Bucky at the Whitney

Michael is my oldest friendship, with many twists and turns dating from 1968, where we met on the barricades of the anti-Vietnam hippie ‘revolution’.  That feeling, in these days of Sarah Palin springing fully formed from the forehead of Rush LImbaugh, seems very far away. In our current cynical state of mind, it’s hard to recreate the heady tenor of those times, the air replete with possibility of top-to-toe change. Even though Jack Kennedy, and then in that very year, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered, there was still the feeling that underneath this violence the American dream of true democracy could still be achieved, must be realized for all, rescued from the 50’s militarism of Ike and the new real politik practitioners like Johnson and Nixon.

I was a volunteer ($25/week as I remember, for expenses) sent down from Cambridge by the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) to support and organize Providence’s anti-war movement. Michael had just dropped out from Brown with the same intent. We had an amazing teacher for politics – not interested in the communists, the socialists, or any –isms at all. Tony Ramos preached the end of fear, and practiced it – but right within the American tradition. We laughed our way to freedom.

On the streets of Providence ‘pigs’ hoisted us into paddy wagon and whacked us with flashlights as they drove us away from the demonstrations. Where the omega was our symbol of draft resistance and the peace sign was called ‘the footprint of the American chicken’ (how times change)… But by the end of the summer we were done with this cops and robbers game, and we moved on. As I remember, a police informer infiltrated the organization toward the end of the summer. We appointed him general manager, and we all left.

I went back to Harvard while Michael, on Tony’s recommendation moved out to the unlikely location of Carbondale, Illinois, where he could go to school for under $300 per semester, after only 3 months of establishing residency. He turned in his chemistry for art courses, but was soon under Bucky’s spell, as he had an honorary professorship there. While I was visiting, he handed me a book to read, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, by an unlikely looking man with the patrician name of R. Buckminster Fuller. I tried to read it, but the sentences went on like ragas for half a page, filled with words I could barely understand, and packed together so closely as to render language as another, thicker medium. If T. S. Eliot or Tom Stoppard (my favorite writers of the time) were like spring water, Bucky was like ketchup. I handed the book back, but Michael said, “No, you have to read it”, so I did.

Once entered, the world of Buckminster Fuller is unlike any other – a world of intellectual honesty, systems thinking, and clarity with oneself and others that put things in an amazingly universal and non-judgmental perspective – “Pollution is a resource in the wrong place at the wrong time.” and the obvious insight from the title italicized above: We are already on a very well set-up spaceship moving 20 miles a second – so well set up we are hardly aware we are members of the crew.

Bucky was short, milk-bottle shaped, with a severe crewcut and very thick lenses that made his eyes swim large behind them. (I only once saw him take them off – what small eyes he actually had.) He was a total goof – his glasses contained hearing aids as well, and were held on by a dorky band behind his head.

Bucky was famous for his long speeches. He would start with something simple, like the behaviour of metal alloys, and then he would wander into education, then back through boat-building, and then cartography. Just when you thought you were listening to a madman, he would bring all his subjects together in a neat bundle, and you would realize he knew exactly where he was going all the time.

Never did I meet such a wide-ranging intellect (Ida Rolf came close), and never again did I meet such an innocent (Rupert Sheldrake comes close). The latter was a big part of his genius: he approached every situation as if it were utterly new, and took child-like delight in turning people’s ideas upside down. But such was his unique use of language that it took most of the two years I was there to listen to him and understand him in real time, as he spoke.

Although I was later to become known in the bodywork world for my championing of Bucky’s (actually Snelson’s) ‘tensegrity’ geometry concepts applied to body structure, movement, and resiliency, in those days, I had little to do with the geodesic geometry, and was far more interested in the World Game.

Bucky’s idea for World Game in 1970 was simple: presume the population for 2000 (6 billion). Presume no advances in technology by then – what can you do to make the world work better for everyone? Turns out a lot, if you can find the political will. We examined the problem of inadequate food in India, and came to the conclusion that if you electrified India, its food problem would be solved. This has since come to pass.

Looking at the large flows in the world led me for the first time to see the process of human development as embryological, and I actually took my first anatomy and embryology course at SIU, in an attempt to better understand the flows in the ‘body human’ – meaning the flows of energy and materials humans initiate over the surface of the world. Diagram the world as a system, and you see the placental flow of raw materials from the third world to the first, and the liver output of finished goods from the industrialized world to the rest.

Michael and I were very involved in all this for two years; Michael more than I as he worked directly in Bucky’s office. We were studying to be ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientists’ – certainly a change from being a Harvard English major. When I graduated, I went to work for Tom’s of Maine and started an aquaculture project with my father; Michael took a job with Bell Labs.

Michael, in the intervening 25 years, has done many ‘fullerian’ jobs from one place – a loft in the garment district of New York City. In true Bucky fashion, he has been a video producer (including most of mine), worked in 3-D TV, and started several tech businesses with variable success. I have followed a different course – going all around the world (like Bucky, I suppose) but doing only one thing, structural bodywork, for 30 years.

All this is background for a short visit we paid, in our 30th year of friendship, to the Buckminster Fuller exhibit just finishing at the Whitney Museum. Viewed from the perspective of someone young who doesn’t know Bucky, I found the exhibit a little thin and lacking in the excitement Bucky created, but as a series of nostalgic hoops for us to dance through, it was perfect. It showed Bucky’s work on cartography, architecture (the air-deliverable manufactured house, tensegrity (a large ‘spine’ arched across the ceiling of one room), the Dymaxoin house, bathroom, storage unit, octet trusses and of course geodesic domes.

There were a few television vignettes of Bucky explaining his theories, but short takes fail to encompass how grand his vision was. The exhibits conclusion seems to be that since we all are not living in domes, Fuller’s affect on his own future (and our present) was minimal. But I disagree: I think his effect has been subtle but pervasive. I would say a similar thing about Fritz Perls: few people profess to do Gestalt Therapy per se any more, but Fritz’s voice still speaks through a lot of people, even when they don’t know it. Same with Bucky –a lot of our current environmental axioms started with him.

The best feature, which I was very glad to finally see in person, was the Dymaxion car. Three of these cars were built in 1933 before the project folded. I happened to see a 1931 Ford Model T pick-up just the day before I came to the exhibit. Compare these straight, wagon-like lines to the aerodynamic inverted-peapod shape of the Dymaxion car. Capable of seating 8 people, getting speeds of up to 120mph, and getting 30 mpg with the same V8 Model T engine. This tear-drop 3-wheel car with a periscope instead of a rear-view mirror was light-years ahead of its time.

Like so many of Bucky’s projects, it ended in failure, but a glorious failure. Churchill’s apt quote is: “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Bucky was certainly a role model in this regard.

My favorite Bucky quote: “I seem to be a verb.”

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