Review: “Inventor of the Future”, by Alec Nevala-Lee
The author clearly admires his subject matter, which makes some aspects of his unbiased narrative all the more troubling: Fuller’s strained relationship with his wife, Anne; serial liaisons, often with very young women; excessive alcohol consumption; the monumental ego that has often acted against its own interests; a protective instinct vis-à-vis his ideas that borders on paranoia; and still that carefully crafted “reality distortion field.” For someone like this reader, who met and was influenced by Fuller, reading these revelations is a humbling experience. In his public appearances, Fuller could come across as a disinterested seer, almost a lay saint; in Nevala-Lee’s biography, he is all too human.
Who was Richard Buckminster Fuller Jr? He was born in 1895 in Milton, Mass., an affluent Boston suburb, to an established New England family, the great-nephew of feminist writer and editor Margaret Fuller. Like his predecessors, the young Fuller attended Harvard. Like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, he gave up, although he didn’t leave voluntarily – he was expelled, twice. Like Steve Jobs, another college dropout, Fuller became an entrepreneur, but he was no prodigy. Jobs lived only 56 years; At 53, all Fuller had to show for his efforts was a series of business failures: a building system whose backers helped him out of business, a prototype three-wheeled car that s tipped over and could have seriously injured his wife and daughter, and a prefabricated house that looked like a flying saucer and did not go beyond the prototype stage.
Despite these significant setbacks, Fuller never wavered. 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 was not an architect, and he kept pretending he was,” complains Philip Johnson, who was immune to Fuller’s charisma. Yet it was precisely among architects that Fuller acquired an active clientele. He taught in architecture schools, his work was published in architecture journals and he was close to Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was Wright who slyly put Fuller in his place: “I am an architect interested in science. Buckminster is a scientist with an interest in architecture.
And then came the dome. By the late 1940s, Fuller had learned his lesson and he was avoiding investors and backers. He built his first experimental geodesic domes inexpensively with students, first at Black Mountain College, a progressive school in North Carolina. They were extremely strong for their size and maximized internal volume with the least amount of material. The first practical geodetic application was as a revetment for the center yard of the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, Michigan. The lightweight truss structure weighed one-twentieth the weight of a conventional steel roof, which the building was not strong enough to support. Other domes included radar enclosures (radomes) in the Arctic; an American exhibition pavilion in Moscow (site of the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate”); an auditorium in Hawaii for industrialist Henry J. Kaiser; temporary shelters for the Marine Corps; and a 384-foot-wide dome for the Union Tank Car Company in Louisiana, the largest structure ever built without internal supports.