Buckminster Fuller's Convoluted Journey from Philosophy to "Aeronautical-Engineering-Counterpart Dwell-in-able House"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 8:52 AM
Those words are not mine. That's how Bucky described his Dymaxion Dwelling Machine. But we're not there yet.

Based on his views about the universe, Fuller began to sketch, and write, and design, and think. He worked with an implicit set of 4 main criteria:
i) He would design for the individual, not for the community.
ii) He would design from the inside to the outside.
iii) He would use materials and resources to maximum efficiency.
iv) His designs would have neutral and temporary qualities.

And so, as usually happens when one begins with philosophy, he came up with a crazy idea. He began to sketch designs for what he calls his "Lightful Towers", also known as "4-D House". They were designed as portable, 10-story residences which a zeppelin would be able to lift and take to wherever it was to be placed. The zeppelin would dig the foundation, of course, by dropping a bomb onto the site to create the hole.
At this point, Fuller's designs were loose and conceptual: his ideas about the universe were clearly expressed in them, but they hadn't quite 'come to earth'. During this time, he made a revision, and the tower changed to a two-story house - it would be more practical, he thought. It became known as the 4-D Dymaxion House.

We will examine each of these in terms of Fuller's criteria.

i) He would design for the individual, not for the community.
Although Bucky recognized the importance of community, his ideas about the dangers of passively accepting the beliefs of others caused him to place more emphasis on individuals, not groups. He wanted to create places where people could learn from their own experiences.

He saw the sheltering house as a mediator between humans and their universe: a tool, a lens, for understanding and viewing the world.
The house was also designed to be completely independent from city infrastructure - it would be off-grid. However, at this early stage, he didn't know specifically how this might be done.

He had some ideas about that, though. The drawing above shows two possibilities: one a wind turbine on top of the tower, which would generate electicity for the building, and the other a rotating streamlined shield around the structure, which would reduce wind-drag, and thus heat loss.
ii) He would design from the inside to the outside.
The first thing to happen at this stage was that Bucky decided that right angles were evil,
and set out to desecrate rectilinear geometry.

Let's not judge him too harshly: he wasn't just saying that he didn't like squares. Bucky was working from the universe onward, and so it was important to him to generate forms using only the principles of nature. Right angles were clumsy and unstable, rarely found in the natural world. The earth didn't operate on the basis of x, y, and z axes, which lacked direction and subtlety. Words like "up" and "down" offended Fuller's precision of language - everything was really either "in" or "out" from a centre of gravity.
Everything on earth fanned out from a central point. And so, in the design of the Lightful Houses, three axes changed to multiple rays springing from a central point - a mast, a column - something that would stand tall, and rise above the surface of the world.

Aside from the geometry, this seemed quite natural to Bucky. Humans stood upright. Why should their architecture walk on four legs.

In the next stage of his ideas - the 4-D Dymaxion House - Fuller realized that the hexagonal shape also allowed him to use the efficient strength of the triangle to maximum advantage. Eventually, he developed "synergetics", a whole system of geometry and mathematics based on triangles and tetrahedrons. Bucky was sure he had found the generating process used by nature to create its forms.
As a practical application of designing from inside to outside, the house was based around its central mast, with its services centred there, and living areas fanning out around it.

In both houses, naturally, the circulation also moved literally from the centre and outwards.

iii) He would use materials and resources to their maximum efficiency.
Bucky was extremely upset at the waste generated by construction and building. Because of his ideas about all of humanity being together on a finite "Spaceship Earth", he determined to waste nothing. This is why his towers spread upward and not outward - he was saving finite land.
More importantly, he developed a system in which metals could be used efficiently in tension, rather than compression.

He would use the central mast as the only loadbearing part of his structure - the rest would hang, supported by tensile cables (red), and held rigid by compression rings (blue).

This system of separating the tensile and compressional members later became known as "tensegrity".
iv) His designs would have neutral and temporary qualities.
Fuller's emphasis on mass production will become clearer in posts regarding the culmination of these designs - the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine. However, even in these early examples, he planned to be efficient by producing houses much as cars are produced - using prefabrication and assembly lines.
Aside from making good houses affordable for everyone, Bucky wanted to make the houses a backdrop to life, rather than an expression of individuality. He said that they were like musical instruments - utterly silent and lifeless on their own, but able to play any melody the performer chooses.
The temporal nature of his designs can be illustrated by a section of the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine:
The only things touching the ground are the anchors of the tensile wires, and a single plate foundation for the mast.
Fuller's earliest house designs stood in isolation, balanced on a slim, compressional mast, while the rest of their structures floated gracefully down in tensile poetry.


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