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More than an inventor

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Buckminster Fuller: Your Private Sky At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 15 October

The word 'debunk' was coined by Buckminster Fuller in 1927. The echo of Henry Ford's 'history is bunk' (1919) was surely deliberate. For Fuller, however, it was not history but architecture that needed debunking - architecture with all its tired traditions, outmoded technologies and ar tistic pretensions. The debunking of architecture was an early formulation of a question that is challenging the building industry right now: 'Why can't buildings be more like motor cars?' For architects struggling to come to terms with Egan and company, this Buckminster Fuller retrospective comes at just the right time.

It is an exhibition of technology, not architecture or art, and yet what first strikes the visitor is the beauty of the objects on display, a mixture of actual survivals, models and full-size mock-ups.

The well-known geodesic domes have an obvious appeal - their economy and simplicity, the way that they explode in space, effortlessly uprooting 3000 years of architectural tectonics - but Fuller's other inventions also retain their power to inspire.

The first real object in the exhibition, called Rowing Needle, combines a couple of slender cylinders with a few steel struts to conver t a human being into a water skimming insect. In the domestic field, the Dymaxion Bathroom, a minimal monocoque of stainless steel, might have been taken from a Japanese building site yesterday, except that it is better, more integrated, more ergonomic, more beautiful; and it was made in 1937.

Then there is the Dymaxion House of 1929, and its shining post-war offspring, the Wichita House. By 1946 this circular, mast-hung, stainless steel 'dwelling machine' (forget Le Corbusier's 'machine for living in' - this was real industrial technology, as Reyner Banham pointed out) was prototyped, tested, marketed and ready to go into production in the Beech Aircraft factory. Thousands of orders had been received and the distribution method (Fuller called it a Dymaxion Industrial Strategy Map) was all worked out. But then someone lost their nerve - either the financial backers, or possibly Fuller himself, who wanted to perfect the design before pressing the star t button.

It was an uncharacteristic mistake. If he had gone ahead with the production run, accepting that development never stops and that improvements could be made to future models, he might have changed the way we think about volume housing. No-one would now be asking that awkward question about buildings and motor cars. Not that Fuller was content merely to learn lessons from car makers. In fact he thought they had got it all wrong. Back in 1933 he had designed and made the Dymaxion Car, a streamlined teardrop that looks futuristic even now.

Fuller was anything but a backroom boffin. He was extrover t, egocentric, megalomaniac even. How else could he have thought that anyone would want to hear him lecture for six hours at a stretch on life, the universe and everything, or watch a 42-hour video called Everything I Know? But it was this comprehensiveness (a favourite Fuller word) that made his ideas so compelling. He was always more than just an inventor.

In fact few of his so-called inventions were completely original, as this exhibition makes clear.

The engineer Walter Bauerfelt, for example, was designing geodesic domes for planetaria 30 years before Fuller took out his patent. But it took Fuller to relate the specific technique to a truly global vision. He was talking about 'Spaceship Ear th' 20 years before NASA astronauts star ted taking pictures of the blue planet.

Government advisors who want to streamline the construction industry but can only point to Travelodge hotels and McDonald's drive-throughs as examples should visit this exhibition and be inspired.

Colin Davies teaches at the University of Nor th London

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