Buckminster Fuller

Whitehot Magazine, 2012. Original article.

Buckminster Fuller: The Utopian Impulse
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 31 March – 29 July 2012

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 12.26.39‘Radical idealism’ is what Buckminster Fuller called it. It was the 1960s, a time when everything people had taken for granted was up in the air and the future was a place with minimalist design, energy efficient housing and maybe even a colony on the moon. ‘The Utopian Impulse’ is not only an insight into Fuller’s ideas for the future, one where technology and sustainability stands at the centre, but also a picture of what the world could be like if was created through elegant design, inspired by nature and boldly executed with a mandate to make things better.

Or maybe it was too much to ask, because by the time the 1980s rolled around, boasting a very different brand of radicalism, people had stopped picturing this fantastical future. So where did the dreams go? At least this is what I am wondering after spending a couple of hours surrounded by the imagination of Buckminster, lovingly displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While Fuller (1895 – 1983) never lived in the Bay Area, he lectured here extensively, making this exhibition a perfect fit for an area with a unique magnetism for idealists, inventors, non-conformists and dreamers of various ilk.

The ‘Inventions’ series consists of 13 drawings patented by Fuller in his mission to create superior solutions. There is the teardrop-shaped car; a design for a rowing boat consisting of two beams and a seat; a base for septic fuel tanks. A photograph shows Fuller next to a dome-shaped building covered in round windows, the most energy-efficient form. Geometrical shapes are repeated everywhere, chosen for practicality and kept for being pleasing to the eye. This is not a coincidence, observed Fuller: “I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

The stand-out piece is the ‘Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map’, where Fuller has taken a globe and laid it out flat, in triangles. Looking at the world with the North Pole as the centre, you suddenly realise all the land masses link together. Fuller was a fan of the triangle, calling it the only shape that is “inherently stable”, as described in the ‘Synergistic Dictionary’. A selection of the 22,000 entries typed up on index cards are displayed, providing a glimpse into how this man saw the world. Take the entry for ‘Spiral’: “A triangle is a spiral, and is one energy event.” It may seem a little kooky, but there is evidence that Fuller was way ahead of his time, especially with his energy-efficient solutions. The teardrop-shaped car from 1933 had unprecedented fuel efficiency; the ‘4D House’ from 1928 is an hexagonal autonomous dwelling designed to be optimally resource efficient, as well as capable of mass production in factories for off-site assembly.

‘The Utopian Impulse’ also includes pieces by artists and designers whose works are in a similar vein to Fuller. The Ant Farm Collective was established in San Francisco in 1968, a group which expanded the role of architecture to include performance, film, installation and animation. On display is their ‘Convention City’ model from 1978, a dome-shaped suggestion for Texas. There are pamphlets from the Office of Appropriate Technology, established in California in 1976 with the task of assisting state agencies in developing and implementing less costly and energy-saving initiatives. Solar energy, farmers markets and bicycling programmes were among its efforts.

For an exhibition so firmly focused on the future, ‘The Utopian Impulse’ feels distinctly retro. This is probably a natural consequence of styles having changed since the 1960s, but the main element to this feeling is the sneaking awareness that these people, who made this work nearly 40 years ago, may have been more optimistic about the future than we are now. Maybe we know more now, about the limitations of power generation and the complexities of politics, and we are simply resigned to the fact that the future will take a little longer to get here than we had hoped. The ‘Earth Flag’, made in 1969 by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell’s, hangs on the wall; it has a grey and white planet on a blue background. It looks so simple.

Or maybe we just have different dreams now, ones which we can actually reach: fewer underwater colonies, just better waste recycling. And energy-neutral housing: amongst a handful of post-millennium works included in the exhibition is IwamotoScott’s ‘Jellyfish House’ from 2005, an intricate architectural model made from mesh, with soft curves like a sea creature. ‘Hydramax Port Machine’ from 2012, bulit by Future Cities Labs, looks like a plant with tentacles, moving softly under water. The building is designed to capture moisture and to store and re-circulate water inside the building. It is not quite “peace on earth” but it is distinctly in the tradition of Fuller, who sought the attention of the individual and not governments; he wanted us to each add our knowledge and resources to build a future we would feel a part of.

In 1965, Fuller initiated something he called the ‘World Game’ project. He described it as a data-visualisation system to facilitate global approaches in solving the world’s problems, wanting it to contribute to “mak[ing] the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”. Nowadays we call it the internet. Fuller believed greater access to information would generate more humanitarian problem-solving, and on a good day, that is what the internet does. There is a lot of work to do still, but l think Buckminster Fuller would be excited about what comes next.

Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

Apollo Magazine, 2014. Original article.

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Radical Order: Geometry and the Utopian Impulse

There’s something timeless about geometric art, with its clean lines and basic patterns appealing to an instinctive desire for order. All the works included in the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) show ‘Radical Geometry’ all date from the mid 20th century, but they still feel modern. The artists, from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela, turned to this visual language, fresh and subversive at the time, to express optimism for the future. This fruitful 50-year period coincided with a turbulent and often repressive political climate, with a solid streak of radicalism running through everything. The future was close, and change felt possible.

The the overarching mood of radical optimism colours the experience of the RA show. The Uruguayan and Argentine sections starts us off with block colours, subdued towards a spectrum of dusty purple and muddy yellow, as the artists searched for an universal visual language. The boldness comes in the Brazilian section, where the colour choices turn to unapologetic black, white and red, in shapes that fit together in neatly ordered ways.

Lygia Pape is only represented with a couple of wood cuts, but her work was essential to the Brazilian artistic identity, championing art as a merging of aesthetic, ethical and the political. “Magnetised Space”, the 2012 Pape retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, included an installation where Pape had strung gold threads from floor to ceiling; sometimes the threads seemed to disappear into nothing, but two steps to the side and they looked like rays of light. Closer inspection showed it is all perfectly logical in neat geometry, but the effect is magical.

In “Radical Geometry”, the works of artist Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) provide a similar experience. Using wire and found objects, Gego joined her Venezuelan contemporaries in creating optical illusions, meaning the art changes depending on the viewer. “Sphere” seems to be floating in air, impossibly connected at each joint, so simple and yet so pleasing to look at. On the floor, the shadow is its own experience, unrecognisable yet inseparable from the original.

The sense of order and possibility in geometrical art comes in part from the mathematics at the core: the angles, the slots that fit. We are attracted to these shapes because they are natural to us: “Magnetised Space” showed how we have an instinct towards geometry through a still from Pape’s film, where a street performer dances in the middle of a crowd which has formed in a perfect circle around him. It is like the dancer is magnetic, attracting the crowd and repelling it at the same time, with geometry as a human impulse.

The link between radicalism and geometry was thoroughly examined in the “The Utopian Impulse”, the elegantly titled Buckminster Fuller retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2012. The futuristic designer called himself a radical idealist, dreaming up fantastic solutions to humanity’s problems. Prone to geometric designs, Fuller patented his solutions for energy-efficient housing and uniquely fuel-efficient cars, even lunar colonies, in his kooky style that left you feeling like anything was possible.

“The Utopian Impulse” included the 1969 “Earth Flag”, made by Norman La Liberte and John McConnell; it’s a grey and white planet on a blue background. Few artists today would present the idea of world unity in such a simple way as it feels distinctly nostalgic, like a throwback to simpler times. But considering how geometry, a fundamentally appealing visual language, keeps emerging in the artistic landscape, we still cannot help our impulse towards some kind of utopia. Looking at Gego’s hovering spheres, or Pape’s floating threads, we are swooning over the chance to create order in what we see.