A new exhibit at SFMOMA, The Utopian Impulse, considers Buckminster Fuller’s influence on Bay Area designers. As Fuller’s disciple Norman Foster is now hard at work on Apple’s proposed ring, architecture and design curator Jennifer Fletcher raises timely and important questions about the regional legacy of this “anticipatory design scientist.”
Two well-funded earlier exhibits—in Zurich in 1999 and in New York in 2008—mined the Fuller archive and resulted in major publications. Fletcher has taken a more modest approach that builds on her department’s collections. In 1981, Fuller and graphic designer Chuck Byrne collaborated to produce a print portfolio, Inventions: Twelve Around One, that was a collage-like mix of patent drawings and photographs of Fuller and his inventions. Fletcher uses the portfolio, a gift from Chuck and Elizabeth Byrne, as the exhibit’s starting point, filling the anteroom with examples of Fuller’s work in different media—Da Vinci–like drawings, handwritten notes, models, magazine articles, and blueprinted manifestos. There’s also a one-hour excerpt from his videotaped oral history.
The adjoining main A+D gallery has a sampling of Bay Area work that either shows Fuller’s direct influence or bears traces of his resonance. There are consciously futurist works like Ant Farm’s 1976 Convention City, which anticipated American Idol and instant voting by imagining a stadium-like complex where on-site and virtual voters could interact with televised political celebrities; Fuller-inspired publications like Stewart Brand’s late-1960s Whole Earth Catalog, which began partially as a tribute to him; and Bob Gillis’ mid-1970s Oval Intention tent, which applies Fuller’s tensegrity structure to camping equipment. The current examples include real and conceptual work by Yves Béhar, Nicholas de Monchaux, Lisa Iwamoto and Craig Scott, Future Cities Lab, and Morphosis. My favorite was Future Cities Lab’s HYDRAMAX Port Machines, with a moving, interactive roof that resembles two immense flapping wings. A film by Sam Green and Obscura Digital draws on Fuller’s Dymaxion Chronofile, a 15-minute-at-a-time record of his daily life over 63 years.
Courtesy SFMOMA/Estate of Buckminster Fuller
After seeing the exhibit, the designer and critic Yuki Bowman said to me that there’s a digital-virtual side to Fuller and his Bay Area followers. Ant Farm’s arena-like riff on Fuller’s interest in global knowledge sharing, for example, evolves into Yves Béhar’s cheap XO laptops—and ultimately to the mobile, cloud-tapping devices we all carry.
Focusing on Fuller’s machine-age side ignores the aspects of his work that were concerned with how information surrounds, supports, and empowers us. The word “Dymaxion,” which Fuller often used, derived its name from his “4D philosophy” which is about his desire to “do the most with the least,” and about time as a potential means to do so.
Along with technology and logistics, Fuller was interested in “world problem solving,” anticipating the cloud of information that’s now upon us. Its “lightness,” which Apple’s products exemplify, also speaks to “comprehensive ephemeralization,” or “the doing of ever more with ever less,” a principle that Fuller first articulated in the 1920s. In Silicon Valley, a good deal of workspace has been recalibrated to reflect the myriad ways that people “live different” with time, as Steve Jobs might have put it, now that they're untethered.
Time is the ghost in Fuller’s machines. While he sought to cut the weight of the Dymaxion House and speed its delivery, he also considered how peoples’ use of time would affect not just its size and configuration, but its provision as a service. “You must dismiss the idea that we are organizing around a material unit,” he said. Fletcher treats this element of Fuller’s work as a leitmotif. It’s present in the manifestos, in some of the texts that accompany the artifacts, and in the choices of Fuller-influenced work.
Fuller’s intuition that our lives might increasingly leave their material moorings, liberating us to organize space and time as we individually desire, is what separates him from his modernist peers and from his still-active followers like Foster. It's why Fuller is still relevant. This aspect of his thinking points to the cloud's urbane “lightness” and the leverage it gives to our use of built space, especially the workplace. It is far more germane to life in the 21st century than the better-known inventions to which Apple’s suburban monument nostalgically refers.