He walked onto the stage and for an uncomfortably long time said nothing. Finally, he uttered something about how he wished those of us in the audience—a crowd of bright, young faces filled with hope and curiosity—could see through his eyes at this moment. Buckminster Fuller was all about the future. On 18 April 1968, at a plenary session of the 21st Annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, he laid out the details of his freshly minted Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, the topic of his keynote address.
Not yet as famous as he would become, Fuller was already known as a 20th-century Jules Verne, an eccentric engineer type with an unusually broad intellect. He seemed to think that conventional wisdom was puerile. His lecture that evening was a lengthy string of quasi-related notions about how the world worked, enlivened by all kinds of unusual references. For example, when we jump up, he said, we are not really jumping up. Since the earth is a sphere, we are actually jumping out. People jumping up in China are headed in the opposite direction from those of us jumping up here, so jumping out would be a more accurate description. He also seemed disturbed that architects didn’t know how much their buildings weighed, as if this were some sort of architectural vital sign that needed to be monitored regularly. At the end of the talk, he knitted up everything he had said in a manner that left me pondering these odd ideas, wondering if they should be better embedded in the way I viewed the world.
Fuller put his principles into practice designing all kinds of clever things he believed were self-evident solutions to obvious problems. His Dymaxion car is but one example, a three-wheeled vehicle that could turn on a dime, aerodynamically sculpted so that with the addition of wings it might be able to fly. It didn’t quite catch on. Same with the geodesic dome. The idea here was to enclose a space under a surface of minimal area. He worked out a geometric network that resulted in a half-sphere using rods that were all the same length. Perhaps he should have gone on to design geodesic furniture, geodesic doors and so on, because the dome didn’t quite accommodate the world of rectilinear shapes and only garnered interest from a few devoted followers. These designs were the product of sophisticated engineering to be sure, but science alone doesn’t automatically yield the ideal solution—these objects all looked kind of funny.
A decade and a half later, in the late ’70s, I heard a much more famous Fuller speak as professor emeritus at the University of Penn-sylvania. His address was part of a lecture series under the auspices of the Graduate School of Fine Arts that featured famous archi-tects on the theme of what inspired their work. The talk followed his usual meandering but attention-riveting pattern, and not once did he mention what inspired his designs. Instead, he spoke about the future, of course. He was excited by the possibility that electronic communication could lead to a true democracy; everyone’s voice could be heard through this exploding medium of instantaneous information exchange. He was telling this crowd of architects that the future was all about something other than the static edifices they were creating. Maybe we didn’t quite hear the message that night because we gave him a standing ovation despite his hint that our profession was about to become less relevant, or at least less interesting.
As it turns out, we still jump up, not out, and most buildings are just fine even though we don’t know exactly how much they weigh. Most of Fuller’s designs are now viewed as curiosities, but one idea he expressed that evening in Philadelphia really did catch on. That night, he invented the Internet. What he failed to predict, though, is that the designers of this virtual network now call themselves architects.