House Hunting with Buckminster Fuller

House Hunting with Buckminster Fuller

Fuller in Manhattan (c. 1931).
Courtesy MIT PRess

Becoming Bucky Fuller
Loretta Lorance
MIT Press, $29.95

Fuller Houses: R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Dwellings and Other Domestic Adventures
Federico Neder
Lars Müller Publishers, $39.95

Ever the anomaly in the world of architecture—from his early days peddling standardized concrete masonry units to his later forays into geodesic domes—Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) remains an enigma, even after finally being invited into the inner rings of the architectural pantheon. Following on 2008’s Starting with the Universe, organized by the Whitney Museum, come two books—one on him, one about his ideas—centering on Fuller’s epic struggle with the evolution of the Dymaxion House.

Chart indicating 4D color progression (1928). (Click to zoom)

Loretta Lorance focuses on Fuller’s biography and on the Dymaxion House in Becoming Bucky Fuller, which she declares a “revisionist study.” The other, Fuller Houses by Federico Neder, uses Fuller as an armature to explore the ideas and images surrounding his development of the Dymaxion House as something less concerned with an “object than with the project.” As narrow as the former is, the latter is broad. And this concern with the project, Lorance has determined, follows out of Fuller’s failure at producing the object.

Lorance argues that Fuller revamped himself as a visionary of domestic architecture when he could not mass-produce his Dymaxion House. Fuller spent the better part of the late 1920s to 1930s developing various prototypes of what eventually became the only two built Dymaxion Houses, which were recently coupled into an exhibition at the Henry Ford museum. Despite his unwavering belief and determination that his designs were the future of domestic architecture, Fuller eventually realized architectural, societal, industrial, and most importantly, investor support were not forthcoming. Thus he decidedly repositioned himself, according to Lorance, as an idealistic visionary.

Fuller’s development as a salesman and a dedicated entrepreneur, for better or worse, is well documented. He tenaciously engaged possible investors, presented questionable patents, and requested that the AIA support his project. The AIA flatly rejected Fuller on the grounds that they do not support mass-produced architecture. Lorance uses these opportunities to discern the factual Fuller from the fictional—such as his presenting the Dymaxion as a project ready for production—by highlighting discrepancies between accepted history and “fact.”

However, only in the last chapter does Lorance delve into “revisioning” Fuller’s history. The evidence for this emerges from the autobiographical notes Fuller wrote in 1939 for a colleague at Time, Inc. for an unpublished article. Fuller consciously came to terms with his failing enterprise and focused on promoting the visionary, futuristic aspects of his design. This document provided the historical base for all subsequent interviews and histories. This is the revisionist study, and Lorance painstakingly provides the lead up to it.

Third Dymaxion House by Anne Hewlett Fuller (1932).

As much as Lorance focuses on Fuller’s personality during the development of the Dymaxion House, Federico Neder focuses on the cultural context happening concurrently to Fuller’s perpetually transforming project. Readers encounter Diego Rivera, Adolf Loos, Frederick Kiesler, and the ever-present Le Corbusier, among others.

Fuller Houses categorizes itself around themed chapters on innovation, enclosure, lightness, form, control, and the artifact that the Dymaxion House ultimately became. Each calls upon contemporaries of Fuller to explicate the timeliness of his theories, practices, or their advanced nature.

The first, “Flying Fish,” tackles the influence of progress and innovation that ultimately yielded to aerodynamics. As such, Fuller presented the Dymaxion as an engineering and technological feat that reduces friction with the natural environment and reduces the physical labor of inhabitants so they could devote themselves to other, more pleasurable or self-enriching endeavors.

Fuller with the first model for the Dymaxion House (1929).

One of the odder pairings is the discrepancy between the stark lines of Adolf Loos’ 1903 apartment and the overly textured and cushioned interior. This was the exact approach Fuller took to make the unfamiliar form of the Dymaxion seem more domestic to potential investors. Neder reveals this as the root of the discrepancy between yearning for technological advancement and a cushy lifestyle.

In the chapter “Industrial Dance,” the image of Diego Rivera inspecting Fuller’s Dymaxion Car initiates the conversation between the intermingling of the machine and the organic, such as Rivera represented it in his murals. However, while Fuller’s rounded forms, Neder points out, coincide with aesthetic developments, they really evolve from his technological investigations. The chapter concludes with comparing Kiesler’s Endless House to the Dymaxion House as both projects combine “in a single gesture the sensuality of form and the precision of geometry.” Neder notes that the former failed to escape abstraction and the latter couldn’t escape the limits of technology.

Neder’s final pages continue the vector of these themes into contemporary investigation—the sinuous forms, techno-aesthetics, and prefabrication. Ultimately, both books illustrate that the Dymaxion House at different stages of its development meant something different even to its designer, either as a product of the day or a vision of the future.

4D Tower (1928).

I found Lorance’s book not difficult to read but difficult to enjoy. Its highly academic tone and structure focuses on personal minutiae and rests well in the hands of researchers. Written chronologically, the book progresses from event to event, strung together with quotes and citations, dry facts over compelling narrative.

Conversely, Neder’s book reads as a comparative history that ties together architectural and artistic achievements to create a context of creativity. Anecdotes and disparate references make interesting revelations and connections. These create a richer understanding of the items that intrigued Fuller’s investigations as well as the broader society into which Fuller loosed his provocations.