LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Buckminster Fuller was a futurist, architectural designer, writer, and inventor. He famously said that pollution is a resource that we have not learned to use yet. With his father-in-law, James Monroe Hewlett, he worked in a company that created bricks out of wood shavings, and later he was also involved in Stockade Building Systems which created affordable housing. Could you tell us more about his work?
ALEC NEVALA- LEE: Stockade Building Systems is founded in 1923, and it is really fully his father-in-law’s company. It was a huge company and he brought Fuller to work on engineering. Initially, for this idea of a fibrous block, as you say, that is made from wood shavings and plaster. The materials are mixed and placed into a mould and the result is this block that is lightweight and has a hole in the centre. And it’s a system where one can stack these up so that there is a continuous vertical column created in the wall. And finally, concrete is poured down that column. Once the concrete dries, the exterior of the wall is stuccoed or covered with plaster, and the result is a wall that is comparable to walls made of conventional building materials, like masonry or brick. And this is fully Hewlett’s idea – he develops it independently first. He brings on Fuller to work on the manufacturing process and then, later on, he becomes more involved with the business side.
Initially, they were working in New England, and they had a plant in New Jersey with satellite offices in places such as Massachusetts, and Baltimore. But the big one for Fuller was Chicago, because it is obviously a huge centre for architecture and construction. And Fuller ends up going there to run the Stockade’s Midwest Office.
LŠ: When and how did he leave the Stockade Building Systems?
ANL: So, he’s essentially fired from Stockade Building Systems in 1927. The company was taken over by new management led by Farley Hopkins, a Chicago investor who had acquired a controlling share in the firm, and Fuller was seen as unreliable. And he did not have any prospects at that point.
LŠ: Also, a period when he was struggling with depression and drinking?
ANL: He’s been drinking this entire period and he was more depressed at that point, and this leads up to the famous story that he went to the shore of Lake Michigan in the autumn of 1927, and contemplated suicide. But instead, he decided to reconsider his life for the benefit of all mankind. And this is sort of the mythologized version, but he did indeed start at least conceptualising a new kind of house at that point. A house that can be built in a factory essentially mass-produced and then delivered anywhere in the country.
LŠ: A pre-runner of the modern montage houses.
ANL: Absolutely! And he was talking about this in 1928, so he was definitely ahead of his time!
LŠ: Are there other types of “waste” he was interested in through his work experiences?
ANL: That is a good question – he was interested in copper recycling. He worked for a copper company Phelps Dodge, in the mid-30s. He was there brainstorming different projects and he became really interested in the question of recycling. The idea was that the company does not need to purchase new copper on the market anymore because they can just recycle the copper that they are already using in their existing wires and infrastructure. Fuller did calculations about copper recycling, and he saw that there are these cycles in terms of the price of copper, and copper scrap.
LŠ: So, his research came from fieldwork! Buckminster Fuller was friends with many artists such as Isamu Noguchi with whom he worked on the design of Dymaxion car based on the work of Aurel Persu, Romanian car designer. Could we revisit other projects they worked on together and how did they meet?
ANL: I don’t know, to what extent Isamu Noguchi was involved with the actual design. Fuller may have simply asked him to make these models because Noguchi was the best sculptor that he knew. As far as I know, the only thing they really formally worked on together is a sculpture called the Chassis Fountain, built in 1939 for the World’s Fair in New York. They designed it together and it’s inspired by the forms of automotive engineering. The sculpture was made of this material called magnesite, Fuller knew of as he’d sold it as a flooring salesman in the late 20s. And he introduced the material to Noguchi and the artist used it also for other sculptures. There was certainly a lot of mutual interest and respect between these two men.
LŠ: And how did the whole Dymaxion car project start?
ANL: So, the Dymaxion car came out of Fuller’s interest in housing. Some people believe that Fuller was influenced by already existing cars, and one of them is by Aurel Persu which you mentioned. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that Fuller was influenced by Le Corbusier’s book Towards New Architecture, because I know he read that book. And the book has a diagram of different designs, and one is of sort of ovoid shape that he says would be the most efficient shape for a car.
LŠ: And then he approached Noguchi to create plaster models.
ANL: Yes, and this is even before he had a deal to make the car. Noguchi made these models for a photo spread in Shelter which Fuller was editing at that time. They were attractive sculptures, and I think that helped Fuller get attention for the car. And that may have been a factor in him eventually being able to raise money to build the car for real. The models were displayed in New York.
LŠ: What other friendships with artists influenced his work?
ANL: Fuller crossed paths with a lot of artists throughout his career. He met Brâncuși through Noguchi as the latter was Constantin Brâncuși’s protege. Fuller also knew Alexander Calder and there are obvious similarities between some of Calder’s sculptures and ideas and some of the stuff that Fuller was doing around this time.
LŠ: You were friends with Buckminster Fuller for years – how and when did you meet the architect? When did you decide to invite Bucky to Scotland and could you recollect his encounter with Joseph Beuys?
RICHARD DEMARCO: I invited Bucky to Scotland because I realised that he had to meet Joseph Beuys. This occurred during 1974 Edinburgh Festival and both were deeply interested in the interface between art and science. Buckminster Fuller was essentially part of the History of Science of the 20th century, and so was Joseph Beuys -they played very vital roles! For example, Joseph Beuys was the co – founder of German Green Party and Buckminster Fuller had played an important part in developing concepts of how science and technology had to be taken seriously by artists. He was also an active educator working at the American – version of Bauhaus, Black Mountain College.
Through my work for Edinburgh Festival and Demarco gallery, I saw it vital to introduce artists to working with nature. I was inspired by the work of Black Mountain College and saw it was absolutely necessary to find a way of helping the Edinburgh Festival to become something serious – in terms of the interface between art and science. As Joseph Beuys declared in the 70s we were facing a problem of global warming and I knew that I had to be able to help him define ways for artists to work with the world of science and politics, if you like, to find ways for the planet to be happy with the presence of human beings.
The art market back then as it is now even more, was controlled by galleries and to lesser extent by museums. I created my gallery to challenge that system and to have a learning platform – where artists were educators. I invited both Bucky and Beuys to participate in my programme. Not just to meet but to actively work together. We transformed Edinburgh Festival from being an entertainment to a place that asks serious questions – and all I needed were two geniuses! It was not solely focused on (fine) art but also on architecture, theatre, performance and literature.
Bucky and Beuys opened a debate on non – renewable energy such as oil. We took the
opportunity to draw art away from being an entertainment factor though exhibitions that occurred without any relationship to major problems of humanity. And the timing could not be more perfect as in the beginning of 70s, Scotland was about to change its image. With massive platforms being built in North Sea for extracting oil from seabed. The conference started with Bucky’s explanation why it was a disaster for the human race to devote itself to the development of oil as a means of reducing energy. You cannot be against nature, you have to work with nature! Not that the art world was very well known for caring about such problems in the 70s. Art was a commodity but Bucky did not want to define art through a price tag. He believed it was a gift and a gift cannot have a price tag on it.
Fuller’s three-hour lecture was followed by Beuys’ – a performance on the highest level!
Beuys argued that art cannot and should not be separated from science.
LŠ: You mentioned that Bucky also had as did Beuys – opinions on the state of the then art world. Could we discuss it further?
RD: Well, they both agreed on the fact that the artist is not simply someone who provides entertainment! Artists are at the forefront of questioning how we relate as human beings to the natural world. I always hated the art world because if you are not careful you end up in an art world which simply sells art instead of selling shirts, or motorcars. They both agreed with me. Beuys used to say my art is my teaching and Bucky always considered himself a teacher as well. They believed in working with people outside their fields to achieve changes.
Fuller introduced me to his friend Isamu Noguchi and I interviewed him in his studio in the USA. And he told me he was very interested in Scotland, because one of his forebears was Scottish and I couldn’t believe it! I felt sorry for him because he was already becoming famous as a sculptor but he was a serious person and not interested in the art world at all.
LŠ: The inventor taught at famed Black Mountain College, where he also started working on geodesic dome with fellow artists such as Kenneth Snelson. Could we discuss the formation of the project, realisation and also the fact that the first geodesic dome was not created by Fuller but by German engineer Walther Bauersfeld.
ANL: I don’t think Fuller was directly exposed to Bauersfeld’s work until after he arrived at the basic idea for a dome. In 1947, Fuller is essentially out of money and he has no resources because he’s just tried to build this house in Wichita, Kansas, but has failed. And the dome, to me is sort of his attempt to build a structure like an enclosure, that you can put together for almost nothing. For the realisation he did not need a factory operation which he had in Kansas.
The initial version of the dome he built out of Venetian blinds, very simple materials that one can buy at a hardware store. And that was important the DIY approach because he could not create a prototype of a big house at the stage. He gets the idea from his experiments with geometry and he spent a lot of time at home assembling these structures out of sticks and strings. The original idea for the dome was that it is of curved and flexible structure out of metal strips that can be bent. But the issue with that is that you can’t really scale it up, because the materials are just too weak.
In the summer of 1948 at the Black Mountain College he tried to build a 50-foot version, and it doesn’t even stand up. And this is important because it is the only dome that Fuller actually tried to calculate and build himself- but it totally flops! He did not quite understand the materials. And later he claimed he was meant to fail and also that he was able to fix it. But there’s no evidence this is true. I think he tried but failed and it was kind of embarrassing.
In the fall of the same year, he taught a design class at the Institute of Design in Chicago and he brings the dome as one of his projects. And it’s his students who come up with the first workable full-size dome. They changed his design and used struts, these metal straps that are threaded through cable. His students such as Jeffrey Lindsay, and Don Richter, were implementing practical engineering. Fuller took the dome back to Black Mountain and there are photos of it at the College with wrong assumptions that the dome was erected there. But it was students from Chicago from the Institute of Design, who went to North Carolina with the dome, and they installed it there.
Fuller’s initial dome design was very complex- with many different shapes and it’s not practical. Because with a dome, you want to minimise the number of different strip lengths you have. And the reason why that’s important is that the Bauersfeld’s dome, designed in Germany in the 20s used this icosahedral structure but Fuller doesn’t even arrive at that design until much later. He was aware of Bauersfeld’s design much later through a photograph.
LŠ: Perhaps we could revisit Fuller’s work with Geodesics, Inc. and Synergetics, Inc. through the geodesic dome?
ANL: These are the two companies that he founded and at that point, he already has connections with the US Marines to build these enclosures that could be used as military bases. And he’s also working with the Department of Defence on Ray domes, which are these enclosures for radar antennas in the Arctic Circle.
I think a lot of domes were built and put into storage – they were not used in any kind of meaningful way by the military. But he had his contracts and that’s probably the only time that dome earns money for Fuller in any meaningful way and he gets very famous.
The other company Synergetics, Inc. he found in 1955 and that’s for civilian clients with projects such as pavilions for trade shows.
LŠ: Architect Shoji Sadao met Fuller as a student of architecture at Cornell and together they worked on many projects. Selected mutual work is the futuristic Tetrahedron City, for Japanese banker Matsutaro Shoriki. Could we discuss the project further and the idea it was supposed to float on the water?
ANL: The project was initiated by Matsutaro Shoriki, who was Fuller’s friend and patron since the early 60s. Originally Shoriki wants to build a ballpark and Fuller comes up with this idea called the ascension dome, which is not practical. But they stay in touch and Fuller works on a couple of other projects for Shoriki.
Shoriki’s theme park was in 1966 threatened by a housing development expansion in Tokyo, so he wanted to create and build something big to gather attention for the park. And idea was to build a huge tower that would be higher than Mount Fuji and obviously at that point nothing has been built on such a scale.
Shoriki brings on Fuller to work on that project and he passes it to Sadao. It is unclear if the project could be realised or if it was just publicity for the park. Because the tower was supposed to be in the shape of a pyramid floating on the sea. A vertical city in small that could house a million people and that is where the Tetrahedron City comes from.
Fuller’s idea was that the housing would be on the outside of the pyramid and utilities on the inside and the structure would float in Tokyo Bay. Sadao prepared the drawings but again I am unsure if it was really practical. It looks like a monstrosity that would cost so much money – thus the publicity story seems more realistic.
Sadao and Fuller, later on, sit down and work on a scaled-down version of Tetrahedron City called Triton City, commissioned by the US government as a study and that was more practical. But we are talking of mega structures that have huge engineering challenges involved and they never resolved issues such as hurricane safety. And also, a huge pyramid version, practically speaking, as a housing project well it would not have been a pleasant place to live for its residents.
LŠ: Who were some of his other patrons apart from Matsutaro Shoriki?
ANL: Well, Fuller was always looking for patrons. And I use that word on purpose as opposed to clients because Fuller kind of lacks the ability to work within a corporation because he’s too impatient. He’s not good at the practical side of getting these projects done but he’s very charismatic. And he likes to connect with people one on one. So, his real goal for years and years was to find someone who’s either a wealthy capitalist or the head of state -so that he doesn’t have to go through all this bureaucracy but just go straight to the top. And he tries to work with people like Indira Gandhi and he sees her as someone who would be interested in such projects.
He does many talks and conferences all over the globe but he never gets the patronage that he wants. And I think it’s because a lot of the ideas that he had just were not very practical. He never quite gets the money he wants and I think toward the end of his life, he did become fairly I won’t say bitter but disillusioned at the fact that after all this time he’d never been able to kind of get that one patron he wanted.
LŠ: Fuller was very interested in how to improve living conditions as he found that many housing projects were overpriced with inadequate living conditions. A similar problem we are encountering today. How do you see the legacy of Fuller today?
ANL: Certainly, Fuller was talking about affordable housing but what I think it’s interesting, is that he’s talking about decentralization. Very early on he’s talking about things like remote working and remote education. And a big part of what he’s trying to do with these affordable houses is to make them self-sufficient. So that inhabitants do not need to be constrained by existing geography. The idea was that one can put these houses anywhere as long as they have their own utilities. He foresaw computers and telecommunication.