Review: ‘Inventor of the Future,’ by Alec Nevala-Lee

The author clearly admires his subject, which makes some aspects of his dispassionate narrative all the more unsettling: Fuller’s fraught relationship with his wife, Anne; the serial affairs, often with very young women; the excessive drinking; the monumental ego that often acted against its own better interests; a protective instinct about his ideas that verged on paranoia; and always that carefully crafted “reality distortion field.” For someone like this reader, who met and was influenced by Fuller, reading these revelations is a chastening experience. In his public appearances, Fuller could come across as a selfless seer, almost a secular saint; in Nevala-Lee’s biography he is all too human.

Who was Richard Buckminster Fuller Jr.? He was born in 1895 in Milton, Mass., an affluent suburb of Boston, to an established New England family, a grandnephew of the feminist writer and editor Margaret Fuller. Like his antecedents, young Fuller attended Harvard. Like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, he dropped out, although he did not leave voluntarily – he was expelled, twice. Like Steve Jobs, another college dropout, Fuller became an entrepreneur, but he was no prodigy. Jobs lived only 56 years; by 53, all that Fuller had to show for his efforts was a string of business failures: a building system whose financial backers eased him out of the company, a three-wheeled car prototype that overturned and could have seriously injured his wife and daughter, and a prefabricated house that resembled a flying saucer and did not progress beyond the prototype stage.

Despite these not inconsiderable setbacks, Fuller never faltered. His unconventional imagination and energetic optimism attracted admirers and supporters. A bohemian at heart, he became friends with the composer John Cage and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and was close to Margaret Mead and Marshall McLuhan. “Bucky Fuller was no architect, and he kept pretending he was,” complained Philip Johnson, who was immune to Fuller’s charisma. Yet it was precisely among architects that Fuller acquired an active following. He taught in architecture schools, his work was published in architecture magazines and he was close to Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was Wright who slyly put Fuller in his place: “I am an architect interested in science. Buckminster is a scientist interested in architecture.”

And then came the dome. By the late 1940s, Fuller had learned his lesson and he avoided investors and financial backers. He built his first experimental geodesic domes inexpensively with students, initially at Black Mountain College, a progressive school in North Carolina. They were extremely strong for their size, and they maximized internal volume with the smallest amount of material. The first practical geodesic application was a covering for the central courtyard of the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn, Mich. The lightweight lattice structure was one-twentieth the weight of a conventional steel roof, which the building wasn’t strong enough to support. Other domes included radar enclosures (radomes) in the Arctic; an American exhibition pavilion in Moscow (the site of the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate”); an auditorium in Hawaii for the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser; temporary shelters for the Marine Corps; and a 384-foot-wide dome for the Union Tank Car Company in Louisiana, the largest structure ever built without internal supports.

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