hemisfèric dome for a Science Center in Valencia—it appears that innovative buildings today can hardly exist without one reference or another to Fuller's biomorphic forms. In the field of art, he has probably left his deepest mark on the work of Olafur Eliasson, partly due to a personal connection. One of the key staff members in Eliasson's laboratory-like Berlin studio is Einar Thorsteinn. The Icelandic architect not only worked closely with Frei Otto, the creator of the suspended roof constructions for the Olympia grounds in Munich, but also with Fuller himself.
One part of Eliasson's 2008 retrospective Take your time at the MoMA in New Yorker was the installation Model Room, which brings together dozens of these complex geometric forms that recall crystal lattice, the one-celled organisms of Ernst Haeckel's natural scientific illustrations, and Fuller's inventions based on nature's building principles. These models, which Eliasson realizes together with Thorsteinn, give rise to the domes, spirals, and ellipsoids in his work, as well as the dynamic metal sculptures and kaleidoscopic mirrored works that he installed in 2003 in the Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 2006, for The Inverted Mirror Sphere, he crossed a dome with a disco ball.
Eliasson also shares Fuller's interdisciplinary approach: "Artistic practice has rediscovered its ability to constantly redefine its own program, and architectural discourse has opened up to other fields in the same way," he explained in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2002. "This is why the fact of integrating architects—and engineers and experts as well—is crucial for me in opening up to other ways of working." Thus, Eliasson increasingly breaks apart the traditional concept of the work. His art, which is situated somewhere between nature, science, architecture, and event charges the relationship between work and viewer by making direct sensual experience possible.
In Berlin, Elisason has recently founded an Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments)—as a logical consequence of his artistic practice. Like his work and his studio, he also regards teaching as an experiment. Eliasson is convinced that innovations begin with small steps: "When important changes take place on a microscopic level, over time an entire society or view of the world can change." This notion also connects him to Fuller, who made a seminal statement in 1969: "The most important fact about Spaceship Earth: an instruction manual didn't come with it." As the crew of this spaceship, it's in the hands of the human race to find out how it can best be guided, and how best to master the continuously changing challenges we face. Fuller firmly believed that we possess the capability to overcome even those problems that seem entirely unsolvable with a visionary, experimental thinking resulting from technological progress. That is what makes his pragmatic utopias so important today—not merely for artists.