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The Long Ranger Rides Again

The Long Ranger Rides Again

Who was it who coined the term “Spaceship Earth” and was talking about the environment in the 30’s? Who was it who penned the following ditty?

Environment to each must be

all there is that isn’t me

Universe in turn must be

All there is, plus me.

Richard Buckminster Fuller was born on July 12th 1895 and died on July 1st 1983 Here is a man who made a lifetime’s career out of thinking for himself, and not taking anything for granted. Almost universally known as Bucky, he was first and foremost an outstanding individual human being. He was well known for his extraordinary “thinking out loud” lectures which could go on for many hours with no notes. 5th generation of his family to go up to Harvard, he never graduated, having been thrown out twice, but returned years later to receive a honorary doctorate, and was to receive nearly fifty other doctorates and 150 other awards from all over the world, including a Gold Medal from the RIBA in 1968 in London.

Uncategorisable, but often described as architect, although he never qualified as one, and also characterised as a modern day Leonardo, a polymath and comprehensivist (this last term self-styled) Bucky was a master of the neologism, – he made up many new terms to elucidate his thinking: and he also popularised a number of little known words which had not been in common currency before, such as Synergy, the behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the behaviour of the sum of their parts, now almost over-used, but virtually unknown before Bucky’s use of it.

Bucky always started from first principles, never assumed anything and was convinced he could explain anything to a willing listener – like the intricacies of nuclear physics to a child, as he did on many occasions. Having been in an extreme situation – about to jump into Lake Michigan and drown after the death of first daughter on her 5th birthday, and losing control of a business he was involved in, from the age of 32 Bucky dedicated the rest of his life to an experiment. calling himself Guinea Pig B, to find out what one penniless individual could achieve by being committed to making sense rather than money. After a two year period when he did not speak at all, he was to live another 56 years and pen 28 books, circumnavigate the globe many times to speak to hundreds of thousands of people, patented 24 inventions, touching many lives and inspiring a generation of students along the way, and rarely stopped talking! Bucky’s personal philosophy was summed up as follows: To make the world work for everyone, in the shortest possible time, without ecological offence or harming anyone

He patented many ideas in service of this powerful idea – most famously the geodesic dome, of which millions have been constructed and which provided the inspiration for the Epcot dome in Florida, and the US base on the South Pole. The significance of this method of construction is that a modern lightweight dome encloses the greatest volume with the smallest amount of resource, an embodiment of Fuller’s principle of doing more with less. The other key feature of geodesic domes is that they are fully triangulated structures, taking advantage of Fuller’s recognition of the importance of triangles and tetrahedra. Domes are becoming almost ubiquitious – the Eden Centre in Cornwall is based on a series of interconnected domes, the Millennium Dome of course, with it’s tension skin construction, and the Centerparcs resorts being current manifestations of the concept.

“I didn’t set out to design a house that hung from a pole, or to manufacture a new type of automobile, invent a new system of map projection, develop geodesic domes, or Energetic-Synergetic geometry. I started with the Universe — as an organization of energy systems of which all our experiences and possible experiences are only local instances the principles operating in Universe, I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers” (quoted in Ency. Britt.)

Fuller’s magnum opus “Synergetics” published in 1975 & Vol II published 1979 represented Fuller’s conviction and embodied his proof that a mathematics based on triangles and 60 degree angles would be more logical and less difficult (no irrational numbers) to understand than one based on the Cartesian grid. His understanding was that nature uses triangles and five fold icosahedral symmentry to build structure, a fact borne out subsequently by electron microscopy of protein shells of viruses, and the more recent determination of the molecular structure of carbon 60, which turned out to be a truncated dodecahedron and for which discovery Harry Kroto and others received the Nobel Chemistry prize a few years back. Interestingly, Kroto had taken his son to the Expo 67 Montreal dome that Fuller designed. He (Fuller) called it his “Taj Mahal” in dedicating it to his love of his wife Anne, to whom he was married nearly 66 years and who died 48 hours after him on July 3rd 1983.

From a perspective that grew out of his life experience, born as he was, in 1895, before the advent of the modern industrial age: before electricity, the internal combustion engine, x-rays and manned, powered flight began, and living as he did until 1983, seeing the nuclear age and the beginnings of the computer age (all his complex calculations for the geometry of the dome was done without even a calculator), Fuller became a historian, observer and analyst of the process of industrialisation. During the 2nd World War he worked for the Dept. of Economic Warfare in the US and had access to statistics which allowed him to prove to his own satisfaction that a time was fast approaching where is was absolutely possible to take care of everyone on the planet; in other words for the first time in history there would be enough to go around, removing the main reason for conflict in the world – squabbling over limited resources. It was this idea – that there is no scarcity, which first attracted me to his ideas. Fuller felt that the Malthusian predictions of geometrical population growth outstripping only arithmetical improvement in food production had been overpowered by the development of technology which allowed us to produce more of everything with less resources per unit of production, and he determined that humanity had reached that place: moving from scarcity towards sufficiency and abundance in 1967.

For those interested in learning more I recommend his book “Critical Path” as a good place to start reading Fuller’s ideas. It’s also one of the few books still in print currently. He develops a momentum in this book that carries even a reluctant reader through the more challenging aspects of Fuller’s work; the long words, long sentences and made-up words (neologisms). The Fuller Institute now in Santa Barbara has a big site: with loads of links and an on-line version of Synergetics. Fuller is owed a vast and largely unacknowledged debt by many of the leading architects in the world today, notably Richard Rogers and Norman Foster who worked with him towards the end of his life. Perhaps it is too soon to look back and see the impact Fuller has had on our world today. Only the future can tell.

“I know that I am not a category, a hybrid specialization

I am not a thing – a noun.

I seem to be a verb –

An evolutionary process –

An integral function of the universe,

And so are you.

Written by Roger Golten 1998

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