Far-sighted Fuller contributed more than Modernism ever did
At last, after missing the centenary of his birth by five years, a respectable exhibition devoted to the life and work of Richard Buckminster Fuller (18951983), has come to the Design Museum, where it will remain until 15 October. Consisting of original documents, artefacts, video clips and full-size structures, it is so evocative of the optimism of the recent past that it should be seen by everyone curious about the purpose of design before it was hijacked by the lottery committees and political agendas of the post-Modern age.
One of the most far-sighted men of the twentieth century, Buckminster Fuller, inventor, engineer, scientist, philosopher and poet, bequeathed more useful guidance to posterity than any of the celebrated founding fathers of Modernism, whose influence and thinking has already waned under changing circumstances.
Unlike Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright, he made no attempt to chain the new technological capabilities of the twentieth century to the corpse of art history. He was first and foremost a pragmatist, schooled by service in the US Navy, chastened by failure in the construction industry, turned into a celebrity by a design for a house that was never built and a car that never worked, and finally made rich by a patent for a lightweight structural system that generated more than 300,000 structures in 30 years.
Buckminster Fuller died loaded with honours from a profession that had earlier rejected him, only later recognising the limitless possibilities that his concept of 'design science' offered for the future. Today the reality of this bequest is larger than life and to be seen everywhere. It is evident in the streamlining of the traditional craft-based housebuilding industry, and in the final triumph of the factory-produced home, now accounting for half the housing market in Japan.
On an intercontinental scale we can see that Fuller's macro-approach to planning for humanity in a densely populated, ever developing world, is overtaking all resistance. Everywhere larger and larger energy-efficient architectural enclosures of all kinds are being built, from super high-rise office towers to giant indoor shopping malls, huge sports stadiums and greenhouses and mighty distribution centres, all of them in one way or another derived from the image of Fuller's project for the enclosure of 50 blocks of Manhattan under a single, lightweight, climate-controlled envelope. As we can now see, it was this vision of the megastructure as a vast, translucent bubble - rather than as a labyrinthine ziggurat - that opened up the prospect of cities old and new as interiors, with all their buildings enjoying the design freedom of interior design. As we see, less than 20 years after Fuller's death, by degrees all our world cities are moving towards this kind of integrated climatic envelope, as they must do if they are to achieve energy efficiency and digest their own toxic emissions in the high-energy years ahead.
If Fuller was the first to see that houses must become light engineering products, and cities must become megastructures of a new and more liberating kind, he was also the first to see the futility of global environmental strategies that try to put developments into reverse - turning away from the wider and wider distribution of comfort and personal mobility, back into a voluntary hardship brought on by the suppression of development in the mistaken belief that this will 'save the planet'.
Fuller was fond of saying: 'All we do when we pollute is make recovery and recycling difficult instead of easy.' For environmental sentimentalists this message - that more development is the only answer to more development - may be his most valuable lesson of all.