More With Less: Bucky Fuller

Last week I wrote a review of the “Starting with the Universe” retrospective of Buckminster Fuller’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art for Chicago Journal. Check it out here:

More with Less
by Daniel Tucker

Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe
March 14 – June 21, 2009
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611 | 312.280.2660

More with less is the mantra of this historical moment. President Obama urges us to tighten our belts and sacrifice – even without his prodding most of us know that is the sensible thing to do. More with less was also the mantra of Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), the renowned architect, designer and thinker who’s long career of five decades is the subject of a current retrospective exhibition at the MCA.

Fuller’s life and work intersected frequently with Chicago and greater Illinois – he worked as a professor at Southern Illinois University and at Chicago Institute of Design (the precursor to IIT). In fact, the exhibition begins with the dour biographical note that in 1927 “Bucky” (as many have come to call him) contemplated committing suicide in Lake Michigan following a string of personal and professional problems.

This impressive exhibit gives the impression of being a comprehensive viewing of one mans creative output and the special language that accompanied it. There are dome models (“geodesic”), house and car models (based on his “diomaxion” design concept) water-ski looking rafts (“rowing needles”), maps, charts and drawings – tons of sketches. Enough to make your head spin. If you want a view from every possible angle of one of Fuller’s inventions then this exhibit should satisfy. Ironically the charts and maps of Fuller’s complex research were first designed to distill complex information but when compiled together they become totally overwhelming. I’ve got to hand it to the Whitney Museum who originally teamed up with Stanford University Libraries to compile this show – there’s enough ephemera from Bucky’s work it could easily occupy a four hour visit. Additionally, the MCA did a fantastic job highlighting additional materials and information relating to Fuller’s time in our region. The college students filling the galleries on Tuesday night’s free admission evening were clearly excited by the local connections of his work.

Fuller’s creations could be summarized as finding the simplest way to make something cheap, functional, good for the environment and easily reproducible. The form these things took on – often a complex composition of metal triangles and hexagons resembling an eccentric geometry project  – totally followed the function. If it worked, it worked. He was so concerned with models for this reason – he wanted to illustrate and pitch his ideas for anyone and everyone to see. Like today’s inventors he needed capital investments to see his ideas move past the drawing or modeling board. Often that jump never took place, but when it did Fuller found himself in the company of the likes of Henry Ford, Fortune Magazine and even the US Government. During a brief stint on the “Board of Economic Warfare” where he was tasked with designing temporary shelters for wartime, he tried to re-purpose post-WW2 manufacturing facilities and even terminology (he liked to say we needed to move from “weaponry” to “livingry”.) Fuller differed from many of today’s ecologists in that he was pretty much willing to work with anyone, even if their work seemed to conflict with the world he wanted to be part of creating. It is difficult to assess from the exhibit if this was a pragmatic open-mindedness or if in reality Fuller was more of a “heady” inventor with naiive political analysis – a precursor to today’s “green capitalists.”

He was called an “objective economist”, an “evolutionary strategist” and a “comprehensive anticipatory designer.” I think Buckminster Fuller was a thinker who’s ideas did not correspond to the reality of his times. A holistic efficiency wasn’t the highest priority after the second World War – All-out Production was the name of the game and the health or environmental cost was not on the table. Today it is, since our economic and ecological system can no longer bare to be mistreated. I highly recommend checking out the Fuller Gallery Talks with local artists on April 25, May 30 and June 6 to get a sense of how artists and designers are continuing his legacy here in Chicago.


Published by Tucker

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