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Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller

From New York Times (June, 15, 2008)

As the designer R. Buckminster Fuller liked to tell it, his powerful creative vision was born of a moment of deep despair at the age of 32. A self-described ne’er-do-well, twice ejected from Harvard, a failure in business and a heavy drinker, he trudged to the Chicago lakefront one day in 1927 and stood there, contemplating suicide. But an inner voice interrupted, telling him that he had a mission to discover great truths, all for the good of humankind.

That was the pivot on which, he claimed, his life turned. The onetime loser entered a period of such deep reflection that he was struck silent, then emerged bursting with creativity as he developed the “Dymaxion” inventions: technologies that he promised would transform housing, transportation, urban organization and, eventually, the human condition. From 1927 on, Fuller seemed utterly self-assured, even messianic, as he developed innovations like the geodesic dome, equal parts engineering élan and poetry.

Those pioneering creations will go on display next week in “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe,” a sprawling show at the Whitney Museum of American Art that testifies to the wide-ranging intellectual curiosity of Fuller (1895-1983), who inspired several generations with his quixotic vision and his zeal for the liberating power of technology.

But recent research has shed new light on Fuller’s inner life and what really drove him. In particular, it now appears that the suicide story may have been yet another invention, an elaborate myth that served to cover up a formative period that was far more tumultuous and unstable, for far longer, than Fuller ever revealed.

That is one of many insights gleaned by researchers who have begun exploring the visionary’s personal archives, deposited in 1999 at the Stanford University library by his family.

Because he believed his ideas and life would hold enduring interest, Fuller collected nearly every scrap of paper that ever passed through his hands, including letters that raise questions about the suicide story. At 45 tons, it is the largest personal archive at Stanford, according to Hsiao-Yun Chu, a former assistant curator of the papers and co-editor of a book, “Reassessing R. Buckminster Fuller,” to be published by Stanford University Press next year.

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A 3-Wheel Dream That Died at Takeoff

BUCKMINSTER FULLER’s 1933 Dymaxion, a streamlined pod on three wheels, is one of the lovable oddballs in automotive history. Three were built, fawned over by the media and by celebrities, but the car pretty much disappeared after one crashed, killing the driver.

Only one of the cars survives, and New Yorkers will get a chance to see it this summer in an exhibition opening June 26 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York called “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe.” The car, a nonrunning shell, has been lent by the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev.

“The Dymaxion was the zenith of the first wave of semi-scientific streamlining,” said Russell Flinchum, a design historian. It showed up in newsreels and magazines, along with teardrop designs drawn by Norman Bel Geddes, the futurist. It helped lead to public acceptance of streamlined cars like the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.

The Dymaxion appealed to the era of the Depression, when people dreamed of radical new technological solutions to solve overwhelming problems.

“There is a real fascination about Fuller,” said K. Michael Hays, adjunct curator of architecture at the Whitney and one of the curators of the show. Hugh Kenner, the literary critic, rated Fuller with James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and wrote a book about him.

Fuller was neither architect nor engineer, but a philosopher and preacher, a man more in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. His houses and cars were arguments, not products. He made up the word Dymaxion, combining dynamic, maximum and ion, and used it as a personal brand.

The architectural firm of Norman Foster, the Pritzker Prize winner who once worked with Fuller, is planning to build a replica Dymaxion.

“The Dymaxion car was a thing of great beauty, and it was made at a time when creativity was at the fore in automobile design,” said David Nelson, senior executive head of design at Foster Partners in London, who is directing the re-creation.

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