Buckminster Fuller: The Utopian Impulse
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
31 March through 29 July 2012
‘Radical idealism’ is what Buckminster Fuller called it. It was the 1960s, a time when everything people had taken for granted was up in the air and the future was a place with minimalist design, energy efficient housing and maybe even a colony on the moon. ‘The Utopian Impulse’ is not only an insight into Fuller’s ideas for the future, one where technology and sustainability stands at the centre, but also a picture of what the world could be like if was created through elegant design, inspired by nature and boldly executed with a mandate to make things better.
Or maybe it was too much to ask, because by the time the 1980s rolled around, boasting a very different brand of radicalism, people had stopped picturing this fantastical future. So where did the dreams go? At least this is what I am wondering after spending a couple of hours surrounded by the imagination of Buckminster, lovingly displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While Fuller (1895 - 1983) never lived in the Bay Area, he lectured here extensively, making this exhibition a perfect fit for an area with a unique magnetism for idealists, inventors, non-conformists and dreamers of various ilk.
The ‘Inventions’ series consists of 13 drawings patented by Fuller in his mission to create superior solutions. There is the teardrop-shaped car; a design for a rowing boat consisting of two beams and a seat; a base for septic fuel tanks. A photograph shows Fuller next to a dome-shaped building covered in round windows, the most energy-efficient form. Geometrical shapes are repeated everywhere, chosen for practicality and kept for being pleasing to the eye. This is not a coincidence, observed Fuller: “I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
The stand-out piece is the ‘Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map’, where Fuller has taken a globe and laid it out flat, in triangles. Looking at the world with the North Pole as the centre, you suddenly realise all the land masses link together. Fuller was a fan of the triangle, calling it the only shape that is “inherently stable”, as described in the ‘Synergistic Dictionary’. A selection of the 22,000 entries typed up on index cards are displayed, providing a glimpse into how this man saw the world. Take the entry for ‘Spiral’: “A triangle is a spiral, and is one energy event.” It may seem a little kooky, but there is evidence that Fuller was way ahead of his time, especially with his energy-efficient solutions. The teardrop-shaped car from 1933 had unprecedented fuel efficiency; the ‘4D House’ from 1928 is an hexagonal autonomous dwelling designed to be optimally resource efficient, as well as capable of mass production in factories for off-site assembly.
‘The Utopian Impulse’ also includes pieces by artists and designers whose works are in a similar vein to Fuller. The Ant Farm Collective was established in San Francisco in 1968, a group which expanded the role of architecture to include performance, film, installation and animation. On display is their ‘Convention City’ model from 1978, a dome-shaped suggestion for Texas. There are pamphlets from the Office of Appropriate Technology, established in California in 1976 with the task of assisting state agencies in developing and implementing less costly and energy-saving initiatives. Solar energy, farmers markets and bicycling programmes were among its efforts.
For an exhibition so firmly focused on the future, ‘The Utopian Impulse’ feels distinctly retro. This is probably a natural consequence of styles having changed since the 1960s, but the main element to this feeling is the sneaking awareness that these people, who made this work nearly 40 years ago, may have been more optimistic about the future than we are now. Maybe we know more now, about the limitations of power generation and the complexities of politics, and we are simply resigned to the fact that the future will take a little longer to get here than we had hoped. The ‘Earth Flag’, made in 1969 by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell’s, hangs on the wall; it has a grey and white planet on a blue background. It looks so simple.
Or maybe we just have different dreams now, ones which we can actually reach: fewer underwater colonies, just better waste recycling. And energy-neutral housing: amongst a handful of post-millennium works included in the exhibition is IwamotoScott’s ‘Jellyfish House’ from 2005, an intricate architectural model made from mesh, with soft curves like a sea creature. ‘Hydramax Port Machine’ from 2012, bulit by Future Cities Labs, looks like a plant with tentacles, moving softly under water. The building is designed to capture moisture and to store and re-circulate water inside the building. It is not quite “peace on earth” but it is distinctly in the tradition of Fuller, who sought the attention of the individual and not governments; he wanted us to each add our knowledge and resources to build a future we would feel a part of.
In 1965, Fuller initiated something he called the ‘World Game’ project. He described it as a data-visualisation system to facilitate global approaches in solving the world's problems, wanting it to contribute to "mak[ing] the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone". Nowadays we call it the internet. Fuller believed greater access to information would generate more humanitarian problem-solving, and on a good day, that is what the internet does. There is a lot of work to do still, but l think Buckminster Fuller would be excited about what comes next.