The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area

The Bay Area attracts dreamers, progressives, nonconformists, and designers. Buckminster Fuller was all of these, and though he never lived in San Francisco, his ideas spawned many local experiments in the realms of technology, engineering, and sustainability—some more successful than others. The Whole Earth Catalog, Apple, The North Face, and Governor Jerry Brown have all cited Fuller as a key influence on several projects.

Buckminster Fuller, Building Construction/Geodesic Dome, United States Patent Office no. 2,682,235, from the portfolio Inventions: Twelve Around One, 1981; screen print in white ink on clear polyester film; 30 in. x 40 in. (76.2 cm x 101.6 cm); Collection SFMOMA, gift of Chuck and Elizabeth Byrne; © The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, All Rights reserved; image courtesy SFMOMA

From March 31 through July 29, 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area, the first exhibition to consider Fuller’s local design legacy. The presentation will feature some 65 works, including prints, drawings, photographs, documentary video, books, models, and ephemera representing some of Fuller’s most iconic projects alongside those by Bay Area designers inspired by his oeuvre.

“Late in his life Fuller selected 13 design projects for which he obtained U.S. patents and featured them in a portfolio called Inventions: Twelve Around One, to be marketed to art collectors,” notes SFMOMA Acting Department Head/ Assistant Curator of Architecture and Design Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, who organized the presentation. “The images represent an earnest revolutionary effort on Fuller’s part that did not succeed in the way he would have liked in his time, but today stands as a totem for nonconformist thinking. This exhibition attempts to capture the wonderful eccentricity inherent in Fuller’s views and to celebrate him as a visionary.”

The Utopian Impulse opens by introducing Fuller, primarily with prints from the Inventions: Twelve Around One portfolio (1981), as well as several key works on loan from the R. Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford University. Pairing the artist’s own drawings of projects dating from the late 1920s through the mid-1970s with iconic imagery of built work, the portfolio commemorates his most well-known ideas, such as the 4D House (1928), a hexagonal autonomous dwelling meant to be optimally resource efficient and mass producible from factory-made kits that could be easily shipped anywhere and quickly assembled on site. Extending this optimization to transportation, Fuller’s ultra-light three-wheeled Dymaxion Car (1933) featured unprecedented fuel efficiency and an aerodynamic, teardrop shape, which was determined in collaboration with his friend, designer Isamu Noguchi. While these projects held promise in efficiency in the name of societal good, each was rife with design problems that proved too difficult to solve.

The exhibition also presents several of Fuller’s big-picture ideas, including his World Game (1969–71) project, a data-visualization system intended to facilitate global approaches in solving the world’s problems—or, in Fuller’s own words, to “make the world work, for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

The other half of the presentation looks at Bay Area endeavors inspired by Fuller’s thinking, particularly those that employ his approach of commingling technology, ecology, and social responsibility to improve living systems. Fuller’s conceptions of simple, mobile dwellings are amplified in the temporary inflatable structures by the Bay Area architecture collective Ant Farm and improved in the tent design by Bob Gillis for The North Face, as well as for Gillis’s own company, Shelter Systems. Gillis learned about Fuller’s concept of “tensegrity” at the University of Southern Illinois. A made-up word intended to mean tension plus integrity, it opened up so many possibilities for tent redesign that Gillis, who lived in tents exclusively for almost 20 years, is now credited with changing contemporary tent design.

Nodding to Fuller as a kindred spirit in large-scale change through storytelling and performative marketing, environmental activist David de Rothschild designed the Plastiki sailboat—a catamaran made entirely of recycled materials and kept afloat by some 12,500 plastic water bottles—and sailed it from San Francisco to Australia in 2010 as an awareness campaign for less waste and more recycling. Fuller’s notion of social betterment through greater access to information weaves through projects including Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968–1972), which attempted to list all things needed for a self-sustainable lifestyle; and architect Nicholas de Monchaux’s Local Code initiative, which uses geospatial analysis to collect real-time data on health, environmental, and crime activities in San Francisco’s publicly owned unused spaces and then proposes temporary solutions for dire conditions.

As a commission for this presentation, San Francisco–based documentary filmmaker Sam Green will create three short documentaries on projects related to Fuller and the Bay Area, such as Pacific High School (1969), a dome-building project meant to house 60 students and teachers at an “alternative” high school in the Santa Cruz mountains; Fuller’s well-known address to the hippies in Golden Gate Park; and his self-curated archive the Dymaxion Chronofile. Green’s work will be presented in a special dome designed by Obscura Digital, a local firm that creates custom installations for media presentations. Green will also perform a live version of his project at SFMOMA in conjunction with the San Francisco Film Society’s International Film Festival.

While some projects reference Fuller directly, others, like Morphosis’s design for San Francisco’s Federal Building, have a more distant relationship to Fuller while still maintaining his ethos of “comprehensive design,” which advocates for anticipatory design informed by intelligence from several sectors for greater good.

Fuller strove for the Fordist dream of improving society through mass production, which inherently conflicted with his “more with less” philosophy promoting self-reliance, sustainability, and low ecological impact. Perhaps overambitious about his abilities to bypass business and societal norms, ultimately Fuller was not able to earn both financial and critical success for his designs, so he lectured tirelessly around the globe to survive.

“While his appeal to the government and to the counterculture movement was broad, he still never quite fit in,” says Fletcher. “Perhaps it was frustrating for him or maybe it was a calculated elusiveness. Either way, the view of Fuller as an outsider has emerged as an emblem for ‘thinking differently,’ which is a starting point for many Bay Area initiatives.”