Review by Rebecca Lossin While living in an underwater dome is not something most Americans dream of past the age of five, “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe,” on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is much more than a nostalgic contemplation of unrealized utopia. Placing a dome over mid-town Manhattan to in order to lower heating costs and avoid inclement weather is far-fetched at best, but for a nation in the midst of a housing crisis, on a planet facing devastating food, water and fuel shortages, this collection of apparently whimsical sketches and 50 year old cyanotypes of un-built homes is the very definition of relevant.
Both inspiring and depressing, Fuller’s designs for self-sufficient, low energy, spatially maximal housing is the way that pre-fabricated housing and post-war urban development could have gone and, arguably, the way that future development should go. Even if there are reasons not to pull the blueprints off the museum walls and commence construction, Fuller’s work reminds us that actual, practical solutions require a visionary imagination- that thinking outside of the box will get us nowhere if it remains a figure of speech.
The Dymaxion house (a neologism combining the words dynamic, maximum and tension) was a round aluminum structure that was light enough to be shipped anywhere in its own metal tube. Its shape minimized heat loss, it produced its own power and it was strong enough to withstand earthquakes and tornadoes. It was also cheap. Later, realizing that single family homes, no matter how efficient, were the biggest contribution to suburban sprawl and its attendant environmental destruction, Fuller shifted his attention to large-scale communal structures. Inspired by a wider social movement towards small, self-sufficient communities during the 1960s, they were designed to house 40,000 inhabitants and would not only produce their own energy but their own food as well. It is impossible to tell where the climate would be if such efficient living arrangements were instituted on a large scale, but I can’t imagine we would feel good about ourselves if that question could be answered. Or would we?
Fuller was also head of mechanical engineering for the Board of Economic Warfare during World War II and his architectural vision of efficiency was of a particularly, if not typically, military nature. Based on the very practical notion that extant technology be re-purposed rather than new technology invented, he sought to turn “weaponry into livingry,” thus taking advantage of the well funded, technically advanced work of the U.S. military for civilian use. Its a very nice idea and not by any means unique to Fuller: if we used all of the resources devoted to wars to raise the standard of living, the world would be a better place. What is unique to Fuller’s version of this simple idealism is its literalness. He did not want to make the military hold a bake sale to buy a bomber and transfer its budget to the department of education, he wanted to build bombers and make cookies in their cockpits.
A bunker-like, cold war aesthetic runs through the designs on display, but it is a series of diminutive drawings entitled “Zeppelins Dropping Bombs and Delivering 4-D Towers” (c. 1928) that brings the logic of a militarily accomplished utopia into striking focus . For the most part, the show presents military technology as innocuous raw material with an equal potential for construction and destruction, but these early drawings remind us that this “livingry” is actually coming from weaponry and the quiet violence of these images should make us think twice.
The first image of a fleet of Zeppelins hovering over cratered ground is jarring and distinctly dystopic for its retrospective association with the rise of Fascism. It takes a moment to realize that these are meant as efficiently dug foundations for the houses being delivered in the second image, and in this moment one has to ask whether this transformation from weaponry to "livingry" is actually possible. Can technology be removed from its original purpose? Can the ideology behind the design be discarded so easily?
There is an obvious lesson to be learned from this exhibit: our habitats need to be rethought before our population becomes largely itinerant and the ocean starts to boil over. And to an extent Fuller’s advice is being heeded, albeit too little too late, through the institution of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, hybrid engines and alternative fuels. It remains, however, that Fuller’s designs were never realized. No one ever lived in a Dymaxion home as more than an experiment. This is problematic and while we should renew our efforts of environmentally minded reform, we should also be asking whether re-designing the car or the single family home is going to get us much further than using zeppelins to dig foundations. The failure of Fuller’s models should serve as the real moral: it is not the products of the system that need to be changed but the system itself. For it was a capitalist, militarily minded society that prevented the construction of inexpensive eco-friendly housing the first time around and it is the same profit driven system that will stop it in its tracks now. What would the banks do if people could buy a $40, 000 house?
Environmentalism, as it stands, is largely an extension of consumerism and again, very much tied to the military. A large part of the rhetoric of the green revolution revolves around oil, a substance for which we have been mired in war for over five years. In order to save the earth we are buying expensive hybrid cars, overpriced organic produce and ultimately pouring capital into the system that caused the destruction in the first place. If weaponry couldn’t be turned into livingry, as the failure of Fuller’s vision has shown, then it is doubtful that Ford Motor Company is the answer to air pollution. While it is immediately necessary and practical to revise what we have, the green revolution will have to be exactly that- a revolution; a radical re-thinking of the mechanisms of productions. It is unfortunately far more complicated than turning a car into a more efficient car.
It is perhaps odd to take inspiration from failure, but the practical failure of Fuller's work is exactly where we should be looking. It did not fail because it did not work. It did not fail because it was impractical. It failed because it flew in the face of a system dependent on profligate spending and attempted to use that system against itself. It failed because it was too practical- too possible. Capitalism is a terribly efficient machine and if we are to take anything away from this show it is that change is not possible within it, no matter how innovative or realistic. If Fuller's ideas are to be realized it will not be a matter of transforming weaponry to "livingry" but the wholesale destruction of a military-industrial complex that will never allow its inventions to be used for constructive purposes.