Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bucky Fuller: from grain bin house to dome house

I’m going by memory, but I once read or heard architect Philip Johnson, who while traveling through farm country, referred to the ubiquitous metal grain bins as “Bucky Fullers.”

Metal grain bins near Morris, Illinois.
Photograph copyright © 2009 David M. Versluis.

Dymaxion Deployment Unit (18-foot diameter), 1941. Diazotype, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

This technical drawing illustrates Fuller’s concept to convert, Butler manufactured, grain bins into low-cost housing units/shelters called DDUs (Dymaxion Deployment Units). During World War II, the U.S. Military would transport, sometimes utilizing helicopters, these “units” for troops in isolated locations. Dymaxion is a neologism constructed from the words dynamic, maximum, and ion, which became a trademark for several Fuller projects. Perhaps the DDU was the precursor to the geodesic dome?

Recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago held the R. Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller (1895–1983) traveling retrospective exhibition, Starting with the Universe. The exhibition brochure states that Fuller was: “…one of the 20th century’s first truly interdisciplinary thinkers, explored a wide range of fields—including architecture, engineering, environmental science, mathematics, navigation, philosophy, and visual art—in his attempt to discover what one person could do to best serve the needs of humanity.” In addition, to disseminate his ideas, Fuller wrote more than twenty books.

Tetrahedra, Sphere and Geodesic Dome

In general, Fuller wanted people to find expression and realization in the space they inhabited and felt this was possible in the geodesic dome. Geodesic comes from the Greek—geo (earth) and daiesthai (to divide). The dome could be thought of as a reduction of architectural form to an engineering solution resulting in a universal structure that allows nature to coexist within it. The dome is also a perfect icon of faith in the machine, which Fuller believed could change the world. The possibilities of the dome or, rather, sphere are compelling because it has no limit to the freedom of uninterrupted interior space. Additionally, the essence of the sphere is utter simplicity and geometric perfection yet expresses infinite variety (the play of light, pattern, etc., but also the contradiction of lightness/strength in contrast to heaviness/weakness).

This is a short film clip about Buckminster Fuller’s dome home. In the clip Bucky is singing part of his ‘Rome Home to a Dome’ song.

Back in 1975 my brother, Steve, brought home a copy of the Last Whole Earth Catalog. What was most interesting, in that issue, was the detailed and illustrated article about the sustainable geodesic domes—I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to live in a dome. In fact, my excitement escalated because, at the same time, somebody about a mile from where I grew up had built a dome from a kit—just as Bucky Fuller did in Carbondale, Illinois in the 1960s.

Photograph of the dome house, near our old place, as it looks today. Copyright © 2009 David M. Versluis.

Wikipedia states the following about the Whole Earth Catalog: “Early editions reflected the considerable influence of Fuller, particularly his teachings about whole systems, synergetics, and efficiency or reducing waste.

Ironically, now with emphasis in architecture and ecology as pertaining to LEED certification Fuller’s ideas seem very current and relevant. However, I wonder about Fuller’s understanding of aesthetics within the context of scientific naturalism. This causes me to try and think past the old nature–freedom issues.

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