Remembering Richard Buckminster Fuller’s principles of empathy and "doing with less"

On the 125th birth anniversary of architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, STIR gives you a ‘fuller’ understanding into the life, mind and works of the late American visionary.

by STIRworld Published on : Jul 11, 2020

Described as a “a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist", Richard Buckminster Fuller was an American architect and inventor who dedicated his life to solving the most pressing global problems. Far ahead of his times, Fuller revolutionised the design industry with his radical solutions to affordable housing, transportation, education, ecological destruction and poverty. Attempting to solve the “crisis of ignorance” that he believed humans suffered from, Fuller worked towards putting scientific and technical capacity in the control of reason and directing it to a better end.

On his 125th birthday, STIR gives you an insight into Richard Buckminster Fuller’s inspirations, inventions and rich intellect, and how these are relevant to this day.

1. Nautical references and their influence on Fuller’s thinking

An avid sailor, Fuller often spoke of the trim-tab principle. The trim-tab is a tiny rudder connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a ship which when applied a small force onto, is capable of steering and turning the entire ship. Buckminster Fuller wanted to live his life as a human trim tab, suggesting that if he strategically applied his energy he could steer the course of humanity in a better direction, despite being just an individual.

Fuller frequently questioned why building on land was so vastly different from the sea and sky. Just as man used to build fortresses - the heavier, thicker and taller the walls, the more the sense of security - he believed that the buildings of today were designed as fortresses rather than places to live. He constantly looked to the sea and sky and tried to apply similar principles to build more responsibly on land.

Fuller’s gravestone | Richard Buckminster Fuller | STIRworld
Fuller’s gravestone Image Credit: Wikimedia commons

2. Origin of Fuller’s design slogan, “Doing more with less”

Fuller’s first child, a daughter, was born during World War I. Shortly after her birth she caught spinal meningitis and infantile paralysis, resulting in death before her fourth birthday. Fuller blamed the damp and drafty conditions of his home for his daughter’s death. This unfortunate circumstance prompted the start of a company with his architect father-in- law, James Monroe Hewlett. The company focused on producing weatherproof/fireproof housing that was easily affordable such that no one else would suffer his fate.

Fuller became obsessed with finding the fundamental truths of the universe and then applying those to design and invention to sustain human life, reflecting on his daughter’s death. However, to solve these problems of the world, it was important to provide for everybody and this was only possible if one saved resources - leading to his anticipatory design approach of "doing more with less".

Fuller’s Dymaxion house built in 1945| Richard Buckminster Fuller | STIRworld
Fuller’s Dymaxion house built in 1945 Image Credit: Wikimedia commons

3. Relevance of Fuller’s ‘Spaceship Earth’ today

“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is no instruction book came with it.”

In Fuller’s operating manual for his creation 'Spaceship Earth', he compares planet earth to an orbiting spaceship. The metaphor of the earth as a spaceship with a definite number of resources is crucial to modern discourse, holding relevance due to the double implication it denotes: Limited provisions and a crew whom these provisions were meant to sustain. Fuller makes an explicit link between distribution and scarcity, viewing them as indivisible.

According to Fuller, a reconciliation of the forces of nature and technology was within reach if one was prepared to think and act big. Today, with the increasing urgency of climate change action, Fuller’s ‘Spaceship Earth’ holds more significance than ever, urging us to collectively limit our resource use.  Joint declarations such as the ‘Architecture declares’ petition have already begun to respond to Fuller’s need for collective action.

  • Exterior of Fuller’s prototype geodesic dome residence in Carbondale, Illinois | Richard Buckminster Fuller | STIRworld
    Exterior of Fuller’s prototype geodesic dome residence in Carbondale, Illinois Image Credit: Wikimedia commons
  • Construction detail of Fuller’s tent-type geodesic dome | Richard Buckminster Fuller | STIRworld
    Construction detail of Fuller’s tent-type geodesic dome Image Credit: Wikimedia commons

4.  How biomimicry principles dictated Fuller’s designs 

One of Fuller's most significant constructions is the Geodesic dome – a lightweight, easy to assemble dome which enclosed more space without intrusive supportive columns that other structures made use of. What is little known about Fuller’s dome is what inspired this unique way of distributing stress within a structure.

Fuller gained a lot of understanding from nature by analysing how nature’s geometrical patterns can be applied to design of structures and by doing so could create huge possibilities - which he adopted in his design of the dome. In a similar manner, Fuller’s Dymaxion car used biomimicry principles to pull features from fish and birds, resulting in the creation of a three-wheeled, streamlined vehicle capable of making remarkably sharp turns.

What was even more interesting was how biomimicry informed Fuller’s outlook on systems. The flying cars were meant to be part of a  self-organising society with temporary housing transported at will, all inspired by the natural environment.

Fuller’s aerodynamic Dymaxion car |Richard Buckminster Fuller | STIRworld
Fuller’s aerodynamic Dymaxion car Image Credit: Wikimedia commons

5. The ultimate expression of Fuller’s ideas – the Dymaxion house

Using a comprehensive problem solving approach, Fuller constructed the Dymaxion house. A modular home relatively inexpensive and easy to mass produce as well as environmentally efficient and transportable; the Dymaxion house was the ultimate expression of Fuller’s ideas.

Dymaxion, a portmanteau of the words - dynamic, maximum and tension - is a term Fuller used to refer to all kinds of inventions from houses to cars and even maps. The house consisted of a single support attached to a foundation from which ancillary supports radiated creating a circular home. The entire house weighed a total of 3 tones and worked off-gird, i.e., it could be delivered by air anywhere around the world and and assembled in a matter of days (was the Dymaxion house the real precursor to IKEA?). Fuller wanted the Dymaxion house to be a fully automated machine, completely redesigning the way we live today.

  • Dymaxion house section illustrating technical strategy employed | Richard Buckminster Fuller | STIRworld
    Dymaxion house section illustrating technical strategy employed Image Credit: Wikimedia commons
  • Cutaway view of Fuller’s Dymaxion house ceiling | Richard Buckminster Fuller | STIRworld
    Cutaway view of Fuller’s Dymaxion house ceiling Image Credit: Wikimedia commons

With over 300,000 geodesic dome replications, more than 30 published books and 28 patents, Richard Buckminster Fuller unquestionably stirred the future of the design world and continues to inspire mankind today.

(Text by Saamia Makharia, an intern at stirworld.com)

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