Friday, January 19, 2007

Bucky Fuller: revolutionary by Nature

The recently published Worldchanging: A User's Guide For The 21st Century (edited by Alex Steffen with a Forward by Al Gore) refers to Buckminster Fuller as "the patron saint of worldchanging innovation. One of the greatest designers of the twentieth century, Fuller had the insight, prophetic genius and deep ethical commitment to building a just and sustainable planetary society that inspired three generations to push the boundaries of the possible in pursuit of a world worth living in."

I was one of those so inspired. I had the pleasure of meeting Bucky on a couple of occasions -- the most memorable being during his visit to the New Alchemy Institute in 1982, the year before he died. He came for the official dedication of the "Pillow Dome" a geodesic dome greenhouse that was designed and constructed under the careful guidance of Jay Baldwin, author of the following tribute to Bucky.

Bucky discovered the 12 Degrees of Freedom that are inherent in the 60-degree-oriented geometry of "Nature's Coordinate System" and that make possible humanity's design options for "doing more with less". (GW)

The Legacy of Guinea Pig B:
Buckminster Fuller left a forty-five ton archive, but his most valuable artifacts are weightless

Part 1

By Jay Baldwin
Fall & Winter 2003-2004
Volume 22, Number 2
The Associates of Stanford University Library

That forty-five-ton archive probably makes Buckminster Fuller the twentieth century's most thoroughly documented man - just as he intended. It began as a scrapbook record of his activities and thoughts, plus a collection of articles and events that interested him when he was twelve years old. The scrapbooks grew at an increasing rate, keeping up with the accelerating pace of invention and technology and the rapidly widening horizon of young Bucky's interests.

In 1917 he named the burgeoning, increasingly eclectic collection "Chronofile." He added to it assiduously for the rest of his life. At the time of his death in 1983, it held more than a quarter-million files.

Much of the remaining archival weight consists of Bucky's personal library, thousands of feet of film and tens of thousands of photographs (alas, many unlabeled) recording his projects, workshops, and the work of his students and proteges. An extensive collection of models and writings, including several unfinished books, make up the rest. That portion will be of interest to future biographers and historians seeking to tell his tale and identify what influenced and inspired him. But the Chronofile served a more dynamic purpose: Bucky intended it to be used as a tool.

Early twentieth century media, over powered by the period's avalanche of exciting innovations, criticized and extolled each invention in isolation. In contrast, Bucky integrated the information in the Chronofile, seeking trends in science,technology, and society. He graphed the rate of growth and progress of each new discovery and invention (including his own). By extending the graphs, he felt he could make logical predictions, which he sometimes called "inevitabilities."

Identifying trends in this way may have saved his life. In 1927, when personal problems and business failure led Bucky to contemplate a fatal swim in Lake Michigan, it occurred to him that the Chronofile showed him to be most successful when working for the good of the maximum number of people rather than for personal gain or the comfort of his family. Instead of choosing suicide, he decided to live the rest of his life as a scientific experiment with himself as the guinea pig - "Guinea Pig B" (for Bucky). The Chronofile would become an instructive, inspiring record showing (in Bucky's own words):

. . . what - if anything - a healthy young male human of average size, experience, and capability with an economically dependent wife and newborn child, starting without capital or any kind of wealth, cash savings, account monies, credit, or university degree, could effectively do that could not be done by great nations or great private enterprise to lastingly improve the physical protection and support of all human lives, at the same time removing undesirable restraints and improving individual initiatives of any and all humans aboard our planet Earth.

He emphasized that Guinea Pig B was not acting as an altruistic do-gooder; to him the Chronofile irrefutably demonstrated that working for all humankind leads to the most important discoveries and the most reliable support. He insisted that Universe is set up to supply its citizens with their basic needs. Animals are taken care of as long as they perform their various functions; humans need not "work for a living," as long as they work to make humans a success on Earth. This self-imposed mandate allowed Bucky to attend to problems not being addressed by those workers primarily interested in making money. Without a promise of early profit, few corporations, investors, or universities would undertake investigation of unfamiliar territory (still true). Without assurance of financial security, few workers could be induced to join a risky exploratory effort.

Confident of support, Bucky declared, "You can make money or you can make sense," and moved resolutely forward into the unknown, recruiting students (myself among them) who paid his expenses in the form of tuition in order to join him as fellow explorers and workers.This uncomfortably idealistic strategy advanced many of Bucky's ideas to proof-of-concept. Nobody got rich, but nobody starved. Some brilliant new concepts were researched and demonstrated as artifacts.

The Chronofile's very chronology indicated that there seemed to be a natural gestation rate for each discovery. Bucky noted that high-velocity phenomena changed most quickly: radio (new then) and other electromagnetics changed the fastest. Aircraft design advanced strongly about every five years; automobiles, to this day deliberately designed notto be state-of-the-art, advanced every decade or so.

Essentially unmovable home architecture, still stuck in centuries-old styles and technology, was slowest of all. Millions of humans endured substandard, unhealthful living conditions. Bucky was not fooled by the sometimes charming appearance of otherwise inefficient, high-maintenance traditional homes. He decided to start his new lifework by solving the problems of shelter worldwide. In 1927, Bucky began to work on energy- and resource-efficient designs.

The Chronofile told him to expect a fifty-year delay before his ideas would be accepted and put to general use; it has turned out to take more time than he predicted. He also recognized that housing was just one part of a vast system of materials, tools, and skills. House-making was (and still is) a disorganized craft as compared to, say, Henry Ford's vast River Rouge factory complex and its disciplined global network of suppliers.

As Bucky worked on what was to become his first "Dymaxion" house, he recognized that to be optimally effective, design needed to be comprehensive and considered in terms of whole systems rather than as objects in isolation. It also had to be anticipatory of future needs and the appropriate timing of the application as indicated by logically continuing the graphs drawn from information in the Chronofile. Finally, design had to be scientific, informed by the latest scientific discoveries rather than past fads and superstitions. Bucky's Dymaxion designs demonstrated the advances that could be expected from a "Comprehensive, Anticipatory Design Science Revolution."

Revolution always encourages radical proposals and vigorous reactionary response to them. His comprehensive approach needed to deflect opposition from architects, builders, trade unions, code enforcers, and mortgage lenders who might attempt to kill his concepts in their infancy. Moreover, the strong, permanent, yet recyclable materials he needed were not yet available.Most importantly, he needed to get the public used to the idea of mass-produced housing.

By developing his designs in the form of futuristic models, he garnered much favorable public attention without irritating the complacent old guard. He also attracted younger people who would become his allies and proselytizers. Eventually, they would bring his concepts to widespread use. They are us, and we're behind schedule.


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