Saturday, August 30, 2008

Spaceship Brooklyn: Buckminster Fuller and Humanity's Design Imperative at Home in Williamsburg, at The Whitney, and in the World

Starting with the Universe,open through September 21 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, explores the life, work and ideas of R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, who became well known in the 60s and 70s through his coinage of the term Spaceship Earth, and his design of the geodesic dome, had a long career as a designer and philosopher, sometimes toiling in obscurity, sometimes in the limelight. But throughout, as the Whitney exhibits shows, he was an original thinker. Interestingly, the branches of the tree of Fuller's design extend across the world, even to Brooklyn, NY. Read on:

Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller (July 12, 1895 – July 1, 1983) was an American architect, author, designer, futurist, inventor, and visionary. He was the second president of Mensa. He lends his name to a family of complex carbon structures called Buckminsterfullerene also known as Bucky Balls.

Wikipedia: Throughout his life, Fuller was concerned with the question "Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?" Considering himself an average individual without special monetary means or academic degree, he chose to devote his life to this question, trying to identify what he, as an individual, could do to improve humanity's condition, which large organizations, governments, and private enterprises inherently could not do.

Pursuing this lifelong experiment, Fuller wrote more than thirty books, coining and popularizing terms such as "Spaceship Earth", ephemeralization, and synergetics. He also worked in the development of numerous inventions, chiefly in the fields of design and architecture, the best known of which is the geodesic dome. Carbon molecules known as fullerenes or buckyballs were named for their resemblance to geodesic spheres.

Late in his life, after working on his concepts for several decades, Fuller achieved considerable public visibility. He travelled the world giving lectures, and received numerous honorary doctorates. Most of his inventions, however, never made it into production. Often dismissed as a hopeless utopian, he was strongly criticized in most fields he tried to influence, including architecture.


I first became aware of Fuller's ideas through Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, and its later incarnations as CoEvolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Review. Folks familiar with Fuller's work continue to assert that his work has not yet received the attention that it deserves.

The Whitney exhibit on Fuller is a combination detailed overview, seminar, and exposition of his work, with an enormous amount of text, graphics and models that explore his work in great detail. A model of his Dymaxion car, a three-wheeled wonder about the size of a minivan but that had remarkable control, was simple to parallel park. and was an efficient vehicle, and a film on the car in action,a cardboard dome, and models of his Dymaxion house, alone are worth the price of admission. If it had impact on humanity, Fuller applied his thought and design sense. Fuller was a modern mind in his awareness of the importance of marketing within the design spectrum. He coined or adopted many neologisms, such as Tensegrity (tension- integrity) and Dymaxion (Dynamic Maximum Ion) that he felt helped to express the value and meaning of the design process and his idea.

Today, Design asserts itself everywhere in the postmodern world. With the recent flack about the Waterfalls and its environmental impact, I thought about how, although the NYC Waterfalls are so interesting, it essentially projects a wonderful aesthetic, but if Bucky had the chance to give his two cents, he might have suggested that it be self-sustained using water from the falls to generate power for the pumps or lighting of the exhibit, or even for nearby homes or streetlighting. My suggestion is probably too small by a Fuller standard. But, whatever it was, Bucky's vision of the Waterfalls would fulfill both an aesethetic and a human-centered design imperative

Well, I had the pleasure of discussing this very question with Will Elkins of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which is located, where else, but in Brooklyn, USA, Williamsburg to be exact. No surprise there, right?

Mr. Elkins, who is a staff member at BFI, observed in an online interview with DITHOB that he has "had similar thoughts about the Waterfalls. Namely, that they
are taking large amounts of energy to imitate one of nature's great energy sources." In the words of Buckminster Fuller, "I am not trying to imitate nature, I am trying to discover the principles she is using" - Fuller.

Mr. Elkins continued: "I hope to see more art installations that take on issues of
sustainable design. The current PF1 farming project at PS1 is very inspiring in this sense."

The Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI), explained Mr. Elkins, "was started in 1983, before Bucky passed away, by his family - notably daughter Allegra Fuller Snyder and Jaime Snyder (both of whom still serve on our Board of Directors). Originally in Philadelphia, BFI quickly moved to California (LA, Santa Barbara, Sebastopol) where it operated until 2004. At that point BFI moved to Williamsburg Brooklyn."

In my mind, Bucky and his geodesic domes and Dymaxion design concepts, seems so outfront, that it was naturally at home in California, on that frontier. So, pardon the banal question, but, why Brooklyn?

Mr. Elkins said: "Moving to Brooklyn was simply a way for BFI to begin anew on the East Coast. A lot of the work BFI did in California dealt with formalizing Fuller's archives (housed at Stanford) and keeping in contact with local BFI members. Newly appointed director, Elizabeth Thompson, helped to spearhead this move in hopes of connecting BFI with a larger community of active participants in the NY region. Since the move, BFI has been very productive - running the Design Science Lab,
in conjunction with the UN, for three years, and then launching the annual Buckminster Fuller Challenge last year."

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is a fascinating, visionary undertaking sponsored by BFI that seeks to further expand and explore the application of design, science, creativity and ingenuity in support of bettering the human condition. BFI links a worldwide network of design innovators. Each year a distinguished jury will award a $100,000 prize to support the development and implementation of a solution that has significant potential to solve humanity's most pressing problems in the shortest possible time while enhancing the Earth's ecological integrity. To give you an idea, one of the concepts that did not win the Challenge last year involved using a revolving door in a building to generate useable energy.

Fascinating and insightful idea index here: http://challenge.bfi.org/ideaindex

from BFI: "If success or failure of the planet and of human beings depended on
how I am and what I do ... How would I be? What would I do?"
— Buckminster Fuller

"Buckminster Fuller's prolific life of exploration, discovery, invention and teaching was driven by his intention "to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone."

"Fuller coupled this intention with a pioneering approach aimed at solving complex problems. This approach, which he called comprehensive anticipatory design science, combined an emphasis on individual initiative and integrity with whole systems thinking, scientific rigor and faithful reliance on nature's underlying principles
.


What was BFI's involvement in the Whitney exhibit ?
Elkins: "BFI was not directly involved with the show at the Whitney in terms
of design or planning- the curators worked more with the Estate of Buckminster Fuller for image and object use rights. We were included in many conversations with the curators, but our technical involvement includes things like selling maps and books through their museum store, and obviously promoting the show."

Has the "Greening of America"/sustainable culture (in the design sense) as a movement in any way caught up with Fuller? Or are his ideas still out front, blazing a trail well in front of current design ?

BFI's Will Elkins said: "It is very interesting to follow the Sustainable movement, and great that many people are 'discovering' the works and philosophies of Bucky as a source of inspiration. In my opinion there is still a bit of a disconnect between the heart of Fuller's work and where the sustainable movement stands today."

He continued: "Mainly, I see the difference involving scale and necessity. Fuller's main design principles follow along the lines of "How can we provide for the greatest amount of people with the least amount of resources" or "Do more with less." I feel that a lot of designers are still missing this point. Let's not
take an object that already exists and try to make it "more green" -
let's get at what purposes that object serves and tackle that issue in
the most efficient way possible."

Design not just for aesthetics but for the greater good?

Elkins: "Fuller had a great analogy about piano tops serving as floating rafts in the event of a cruise ship sinking. But just because piano tops can function as safety rafts, it does not mean that we should design safety rafts based on piano tops. He said society is clinging to too many piano tops. And I think this
is still the case. Not to completely dismiss the green movement, a lot
of people are doing great things - but perhaps some should reconsider
their lives and work in the spirit of Bucky."

Starting with the Universe extends through September 21, 2008 at the Whitney Museum.

Starting With the Universe also will present a weekend long symposium on Buckminster Fuller's ideas and impact on the 21st century at Cooper Union on the weekend of September 12. Visit the Whitney link for more information.

Wikipedia on Bucky:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminster_Fuller"

About the exhibit:
http://www.whitney.org/www/buckminster_fuller/timeline.jsp">
http://www.whitney.org/www/buckminster_fuller/about.jspFuller timeline and key concept: http://www.whitney.org/www/buckminster_fuller/timeline.jsp

The Buckminister Fuller Institute: http://www.bfi.org

BFI Buckminster Fuller Challenge:
href="http://challenge.bfi.org/">

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