Buckminster Fuller was not a San Francisco native; the fellow affectionately referred to as Bucky never even lived in the vicinity. The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area on now at SFMoMA, however, explores the ongoing relationship between Fuller and his creative successors from northern California, while offering new insights into the man himself.
The show began with a gift. Graphic designer Chuck Byrne, a longtime Fuller collaborator, gave a pristine portfolio of 13 projects to the museum, each featuring a series of three prints: an illustration on mylar taken from the patent drawings, a blueprint, and an image of the work realized or in model form. From these, which had never-before been presented as a complete set, curator Jennifer Fletcher began to piece together themes that “resonated” in the Bay Area. “He made this call for a revolution in design informed by technology, nature, efficiency, and the greater good for all,” Fletcher tells Co.Design. “None of these particular projects succeeded in the kind of commercial, mass way that he imagined, but we looked at it holistically as one project then teased out the larger theories behind it.”
The exhibition is divided into four parts. The first introduces visitors to Fuller’s language and speaking style–both of which were exhaustive and idiosyncratic. “He made up words, like tensegrity,” she says, which were typed into the Synergistics Dictionary consisting of a staggering 22,000 index cards–one term per. “These peppered his speeches, some of which were notorious for being eight, even 24-hours long. We show an excerpt from Everything I Know, which is a 42-hour lecture he taped over two weeks.” The next section focuses on his “big ideas,” including those in Byrne’s portfolio, like the Dymaxion Car, as well as many drawn from the nearby Stanford archives. The third gallery displays 12 Bay Area projects “inspired by Fuller’s thinking,” Fletcher says, like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and the Oval Intention Tent by the North Face. “I looked for things that didn’t try to mimic, or continue, his work, but instead really looked at the concepts.”
In the final area, a commission between documentary filmmaker Sam Green and Obscura Digital delves deep into one of Fuller’s most enduring, and expansive, personal legacies: the Dymaxion Chronofile. “This was Fuller’s self-made archive,” Fletcher explains. “Every single day he would clean off his desk and put the ephemera–a mixture ranging from hand-written manuscripts, airline ticket receipts, correspondences–into a folder.” The sheer volume, not to mention incredible breadth, of important documents to complete minutiae, is almost incomprehensible, representing about 52 years worth of continuous collecting. “Sam looked at 13 times where Fuller interacted with the Bay Area,” she says, and transformed them into three minute segments which play simultaneously, in-and-out of sync, from three separate projectors on a 3-D sculpture designed by Obscura Digital. It’s interesting to imagine whether Fuller would have embraced the current state of cloud computing and a paperless existence rife with information overload and oversharing.
Many words can be used to describe Fuller: inventor, designer, futurist, theorist, architect, comprehensivist, anticipatory design scientist (those last two he coined). For Fletcher, however, there’s one that truly hits the mark. “I’d definitely have to go with visionary,” she says.