Good at Being Gods

Caleb Crain

  • Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe edited by K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller
    Yale, 257 pp, £35.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12620 4

In the recent Pixar movie Wall-E there is a conflict between two different visions of technology. From one angle, technology appears to be humanity’s overlord: the movie imagines that in the future a megacorporation called Buy N Large will so exhaust and pollute the planet that it will have to whisk its customers away on a luxury outer-space cruise ship for their own protection. From another angle, technology appears to be the only thing capable of saving humanity’s soul. Wall-E, a scrappy, pint-sized robot left behind to tidy up Earth, scavenges for mementos of human culture, finds evidence of resurgent plant life and falls in love. The two visions are inconsistent but inextricable: Wall-E is himself a Buy N Large product.

A similar ambivalence colours the reputation of the 20th-century designer Buckminster Fuller. You might say that Fuller aspired to engineer a post-apocalypse outer-space cruise ship but in the end managed only to get himself adopted as technology’s mascot. The harmless side of Fuller is what a visitor saw first at ‘Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe’, a show mounted over the summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art and memorialised in this reverential and lavishly illustrated catalogue. Parked in a niche on the museum’s ground floor was the only surviving model of Fuller’s Dymaxion car, a paramecium-shaped tricycle with a Ford V8 engine. Beside it, a black and white video showed the Dymaxion car slinking past a row of box-like Depression-era Fords and sidling with UFO-like ease into a parking space its own exact size. Fuller intended to add what he called ‘jet stilts’ to the vehicle someday, so it could fly, but they never got invented. Like most of his projects, the car failed utterly as a commercial enterprise. In the absence of jet stilts, one was left to contemplate the harmony between a man and his car – a tableau as homely and unthreatening as a boy and his dog.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, however, there were glimpses of something less benign. In early sketches, Fuller dreamed of a world made homogeneous by air travel, in which a corporation of his devising would send out blimps that dropped bombs, poured concrete into the resulting craters, and then lowered into place prefabricated houses. No need to plant your house near a city or even a road; to visit friends or the grocery store, just fly off in your Dymaxion car (once the kinks in the jet stilts have been worked out). Fuller imagined that the houses would be so fully automated that dishwashers would not only wash dishes but also return them to the shelves. Children could be safely neglected, because no harm could come to them from falling on the pneumatic floors or crashing into the shatterproof windows. Sun and wind would supply power. Best of all, one company would sell the whole package as a unit, plumbing and all.

Convenience, safety, automation, a vertically integrated monopoly and a brutal disregard for the pre-existing landscape: surely the Fuller house belongs in the Buy N Large family of products. Fuller lovingly drew by hand a portfolio of logos and branding concepts for the never realised housing company; they were displayed in a glass case in the exhibition as if they were studies an artist had made before starting on a grand canvas. Fuller never left his corporate-imperialist vision behind. At the height of his career, he was still imagining that people could live on the walls of an enormous pyramid-shaped mall, in gigantic bubbles that floated among the clouds, or in Manhattan under a sheath that kept out the ‘unpleasant effects of climate, heat, dust, bugs, glare etc’.

In the 1960s, the leaders of America’s counterculture embraced Fuller as a guru. Though many of them believed that technology and capitalism had got the world into a mess, many also believed that more technology and more capitalism could get the world out of it, if only the technology could be made smaller in scale and a market could be developed for people who wanted to do the right thing. (That Fuller wasn’t much interested in smaller scales or much good at making money was somehow no obstacle to their admiration.) When the price of oil rocketed in the 1970s, mainstream America began to take seriously the counterculture’s dream of redesigning industrial society. Solar panels flourished, empty six-packs became the bricks for houses, fish grew to edible size in plastic tanks and windmills appeared even in New York City. But when oil prices plummeted again in the 1980s, environmental problems were forgotten, along with many of these technological attempts to solve them.

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[*] Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $25, October 2007, 978 0 618 65825 1.

[†] Megan Marshall wrote about Margaret Fuller in the LRB of 15 November 2007.