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Buckminster Fuller: A Visionary for Contemporary Housing

Buckminster Fuller in front of a Fuller dome
R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983), Fly's Eye Dome, 1961, fabricated ca. 1980, Fiberglass-reinforced polyester, 38 × 50 × 50ft. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2015.15

Trigger warning: this post discusses suicidal feelings.

R. Buckminster Fuller, also known as Bucky, was a pioneer in the fields of architecture and design who worked to find innovative solutions for contemporary housing, among other inventions. By the time he passed away in 1983 (shortly after receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan), Fuller had registered 28 patents, written 28 books, traveled around the globe 57 times, and received 47 honorary doctorates. The geodesic dome, arguably his most well-known invention, is estimated to have been produced over 500,000 times around the world. 

a white dome with circular windows all around it sits outside in a sunny Miami shopping district
Buckminster Fuller Fly's Eye Dome in the Miami Design District. Phillip Pessar, Wikimedia Commons.

As a kindergartner, Bucky created a tetrahedral octet truss out of dried peas and toothpicks to the amazement of his teachers. He would later go on to patent the creation in 1961 as the Octet Truss. Fuller went on to attend Milton Academy and later Harvard, from which he was expelled twice. He joined the US Navy in the midst of World War I and captained a family boat to patrol off the coast of Maine.

During his time in the Navy, Fuller married Anne Hewlett, the daughter of a well-known architect. They had a daughter, Alexandria, in 1918, but she died of polio only four years later. This devastated Fuller and sent him into a deep depression. Not only did he blame himself but he also blamed the poor building and living conditions of the time. This would help give him the ambition in the future to improve housing for everyone.

After the war, Fuller entered into what would eventually become a failed business pursuit with his father-in-law, leaving him jobless, broke, and destitute not long after he and his wife had their second daughter, Allegra. Thinking himself a failure, Fuller contemplated suicide. Standing by the banks of Lake Michigan, he decided to dedicate his life to making the world a better place for all and to do this with no regard for making money. 

For the next two years, Fuller went into a state of meditation where he rarely spoke to people and only slept 2-3 hours every night. He concluded that out of all the advances humanity was making, housing was falling far behind. In thinking about his time in the Navy, he decided to do more with less. Less material equaled less money required to build. 

From there, he began building designs and floor plans. He decided the most efficient way to build was up, stacking rooms on top of each other in plans such as the Lightful Tower, which he argued could be erected in a day and transported anywhere in the world via zeppelin. However, some of the lightweight metals and materials needed for this plan would not be invented for another 25 years. 

R. Buckminster Fuller stands in front of a depiction of his domed city design at its first public showing at a community meeting in East St. Louis, Illinois.
R. Buckminster Fuller stands in front of a depiction of his domed city design at its first public showing at a community meeting in East St. Louis, Illinois. Steve Yelvington, Wikimedia Commons.

Fuller then explored the concept of a 4D house, a hexagonal shape with six rooms divided into triangles. This concept, which would later come to be known as a Dymaxion house, garnered attention from various thinkers and businesses, and Fuller was asked to give several lectures. 

In 1929, Fuller and his family moved to New York where he met architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Hood as well as artist Isamu Noguchi. They became lifelong friends. Fuller would often sleep on Noguchi’s floor. In 1932 Noguchi created a chrome-plated, bronze sculpture of Bucky that became one of Noguchi’s most well-known works. 

Isamu Noguchi (left) and Buckminster Fuller (right)
Isamu Noguchi (left) and Buckminster Fuller, ca. 1971.

Fuller kept developing prototypes for inventions such as a car that could also float on water AND fly, a mass-produced bathroom system (the influence of which can be seen in trains and planes), a circular prototype of the Dymaxion house, and a world map projection method that allowed a three-dimensional circular shape to be transferred to a flat surface. This research would help lead to the creation of the geodesic dome.

In 1953, Fuller got his first large-scale commercial request to build a dome for the Ford Motor Company, a structure known today as the Ford Rotunda. This garnered mass attention from press, business, and the military, and awarded Fuller a huge number of requests for domes. 

In 1959, Fuller and his wife moved to Carbondale, Illinois, as Fuller received an offer to research at Southern Illinois University. There, they built their first house, a geodesic dome built mostly out of wood, just over 1,200 square feet. It contained one bedroom, two bathrooms, and a balcony library. The house took only seven hours to build and cost about $8,000. 

a white dome with circular windows all around it tucked beneath trees on both sides
R. Buckminster Fuller, Fly’s Eye Dome (detail), 1961, fabricated ca. 1980, fiberglass-reinforced polyester, 38 x 50 x 50 ft. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2015.15. Courtesy, The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller. Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

The Fly’s Eye Dome became an amalgamation of all Fuller’s ideas about sustainable housing. The dome could be made out of lightweight material (although still strong enough to withstand heavy snow loads or earthquakes) and could be air delivered. This one would be constructed of lightweight fiberglass and feature circular openings, or “oculi,” in a pattern similar to the lenses of a fly’s eye.

By 1981, Fuller had developed three prototypes: a 12-foot, a 24-foot, and a 50-foot version. Crystal Bridges acquired the 50-foot structure in 2016 after it was painstakingly restored by architectural historian Robert Rubin. This dome has not been shown in the US since its first appearance at the 1981 Los Angeles Bicentennial. Now installed on Crystal Bridges’ Orchard Trail, Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome is open for public viewing at no cost from dawn until dusk.

Neon polyhedra and glass-fiber art outdoors; Buckyball by Leo Villareal
Leo Villareal (born 1967), Buckyball, 2012, aluminum tubing clad with LED lights atop aluminum plinth, 30ft. x 144 in. x 144 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2014.3

In 1996, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry was given to a group of scientists who discovered a molecule that resembled Fuller’s geodesic spheres. They named it the buckminsterfullerene, or “buckyball,” in homage to Fuller. This legacy and shape can also be found on the Crystal Bridges grounds in Leo Villareal’s Buckyball, which sits just a short walk up Museum Way from the Fly’s Eye Dome.

All along, Bucky’s goal was to make housing affordable and easy for everyone. His dedication to design in order to solve global problems has continued to influence generations of designers, architects, scientists, and artists working to create a more sustainable planet. 

Resource: Gerst, Cole. Buckminster Fuller: Poet of Geometry, Overcup Press; November 2, 2013.