The Bay Area attracts dreamers, progressives, nonconformists, and designers. Buckminster Fuller was all of these, and though he never lived in San Francisco, his ideas spawned many local experiments in the realms of technology, engineering, and sustainability—some more successful than others. The Whole Earth Catalog, The North Face, Pritzker Prize–winning architect Thom Mayne, and Calfiornia Governor Jerry Brown have all cited Fuller as a key influence on several projects.
From March 31 through July 29, 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area, the first exhibition to consider Fuller’s local design legacy. The presentation will feature some 65 works, including prints, drawings, photographs, documentary video, books, models, and ephemera representing some of Fuller’s most iconic projects alongside those by Bay Area designers inspired by his philosophy.
“Late in his life Fuller selected 13 designs for which he obtained U.S. patents and featured them in a portfolio called Inventions: Twelve Around One, to be marketed to art collectors,” notes SFMOMA Acting Department Head/Assistant Curator of Architecture and Design Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, who organized the presentation. “In learning more about Fuller, I’ve come to realize that the works in the portfolio shouldn’t be considered designs. I prefer to view them as opportunities to rethink a more comprehensive and efficient way of living. In hindsight, it’s probably fortunate that none of these projects were commercially successful, as it could have distracted from Fuller’s idealism. This exhibition attempts to situate him as visionary and to present his revolutionary world view.”
The Utopian Impulse opens by introducing Fuller, primarily with prints from the Inventions: Twelve Around One portfolio (1981), as well as several key works on loan from the R. Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford University. The gallery includes projects dating from the late 1920s through the mid-1970s paired with his most well-known ideas from the portfolio, such as the 4D House (1928), a hexagonal autonomous dwelling meant to be optimally resource efficient and mass producible from factory-made kits that could be easily shipped anywhere and quickly assembled on site. Extending this optimization to transportation, Fuller’s ultra-light three-wheeled Dymaxion Car (1933) featured unprecedented fuel efficiency and an aerodynamic, teardrop shape, which was determined in collaboration with boat designer Sterling Burgess. While these projects held promise in efficiency, fabrication techniques available at the time could not produce a viable design for mass production.
The exhibition also presents several of Fuller’s big-picture ideas, including his World Game project, which he initiated in 1965. Conceived as a data-visualization system meant to facilitate global approaches in solving the world’s problems, Fuller intended the piece to “make the world work, for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
The other half of the presentation looks at Bay Area endeavors inspired by Fuller’s thinking, particularly those that employ his approach of commingling technology, ecology, and social responsibility to improve living systems. For instance, in the early 1970s Fuller’s conceptions of simple, mobile dwellings emerged in the philosophies of several East Bay companies that were developing outdoor gear to coincide with the back-to-the-earth movement. Many tent designers had learned about Fuller’s concept of “tensegrity,” a made-up word intended to mean tension plus integrity. The North Face released the first “tensegrity” tent in 1976, called the Oval Intention, which is now credited with changing contemporary tent design.
Nodding to Fuller as a kindred spirit in large-scale change through storytelling and performative marketing, environmental activist David de Rothschild launched the Plastiki sailboat—a catamaran made entirely of recycled materials and kept afloat by some 12,500 plastic water bottles—and sailed it from San Francisco to Australia in 2010 as an awareness campaign for less waste and more recycling. Fuller’s notion of social betterment through greater access to information weaves through projects including Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968–1972), which attempted to list all things needed for a self-sustainable lifestyle; and architect Nicholas de Monchaux’s Local Code initiative, which uses geospatial analysis to collect real-time data on health, environmental, and crime activities in San Francisco’s publicly owned unused spaces and then proposes temporary solutions for dire conditions.
As a commission for this presentation, San Francisco–based documentary filmmaker Sam Green will create a documentary on several projects related to Fuller and the Bay Area by researching Fuller’s self-curated archive known as the Dymaxion Chronofile. The film will be presented in the galleries on a wall sculpture designed by Obscura Digital, a local firm that creates custom installations for media presentations.
While some projects in the exhibition reference Fuller directly, others, like Morphosis’s design for San Francisco’s Federal Building, have a more distant relationship to Fuller while still maintaining his ethos of “comprehensive design,” which advocates for anticipatory design informed by intelligence from several sectors.
“Fuller’s eccentric views were informed by speculating on future technologies, not past history,” says Fletcher. “Since he worked outside of business, academic, and scientific norms, he never quite fit in. Perhaps it was frustrating for him or maybe it was a calculated elusiveness. Either way, the view of Fuller as an outsider has emerged as an emblem for ‘thinking differently,’ which is a starting point for many Bay Area initiatives.”
Related Public Program
The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Performances at 7 and 9 p.m.
Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA
$25 general; $20 SFMOMA and San Francisco Film Society members
Academy Award–nominated filmmaker Sam Green presents the world premiere of his “live documentary” on Buckminster Fuller. The piece is a follow-up to his internationally acclaimed live film Utopia in Four Movements, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. In this new piece, Green looks at the projects Fuller proposed for the Bay Area, including a gargantuan floating tetrahedral city in the middle of the Bay, and explores his utopian vision of radical change through a “design revolution.” Green’s in-person cinematic narration draws inspiration equally from old travelogues, the Benshi tradition, and TED talks, and will feature a live collaboration with experimental indie band Yo La Tengo.
The work has been commissioned by SFMOMA as part of The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area and is copresented by the San Francisco Film Society as part of the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival. Tickets will be available through the Film Society at sffs.org.
The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area is made possible through generous support from the Gensler Family Foundation and Obscura Digital. Additional support is provided by Memento Press.