Review: Inventors of the Future by Alec Nevala-Lee

The author clearly admires his subject, which makes some aspects of his dispassionate narrative all the more disturbing: Fuller’s strained relationship with his wife Anne; the serial affairs, often with very young women; excessive drinking; the monumental ego, often acting against its own better interests; a protective instinct towards his ideas that bordered on paranoia; and always this carefully crafted “reality warping field”. For someone like this reader, who met and was influenced by Fuller, reading these revelations is a sobering experience. In his public appearances, Fuller could appear like a selfless seer, almost like a worldly saint; in Nevala-Lee’s biography he is all too human.

Who Was Richard Buckminster Fuller Jr? Born in 1895 in Milton, Mass., an affluent Boston suburb, to an established New England family, he was the grand-nephew of feminist writer and editor Margaret Fuller. Like his ancestors, the young Fuller attended Harvard. Like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, he dropped out, although he didn’t go voluntarily — he was disfellowshipped twice. Like Steve Jobs, another college dropout, Fuller became an entrepreneur, but he wasn’t a child prodigy. Jobs lived only 56 years; At 53, Fuller had only a string of business failures to back his endeavors: a building system whose financiers fired him from the company, a three-wheeled prototype car that overturned and could have seriously injured his wife and daughter, and a prefab that of a flying one saucer and did not progress beyond the prototype stage.

Despite these not inconsiderable setbacks, Fuller never faltered. His unconventional imagination and energetic optimism attracted admirers and supporters. Bohemian at heart, he befriended composer John Cage and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and was close to Margaret Mead and Marshall McLuhan. “Bucky Fuller wasn’t an architect and he always pretended to be one,” complained Philip Johnson, immune to Fuller’s charisma. But it was precisely among architects that Fuller gained a lively following. He taught in architecture schools, his work was published in architectural magazines and he was close to Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was Wright who cunningly put Fuller in his place: “I’m an architect interested in science. Buckminster is a scientist interested in architecture.”

And then came the dome. By the late 1940s, Fuller had learned his lesson and was shunning investors and financiers. He built his first experimental geodesic domes inexpensively with students, initially at Black Mountain College, a progressive school in North Carolina. They were extremely strong for their size, maximizing internal volume with the smallest amount of material. The first practical geodetic application was a cover for the central courtyard of the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, Michigan. The lightweight lattice structure weighs one-twentieth that of a traditional steel roof, which the building was not strong enough to support. Other domes were radar housings (radomes) in the Arctic; an American exhibition pavilion in Moscow (the scene of the famous “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev); an auditorium in Hawaii for industrialist Henry J. Kaiser; shelters for the Marine Corps; and a 384-foot-wide dome for Louisiana’s Union Tank Car Company, the largest structure ever built without internal supports.

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