The featured artist of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibit, Starting With The Universe, may sound more like an early ’90s hip-hop artist (Funkmaster Flex and Flavor Flav come to mind), rather than a brilliant architect. But with strikingly modern designs, Buckminster Fuller initiated a movement for environmental awareness as well as affordable housing—a feat Flavor Flav could only dream of.
A self-proclaimed “anticipatory design scientist,” Fuller dreamed of a world where beautiful designs would combine with sustainable building plans to create the homes of the future. A visionary for his time—he was primarily active in the 1940s and 1950s—Fuller based his designs on natural marvels, taking a page from Mother Nature on sustainability as well as flawless functionality. After witnessing increasing homelessness and mounting levels of pollution in the United States, he set out to create houses that would be affordable and environmentally friendly.
By exploring Fuller’s designs, Universe offers a look back at the origins of the revolutionary ideas that would come to dominate modern architecture and drive the movement to “go green.” Similar to an architect’s drawing room, the exhibit features sketches of Fuller’s eco-friendly homes and models of “4-D” buildings. The 4-D concept was a plan for multifloored towers surrounding a central mast that could serve as affordable housing as well as office space with a 360° view. For Fuller, the fourth dimension, time, was brought into his designs through his concern for the long-term consequences of his houses on humanity and nature.
In an effort to brand his sustainable home designs and make them popular commodities, Fuller started calling the buildings “Dymaxion Houses.” Although Dymaxion may sound more like the latest villain from Transformers than an innovative home, Fuller hoped that his solar-heated, inexpensive design would help solve some of the world’s environmental problems.
Continuing with the Dymaxion branding, Fuller also developed a new map of the world, the “Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map,” whose aim was to represent the earth’s surface without distortion. Rendered on a gallery wall at the MCA, the map is composed of multiple triangles that illustrate the earth in a strange and entirely new way. By showing the world on one plane, Fuller hoped that his design would serve as a reminder of the connectedness of human beings and the preciousness of natural resources. The “Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map” also attempted to show the unequal distribution of natural resources in the world, a major concern for Fuller during the beginning of his career.
No exhibit at the MCA would be complete without some abstract pieces of art, and Starting with the Universe is no exception. During the latter half of Fuller’s career he became very interested in geometry and new methods of understanding mathematics. The tetrahedron became the sole focus of his work, and this obsession manifested itself in various statues constructed from steel, plastic, and wood. While these statues are visually intriguing, most of them seem more like samples from ninth-grade geometry books than revolutionary designs. Each figure lacks the personal convictions that imbued many of Fuller’s earlier concepts and works.
Starting with the Universe and Fuller’s environmentally friendly designs are the classic “I told you so,” considering the current global warming and natural resource crisis. Fuller lives up to his self-proclaimed “anticipatory design scientist” moniker, recognizing future environmental problems and proposing possible solutions at least 50 years before these issues became a global concern.
Although Buckminster Fuller does not have as famous a name as Flavor Flav or Biggie Smalls (Big B Fulla would have been catchy), his work will live on as one of the earliest and most revolutionary attempts to save the environment and mankind.