Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist. If you’ve read anything about him, you probably know Fuller was kicked out of Harvard College. And not just once, but twice. He never graduated. However, you may not be familiar with some of his more positive experiences at Cambridge, including a stint as a visiting professor at Harvard in the early 1960s.
In May 1929, the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art presented an exhibition titled “4D,” which featured a model of Fuller’s Dymaxion House. During the exhibit, Fuller lectured and demonstrated the features of the house on a daily basis. He used 4D to reference the fourth dimension – time – to emphasize his concern for efficiency. His six-sided house was designed to be affordable, easy to assemble, adaptable, and virtually self-sufficient. Inspired by Henry Ford’s auto factories, Fuller hoped his house would go into mass production as well.
Local press covered the exhibition with puzzled interest. On May 21, 1929, the day after the exhibition opened, The Harvard Crimson published a fairly objective story outlining Fuller’s design principles and announcing the details of the exhibition. The next day the Crimson took a more critical stance. The unknown writer described the house’s translucent plastic walls, bouncy doors and floors, and central, collapsible pole, and then expressed concern for the architectural profession and aesthetics if the concept caught on.
A Boston Globe headline from May 20, 1929, said, “Hang your house from a pole instead of resting it on the ground,” and described Fuller’s exhibition and “highly revolutionary idea about housing”. He detailed some of its more unusual features: “To open the door you press a button that deflates the door, to close it you detonate it… done in one piece.
“All of this and many more seem bizarre,” The Globe reported, but reassured, “Mr. Fuller is no crank. He is an accomplished engineer. He served in the Navy and is healthy enough. of spirit for being given command of a destroyer.
Young Philip Johnson, then a Harvard student, attended one of Fuller’s lectures that week. He later recalled: “This Dymaxion house, I liked it very much, but it made no difference. You see, the point is… I learned vast amounts of the potential of architecture that I have never forgotten – through this show. The commentary appears in “Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Open America to a New Art, 1928-1943” by Nicholas Fox Weber.
It was the Marshall Field department store in Chicago that presented the first public display of Fuller’s house in April 1929 – before Harvard. The store’s PR people didn’t like Fuller’s “4D” and worked with him to come up with a new term. They made him talk for several hours by writing words that inspired them. The syllables of “dynamic”, “maximum” and the scientific term “ion” have become Dymaxion. They patented it in Fuller’s name, and it quickly became the go-to catch-all.
In March 1930, a model of the Dymaxion House was once again on display in Cambridge, this time in the lobby of the Fogg Museum, with Fuller again present to give a talk. The following February, he spoke at the Harvard Club in Boston under the auspices of the Harvard Engineering Society. He again illustrated his lecture with a model of the house and, as the Crimson of February 2, 1931 reports, also used “images showing the application of new and revolutionary ideas to the affairs of daily life.”
The Dymaxion car arrived in Cambridge one morning in April 1934, as it passed through Harvard Square. The April 16 Harvard Crimson described the scene: “A strange 19-foot rodent-like vehicle meandered up and down on Massachusetts Avenue in the Square neighborhood on Saturday morning. Two months later, Fuller’s three-wheeler was an attraction at a week-long open house at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Somerville. The Boston Globe on June 7 published a photo, calling it “a sea change in automotive design.”
Although neither the car nor the house caught the public eye, Fuller, of course, continued to invent and had a long career in engineering, technology consulting, and as a member of the board of directors of many companies. During the 1961-62 academic year he was back in Cambridge, living at Quincy House on the Harvard campus and serving as Charles Eliot Norton poetry teacher.
In an early article on one of his Norton lectures, Michael Gruen noted in The Harvard Crimson of February 23, 1962, “Fuller spoke for two and a half hours without script or notes. “Thinking aloud,” he started slowly, but then spat out his thoughts at a breakneck pace. “
By this time Fuller had made his reputation and was considered a wise philosopher. But he was still determined to solve all the world’s problems. “Buckminster Fuller is technology embodied,” Gruen wrote in the Crimson of February 27, 1962.
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