Buckminster Fuller: Designing for Mobility By Michael John Gorman.Skira, 2005. 208pp. £34
It is hard to tell Buckminster Fuller's story without repeating his version of events. As those who heard his interminable lectures will recall, he was an assiduous self-promoter. It seemed that everything in his career could be traced to his 1920s vision of the massproduced autonomous dwelling, capable of being airlifted anywhere.
When indeed a geodesic dome was airlifted by helicopter in 1954, his photograph of the event was inscribed: 'Airlifts have been made possible by the gradual but orderly evolution of Mr Fuller's search, research and development initiated in Chicago in 1927.' When his students claimed credit for their contribution they were sharply contradicted. Unbeknown to them, their work was the product of his 'experiencefertilised teleological design back-log'.
Michael Gorman has steeped himself in the Fuller papers at Stanford University, so inevitably this is a work focused on the maestro's point of view. His failures are not denied - why did the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine never go into production despite the receipt of 3,500 orders? - but generally this is a story told as the inevitable triumph of progressive ideas.
The familiar episodes are here, all superbly illustrated.
There is Fuller in the naval uniform from the years 191819, when he learned all naval architecture could teach about stress and weight. From 1934 there is the trilby-hatted H G Wells in front of his Dymaxion car - an endorsement from a fellow-futurist. And from the 1940s there are the versions of his dynamic map projects - a staging post towards realising the geodesic dome.
If the story had stopped at 1950, Fuller would probably have been regarded as a technocrat who foretold the shape of things to come, but who had achieved little of real significance. But then came the geodesic dome, with which his life entered the mainstream of American history.
That famous 1954 airlift of a dome heralded the military's acceptance of its potential for housing advance facilities in the jungle warfare against Communism, and in protecting the arctic radar stations of the defence line against nuclear attack. Two years later the geodesic dome was also adopted as a weapon in the commercial Cold War, to be used at trade fairs stuffed with the delights of American consumerism. The first example, erected in Kabul, easily outclassed all other national exhibits; excited locals clambered all over it.
At this point, biography of a narrow kind is inadequate to understanding what Fuller has meant to Americans; and in the 1950s there is still to come the adoption of the dome as a counter-cultural plaything.
Gorman keeps the story going, but without that enriching wider context which helps explain why Fuller served America so well. His life cries out for a much broader interpretation, if only to keep in balance the way he liked to present himself.
Robert Thorne is a historian with Alan Baxter & Associates