The Surrealists used to play a game in which they used unsuppressed, automatic response, or automatism, to redefine common notions. Richard Buckminster Fuller, a self-titled “design scientist” whose creativity spanned the fields of poetry, cartography, physics and engineering, apparently didn’t need games to see the world or its architecture in new ways.
Born in 1895 in Massachusetts to a family of activists, Bucky Fuller was both myopic and farsighted as a young child. His early understanding of the environment was tactile, and he relied on his imagination to give shape to the blurry world he encountered: “What I saw wasn’t what everyone else was seeing,” he’s been quoted as saying. His primary question — the leitmotif of his life’s work — could be phrased, “What is a house?”
The final version of his answer can be found in the newly installed Fly’s Eye Dome, sitting like a giant bubble on the north lawn of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where the link between architecture and social change is a sustained focus. The museum acquired the glass and fiberglass prototype, one of only three built by Fuller, in 2016 from historian and preservationist Robert Rubin.
“The whole idea … came from an actual fly’s eye, this idea of the exoskeleton, and that architecture can look at natural forms,” curatorial assistant Dylan Turk said.
The 50-foot-tall dome, which features 61 eyes (or “oculi”), would have created an astounding 4,823-square-feet of living space on three levels and was intended to be a single-family dwelling. “It’s really pretty massive, but the geometry makes it feel comfortable and relatable,” Turk said. “This was his idea for affordable housing.”
That idea is also expressed in another icon of architecture on the museum grounds: The Bachman-Wilson House, a Frank Lloyd Wright “Usonian” structure that the museum transported from its original location in New Jersey in 2014 to Bentonville and reassembled. Wright used the term Usonian — his abbreviation of “United States of North America” — to refer to the simple, two-story structures that he designed as “housing for the American middle class,” Turk said.
The experience of standing inside the Fly’s Eye Dome is like time travel in both directions: It looks like it’s part artifact from mid-century America and part 22nd century dream.
Fuller designed the Fly’s Eye Dome in 1965 after a decade of working with architect Norman Foster and surfboard designer John Warren. “They failed a lot” along the way, Turk said, in their effort to “create a dome that wouldn’t be just metal with a skin on it [like Fuller’s previous geodesic domes], but in one solid material like fiberglass, which was strong yet pliable.” Fuller’s geodesic design was an “idea of synergy,” one based on the “strength of the whole rather than the individual parts,” Turk said.
The vicissitudes of Fuller’s life informed his designs for autonomous dwellings. Booted from Harvard University twice (once for blowing his entire tuition on entertaining a line of Broadway chorus girls), he received much of his education working in abattoirs and cotton mills, contemplating machinery and distribution. His years in the military gave him an eye for efficiency and aeronautics.
In 1927, during a personal crisis brought on by bankruptcy and the death of his first daughter, whose illness he believed was exacerbated by poor housing, Fuller went into seclusion. When he returned, he described himself as “an experiment,” one that would “discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.” He called himself “Guinea Pig B.”
Fuller called the home the “the great economic problem of this age and all ages.” He thought shelter should be prefabricated and standardized, as automobiles had been, to reduce cost, and he agreed with his contemporary Le Corbusier that we should “eliminate from our hearts and our minds all dead concepts in regards to the house.”
His ideas first found form in the “4D” house, which was intended to liberate its inhabitants from life’s drudgery and free their time. The homes would be light enough to be distributed by air — they were to be dropped in place from zeppelins into craters created by bombs, also dropped by zeppelins. They would include dust-free furniture and “O-volving” shelves that would spin with books. Their prefabricated bathrooms fitted together like puzzles and would feature “fog guns” that would spray atomized water to clean the body with a single pint of water, and dry toilets that would package waste to be used as fertilizer.
In the 1940s, Fuller’s experiments in 3D mapping and the strengths of geometric shapes fed into the evolution of his geodesic housing design. The polyhedron design — formed of equilateral triangles — allows the structure to be both self-supporting, strong and light. Fuller called it “nature’s geometry.” In 1970, the American Institute of Architects called the geodesic dome “the strongest, lightest, and most efficient means of enclosing space yet known to man.”
Fuller’s brand of proto-environmentalism came from his desire to provide a comfortable microclimate in which all people could live off the grid in the most structurally sound way possible.
“He asked everyone, ‘How much does your building weigh,’ ” Turk said, “because he truly believed if you understand the weight of your building … and you try to keep the weight as low as possible, that’s sustainability. Use the least to accomplish the most.”
Fuller’s timeliness is remarkable: It’s no longer farfetched that our structures would need to withstand great amounts of wind-stress in an ever-changing climate, or survive flooding, or even float above the land, as Fuller mapped out in his most imaginative plans for shelter, the Cloud Nine habitat.
Also on display are Fuller’s papers acquired by the museum: Coffee-splattered drawings, correspondence, photos of failed domes, a magazine clipping of an insect’s eye that inspired Fuller’s creation and writings from his notebooks. There is also a recipe for beer; Ozark Brewing Co. collaborated with Crystal Bridges to produce beer inspired by the recipe, which was introduced at an event at the museum in mid-July.
“I think with this kind of a dialogue — that we’re continuing to push our architecture collection around housing — it’s at least hopefully having an impact and bringing awareness to the community so that they can see what [architectural] alternatives will be,” Turk said.
The dome can be viewed from the north gallery bridge and north elevator tower.