Review Of Alec Nevala-Lee’s “The Inventor Of The Future”
Modern Engineering & The Baloney Factory
I draw a crowd, like an architect.
Rakim, As The Rhyme Goes On
From Emperor Norton’s glorious reign to today, it seems America has always loved a huckster. Even more so when that huckster promises to use the newest science and math of the Atomic Age to make the Jetsons real. Starting with Franklin the natural polymath, there have always been so many Americans vying for the spot of Technoking that, after a couple of years, everyone forgets that your magic blood tester didn’t actually test blood, or that your radical new form of transportation is just a desperate chance to build the Lincoln Tunnel in California. Richard Buckminster Fuller had one of the most entertaining approaches to performing the classic American role of the heavily-hyped halfway-scamming mad scientist-inventor-lifestyle-guru, an approach that hit cosmic highs and crashed into worldly lows.
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Given his subject’s addiction to neologism, it is fitting that the proper verb to describe what Alec Nevala-Lee has done with the material of Fuller’s life doesn’t quite exist yet. An inventor, mathematician, design theorist, and as many other things as he could think of, Fuller was above all a self-making myth. In Nevala-Lee’s excellent biography, one would be hard pressed to find only one version of a particular event on two contiguous pages as Fuller’s myth requires more. Greatness is achieved not so much that Fuller is exposed as a liar or a cheat but because Fuller’s myths really are as revealing as any possible truths could be. That even a biographer has to engage these myths on their own terms is Nevala-Lee’s key insight here.
All this is far from the blunt criticism of Bucky Fuller that it might seem on first blush. He had many of those qualities which even Bernard Shaw admitted are not altogether bad when taken in strict moderation: duty, industry, self-education, patriotism and respectability. In contrast to today’s cultural preference for a kind of defeated pessimism, he was indefatigably optimistic in his social predictions, his faith in himself and in the ability of his students and colleagues to solve the biggest problems of their day. That optimism is a genuine and admirable virtue in research might be hard to remember in the climate change era, or may only be clear to those who have worked on truly difficult technical problems. And yet, the same boundless creativity and obsession with self-documentation often took him places equally goofy as profound. Fuller could and did form analogies between any arbitrary pair of his experiences: memorably and comically, he once claimed to have unlocked the secret of bebop rhythms in some sort of integer sequence.
Perhaps the biggest surprise Nevala-Lee uncovers is the one thing Fuller was honest about: not taking much from his predecessors (in distinction from his free “borrowings” from his students). If anything, more influence from his elders would have likely left him better off. What actual influences he did have – from modernist luminaries like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius – seems in retrospect more homophily than contagion.
Since he had few predecessors, we must now ask a deep question about Buckminster Fuller: Who was he, as an American thinker? To answer this question, we will go over how he “evaded” the cynical philosophies of his background and moved through important phases that I call his “dream” and his “vision” before getting off the ride at one of its most prosaic stops. Charting this path is possible with Nevala-Lee’s tome as a guide. After that we will take a detour from Nevala-Lee’s biography to look at some of Fuller’s ideas as ideas. With all that done, the conclusion to our deep question will be ours. Let’s get started.
Fuller’s Evasion of Philosophy
“Emerson's evasion of modern philosophy is one of the ways in which he sets tradition aside; it also is one of the means by which he exercises his own intellectual self-reliance. He refuses to be captive to or caught up in the problematic and vocabulary of those who came before.”
Cornel West, The American Evasion Of Philosophy: A Genealogy Of Pragmatism
When analyzing American thinkers, I always return to the example of Cornel West’s American Evasion Of Philosophy. This “evasion,” West argues, is the attempt to “strip philosophy of pretense, to disclose its affiliations in the past and to enact intellectual practices that invigorate and unsettle one's own culture and society”. Fuller – despite the influence of Emerson through his ancestor Margaret Fuller (who, incidentally, was chosen by Emerson to be the editor of the first transcendentalist journal) – likely did not begin his career with such lofty goals.
Yet, over his entire life, Buckminster Fuller obsessively sought to design new languages and ways of living that would artfully sidestep the problems - both practical and logical - of the past. At his simplest, silliest, and most himself, Fuller argued with tongue firmly outside cheek that one ought say “worldaround” instead of “worldwide,” on the guess that doing so might free the mind from an unconscious entrapment in outdated Homeric cosmology.
Seeing Fuller’s philosophy as a uniquely American evasion distinct within the realms of techno-optimism allows us to place it alongside other philosophically rich approaches to architecture and design, of which the twentieth century was full to bursting. Take Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudí.
On a methodological level, Fuller and Gaudí had much in common. They both strongly preferred three dimensional models to traditional two dimensional descriptive methods and both embraced tools from the mathematical theory of surfaces to correct what looked to them like the absence of design in existing society. In fact, one of Gaudí’s last non-Sagrada Familia proposals was a suspiciously Fullerian giant suspended metal awning that functioned as a train station. This proved too difficult to engineer, and so the exigencies of the production process tied a Fuller-style proposal to a deeply Fuller-style rejection.
There is a deeper point here, though, where Gaudi and Fuller are like interior tangent circles, touching yet moving away. The two meet in the fullness with which each expresses their own national philosophy. No conscious person can miss the connection between Gaudí’s architecture and the poems of Teresa of Ávila and Juan de la Cruz. Consider Gaudí’s famous “trencar” technique. He transfigures the broken and irregular ceramics cast off from the production process into smooth, vibrant, curving figures like the giant salamander in Guell Park. Just as Juan de la Cruz saw the thicket of suffering as the gate to paradise, Gaudí saw a rainbow in the garbage pit of a local ceramics factory.
Fuller’s native Unitarianism had none of the pain-worship of Teresa of Ávila. That suffering taught St. Teresa about the impermanence of things was a great favor for her, but the only thing grief taught Emerson was just how shallow suffering is. To an outsider, Fuller’s designs seem cold and mathematical, a kind of pseudo-Platonism of new forms for their own sake. Yet in Fuller’s mind, an airplane hanger made entirely out of octet trusses (the octet truss being own invention) was an expression of cosmic vision every bit as alive as the people within it.
There are two singular points in Fuller’s growth, two times in which the value of his thought was raised to a higher level, that are worth dwelling on. Fuller himself mythologized his own journey through these two points particularly extensively, and Nevala-Lee has plucked them from myth and dramatized said path with absolute kitchen sink realism.
I dreamed of a life that was pure and true.
I dreamed of a job only I could do.
One man beside me, we'd be a team,
Man, that was a dream.
Carmen McRae, Monk’s Dream
Despite the efforts of a few inspiring geniuses, the practice of design in the late 19th century had fallen into complete disrepair. The reason was simple, yet extremely subtle: design had not kept pace with industrial technique. Where production technology was changing so rapidly that capital seemed to be outdated as soon it was planted, design always takes time. For context, when Buckminster Fuller was four years old, the most explosive new voice in social thought was Thorstein Veblen, whose analysis of the results of this arrhythmic growth is still read today, and even provides the namesake for some publications.
Against this background, Buckminster Fuller had his divine vision, his dream. It’s not clear where or when exactly this vision came, Nevala-Lee points to the polio-related death of his daughter in 1922, after which Fuller threw himself into work and emerged a different man. Fuller himself credited 1927, the year he hit rock bottom and left his father-in-law’s firm.
Whenever it happened, the dream was this: modern industrial design could do more than just build better bricks. Instead, if we really put our minds to it, we could invent high quality and extremely low cost housing using interchangeable parts made of recyclable materials that could be quickly turned out using the techniques of mass production. Imagine: no more developers, no more contractors, no more housing market…when your sink backed up, you’d just drop your kitchen into the recycling and pick up a couple boxes of house on your way home from work…with enough design work, you wouldn’t even need clothes for a comfortable skin-level microclimate: air conditioning and electric fans would do it all from a distance. No more cotton plantations and sweatshops just to sew ill fitting slacks! Mankind’s work was the work of design!
Like most divine visions, the details and deeper implications of Fuller’s dream only slowly trickled outward as he continued to explore and analyze it. High quality recyclable materials would fundamentally alter the nature of ownership itself. The idea of ownership itself was based, in some serious way, on the idea that consumption is just a kind of destruction. If things could be consumed without being destroyed, just endlessly cycling through the system of production, what could it mean to “own” something?
In Fuller’s vision, the most that even the largest manufacturing concerns would claim ownership over was flows of material, not even stocks. If owning stocks of materials didn’t really matter, then why bother having cars and roads to transport stocks of material? If everything in one place could just be recycled, why would the world need anything more than what Fuller called “air stilts –, perhaps some kind of helicopters, autogyros or gyrodyne – to move marginal quantities of goods between recycling facilities. Even today, companies founded on less technicolor visions are still working out the kinks in quadcopter goods delivery.
As most divine visions do, Fuller’s dream extended far beyond logistics. He became convinced that the ordinary conception of space as an exact and continuous quantity had deep flaws in a way that more or less followed Hume’s critique of geometry. Fuller’s frenzy against one particular notion - that of a unit length - is well illustrated by the index of Synergetics: the book contains no less than 15 definitions of this concept, all of them paradoxical. That’s not mentioning the sixteen other kinds of unity in that book - one of which is helpfully labeled ‘Twoness’!
Fuller had some idea of free love as well. Nevala-Lee at one point refers to Fuller saying marriage was completely against his principles, but strongly suggests that the real influence was simply the near-collapse of his marriage. Fuller also felt the educational system was bad because the pedagogical strategy of demanding rote responses about abstractions crabbed all real thought. This may be true, despite Fuller’s myth (he was kicked out of Harvard because he passed bad checks trying to flash cash in front of chorus girls in New York City, not because of his social critiques).
Attract heavy cash ‘cause the game’s centrifugal.
Mr. Fantastik, Rapp Snitch Knishes
Over time, Fuller’s dream turned into something he called “Dymaxion,”. What Dymaxion was isn’t so clear, something halfway between a system of thought and a brand name. As Nevala-Lee illustrates, the Dymaxion period was filled with promising failures, which Fuller managed to represent as moral victories. In Fuller’s retrospective telling, the plan for a prefab bathroom unit above had been suppressed by a plumber’s union, yet Nevala-Lee notes simply that the union had been, overall, positive on the proposal.
While Fuller’s next singular point would not arrive until 1947, it began incubating in his mind in 1942, while the Dymaxion brand was trapped in a morass of “moral victories.”. As part of his dream of “worldaround” design, Fuller dove into D’Arcy Thompson’s gargantuan and inspiring On Growth And Form. Out of Thompson’s tome, Fuller became fascinated by a method of close packing spheres, which he believed might be the ultimate organizational approach in the society of his dream. By drawing geodesics on a globe whose intersections would be at the centers of the spheres in the packing method, Fuller reinvented the curvilinear cuboctahedron, a shape known to Plato.
By 1947, Fuller was working for the already extremely influential industrial design firm Herman Miller Furniture under the protection of old acquaintances like Isamu Noguchi. Fuller and Noguchi each had a hand in designing that weird numberless ball clock you see in old ads.
While working at his cover job, Fuller had his dark revelation. Statics, the delicate art of holding things together in general, is not, in fact, a matter of mechanical cleverness but rather a precise mathematical discipline. Normally, this realization is made in the late teens, and involves a visit to the guidance counselor for a new major, but every so often it produces something far stranger.
To get a sense of how the cuboctahedron revealed mathematical statics to Fuller, we can work with some fun visuals. Going back to the discovery phase, one can see above quite clearly that if the cuboctahedron is projected onto a sphere then its edges are parts of great circles. What more can this shape reveal? (lets see)
Fuller then built a stick model that looked something like the above. He was shocked by the instability of the model: the squares can all move shearly at once. If you place this shape on a table and push down on the top grey triangle, the gray triangles would maintain a fixed orientation as the squares sheared and the yellow hexagon rotated! Fuller, a lifelong dance fanatic, was intrigued by the way downward motion was converted into a twist. Were these proportions also, somehow, the secret to bebop? (no)
Later, Fuller recognized that the cuboctahedron and octahedron could be gathered together into a honeycomb. The octahedron is all triangles, so by Cauchy’s rigidity theorem it is stable. This mix of stable and unstable geometry sent Fuller’s mind racing. Could this be the geometry he was dreaming? (maybe)
One more observation would become crucial. If you take the “top” off the cuboctahedron, you get a shape called a triangular cupola, shown above. In your mind, inflate the cupola onto a spherical dome. Recall that the edges are parts of great circles and therefore geodesics. You have now constructed the first “geodesic dome”. Would this be the future of architecture? ( it was! For a little while at least…)
With these discoveries literally in hand (he had dozens of physical models), Fuller moved on to a Black Mountain College summer retreat. Here painter Willem de Kooning, composer John Cage, director Arthur Penn and many others created a safe social place for Fuller’s mind to romp. Cage seemed to be particularly indulgent - his father had also been an eccentric inventor and die hard optimist.
I would also like to note that, being a Cage fan (or perhaps despite being a Cage fan), many of Cage’s compositional ideas have parallels in Fuller’s creativity exercises and philosophy. Just to name three
Fuller’s frequent insistence that random elements lead to evolution in designs influenced Cage’s incorporation of chance within design in pieces such as Imaginary Landscape.
Fuller’s geometric experiments may have influenced Cage to incorporate graphics into his scores in pieces such as Two Pastorals, which uses a charting method based on proportions to communicate the desired experience.
Speaking of pastorals, Cage fully adopted Fuller’s stance of design forward environmentalism (Bruce Sterling would call this the Viridian Movement), which inspired works such as In A Landscape and A Flower.
Tensegrity, Synergetics & Ephemeralization
We gonna tear the roof off this mothersucker!
Ray Davis, Give Up The Funk
So we have seen two important points on Fuller’s path, which is the subject of Nevala-Lee’s book. I would like to also talk a bit about Fuller’s ideas as ideas: Tensegrity, Synergetics and Ephemeralization. To explain things in his register, tensegrity is meant to be a geometric arrangement of architectural elements working synergetically to ephemeralize a structure.
Starting with tensegrity: tensegrity is a model of mechanical design. In Synergetics, Fuller defines it as follows:
“Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviors of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviors. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder.”
Unfortunately, the pretentious diction is typical of Fuller. Anyway, a tensegrity structure is fundamentally one that could be made by strings and rods, where a string can only be a tension element and compression elements can be, for instance, dense metal rods.
As said before, tensegrity is meant to have pieces working synergetically. Fuller has an uncharacteristically clear definition of synergy: “Synergy means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.”.
The tensegrity mast from Synergetics is meant to demonstrate the practice of using synergy rather than energy as a solution, to work smarter not harder. Rather than rely on the material properties of a heavy object like a normal mast, the tensegrity mast uses design to remain aloft.
To see how “tensegrity can be used synergetically to ephemeralize a structure”, take that airplane hanger proposal again and compare it to a normal airplane hanger. A standard design might be a heavy roof held up by massive concrete pylons with walls sealing up the building but playing no structural role. This embodies energy as a solution because it is the sheer bulk of the concrete that holds the system together. In Fuller’s octet truss proposal, all elements work together to hold together the mass of the structure, which is thereby greatly reduced. Less material is spending less physical effort but accomplishing the same goal because it is spending that effort in a well designed way.
The tensegrity polytopes do more than just work synergetically to form a mast. They also exhibit ephemeralization, in this case by density reduction as mentioned above. Ephemeralization, defined simply as doing more with less, was the core of Fuller’s social vision, his answer to the Malthusian. It is worth reading a section of Synergetics titled Spherical Islands to see this concept in its natural place. That section ends messianically:
“The Stone Age logic said that the wider and heavier the walls, the more happily secure would be the inhabitants. The advent of metal alloys in the 20th century has brought an abrupt change from the advantage of structural ponderousness to the advantage of structural lightness. This is at the heart of all ephemeralization: that is the dymaxion principle of doing ever more with ever less weight, time, and ergs per each given level of functional performance. With an average recycling rate for all metals of 22 years, and with comparable design improvements in performance per pound, ephemeralization means that ever more people are being served at ever higher standards with the same old materials.”
“… and I do not know what I am.”
R. Buckminster Fuller
We can now answer the question we set out. Who was Richard Buckminster Fuller as an American thinker? He was a genius … and a crank.
The ego of Fuller as a special son of God in dismissing all “Earthian engineers” for “design[ing] their structures only as compressional continuities” is palpable. Further, unforced scientific errors in his books abound. Again, ego is the source: Fuller considered consulting with experts to be a constraint on his creativity rather than basic due diligence. Finally, Fuller tended to sweep over the cases where synergy worked against a design. For example, a nice stiff geodesic dome can become, in Kenneth Snelson’s words, “as soft as a marshmallow” when designed as a tensegrity structure.
Even with all of this stacked against him, something remains. One must admit that nobody could achieve the designs he and his teams did by ego alone.
The depth and necessity of Nevala-Lee’s research into Fuller’s land of contrasts is, as stated at the top, sufficiently illustrated by how he gives multiple perspectives on so many events. That said, I will raise one issue I had. Fuller would very often meet a laundry list of people whose names were not always attached to sufficient descriptors. Because my background is not in industrial design or its history, frequently the lists of designers singing Fuller’s praises would leave me with no idea whether the person talking was credible. At one of the singular points I discussed above, the first summer at Black Mountain College, the mathematician Max Dehn is described as dismissive of Fuller’s experiments in geometry. It probably should have been mentioned that Max Dehn was one of the world’s leading experts in polytopes, the very field Fuller was exploring.
This was one among many times that a question occurred to me repeatedly through the book: Why was Fuller a crank? Again, he didn’t have to be: a sober exposition of the design and geometric ideas in Synergetics would have been sufficient to bring fame and credit.
In considering this question, I thought about something Soviet mathematical genius Kolmogorov once said. All mathematicians think they know more than everyone else, but don’t say so because they are “intelligent people”. It will help to give an example of what Kolmogorov meant. Hilbert’s work in algebraic geometry was inspired by an analogy he made between another field. But as explained in Klein’s History Of Mathematics In The 19th Century, this analogy was “useless for proofs”. Those came by another method. The analogy remains hidden until the right time.
In this crucial matter, Fuller was no mathematician. Fuller could not discipline himself to create a field out of analogy, as the analogy was enough for him. Therefore, it is sad but not surprising but it is sad that his career ended doing feed ins for est seminars.
Before concluding on such a depressing note, we must admit three things. First, Fuller’s dream of low cost high quality and readily available housing is as important today as it was in his time. These ideas appealed to Nehru for more than aesthetic reasons. Second, despite the dross he dressed them in, Fuller had many beautiful and impressive ideas that inspired many people. It speaks sufficiently to the beauty of Fuller's ideas that Ornette Coleman called Fuller his “number one hero”.
Third and finally, there really is something universal in the story of Fuller’s explorations. This universal story more than anything else is what Nevala-Lee has shared with the world.
I was reminded many times in Nevala-Lee’s tale of Fuller’s overconfident, sometimes mathematical and sometimes poetical attempts to understand the geometry within him of Jung’s analysis of the geometry within Nicholas Of Flue. In the end, Brother Klaus “realized” this vision was one of The Trinity itself. And if a vision of Him would rid this world of landlords, developers and contractors then I suppose we could say the seer won twice.
Note: CVAR received review copies of this book. We have no financial stakes in its success beyond this.
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It's a great review! I also like Fuller b/c I like guys who have a big second act.