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Buckminster Fuller: A Design Science Evangelist in Minnesota

By Mason Riddle

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) believed design scientists, not politicians, solve problems. Or so he claimed to a standing-room only crowd at his Northrop Auditorium lecture on the University of Minnesota campus on October 1, 1973. The 78-year old Fuller had requested only a clip-on mike, a straight-back chair and that the lights be up. When Fuller finished his 90-minute, non-stop presentation, unaided by notes, more than 5,000 people gave him a standing ovation on what was called a “miscellaneous” Monday afternoon.

As the inventor of the Geodesic Dome, the Dymaxion House and the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car, among hundreds of other designs, Fuller shouldered many labels during his lifetime including architect, engineer, scientist, educator, designer, philosopher and poet. Ardent admirers called him a “modern Leonardo Da Vinci.”

The occasion of Fuller’s visit was the opening of the exhibition The Design Science of R. Buckminster Fuller, organized by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which had opened in that city in May 1973 before commencing a national tour. Sponsored by Northwestern National Bank (NWNB) and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), the expansive Design Science was installed on two levels of the bank’s lofty columned atrium at 6th Street and Marquette Avenue, the current site of the Wells Fargo Tower. That evening the bank and the museum hosted a swank reception in the exhibition and guest lists indicate that the captains of industry and culture attended most of the day’s events.

For all the fanfare and press coverage surrounding that lecture and exhibition, it was not his maiden voyage to the Twin Cities. In 1953 the master designer made the first of many visits to the University of Minnesota. He was the second of three visiting critics (the other two were Paul Schweikher from Roselle, Illinois, and Christopher Tunnard, a Yale professor) to the School of Architecture during the 1952–53 academic year. During his four-week Winter Quarter stint, Fuller lectured frequently and worked with students. According to a University New Service release, architecture students, under his direction, “constructed a small geodesic dome from redwood, aluminum fastenings and fibre glass cord.” In the fall of 1953 Fuller returned as a visiting critic in the university’s School of Architecture.

“When he was a guest instructor for our class, he would lecture all morning long, and we would come and go attending our other classes,” recalls Randy Vosbeck, an architect who studied under Fuller in 1953. “Then in the afternoon, he would direct us in constructing a dome. We erected it at the end of the quarter on the roof of the Engineering building. We constructed wood trusses that were curved in the dome shape and tied together with some 3M tape product. Unfortunately, there was a huge rainstorm the night after we erected it, and the wood warped and the dome all but collapsed.” Vosbeck continues, “Even so, I assure you that our time with Bucky was certainly a highlight of my time in architecture school, and I think it was for most all in our class.”

Retired Minneapolis architect Kay Lockhart was also a graduate student of Fuller’s in the 1950s and later became a professor in the school. “Bucky had a group of students build a geodesic dome in the Field House, and we also developed a strut,” he says. “After Ralph [Rapson] was hired [as head of the school of architecture] in 1954, it seemed like Bucky came almost every year. One fall quarter he stayed in the Architecture frat house.” Commenting on Fuller’s “legendary lectures,” Lockhart notes, “We’d sit around and listen for three to four hours, go to lunch or dinner, and come back and he was still lecturing. Often the lectures were in Bell Museum. They were incredible, well thought out.” Lockhart also remembers that students built a dome in Rapson’s side yard. “Bucky was such a character, sort of a typical absent-minded professor.”

Lore has it that Fuller built a dome at a university fraternity house (Lockhart thinks it was probably the architecture fraternity). When he returned the following year, he was dismayed to find students drinking in it.

In November 1955, the U of M News Service wrote that Fuller was visiting campus for the fourth time and would present a lecture titled “Design Science” at the Minnesota Museum of Natural History.” The release noted that with the assistance of 30 students, Fuller was directing a three-year project to construct a “Minni-earth,” a geodesic globe 1/1,000,000 the diameter of the earth. When completed the open-work truss sphere was to equal the height of a four-story building. “The ‘Minni-earth’ will be used to integrate patterns of world-wide scientific events which will take place in the 1957–58 World Geophysical Year.”

In 1960, the Walker Art Center hosted an exhibition about Fuller’s Dymaxion philosophy which featured photos and models of work created since 1927. In conjunction with the show, he gave a daytime lecture to high school students, followed by a public version in the evening, on the theme “Man, Nature, and the Arts.”

For all of Fuller’s visits, documentation of his projects and activities is scarce and sometimes contradictory. A list of his “Keynote Addresses and Principal Speaking Engagements” assembled in 1970 reveals he visited Minnesota nine times beginning in 1953. In addition to his work at the architecture school, he was listed as “faculty” in the Department of Geography and a speaker at the Minneapolis School of Art, now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, from which he received an honorary degree in 1970. In 1967 he addressed the School of Architecture’s graduating class, and in 1968 he consulted with the Psychiatry & Child Development staff at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Fuller returned in 1970 to participate in activities surrounding the inaugural Earth Day, a day of environmental awareness sparked by U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). A University of Minnesota planning committee planned an entire Earth Week under the theme “Tree of Life,” which included tree plantings, workshops, a protest of a General Electric stockholders’ meeting, and speakers like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich. As Tim Brady recounted in 2010, it also included the construction of a Fuller-designed geodesic dome on the Coffman Union lawn. The dome was never fully completed, and Earth Week concluded with a speech by Fuller that Brady describes as “achingly long and densely intellectual.”

The most detailed coverage about Fuller in Minnesota is the records of the 1973 exhibition, The Design Science of R. Buckminster Fuller, the first comprehensive exhibition of Fuller’s designs and innovations. It covered three periods of Fuller’s career: the Dymaxion period (1927–1944) of his houses and cars, the Energetic-Synergetic Geometry Period (1944–1964) of his Geodesic domes and Tensegrity Towers, and the World Resource Management Period (1964–1973) featuring his ecological concerns.

A focal point of Design Science was a 24-foot high Geodesic Dome installed on the Skyway level of the bank, as well as a Dymaxion car, one of only three ever produced. According to Minneapolis Tribune writer, Mike Steel, the 1933 vehicle had been “found in the weeds of the Arizona desert.” The exhibition also featured a 4D Dymaxion House, a Dymaxion bathroom, a Dymaxion World Map, a Dymaxion Dwelling Machine, a 30-foot Tensegrity (tension + integrity), and an Octet strut, which served as a canopy over much of the exhibition. A 20-minute film titled World Game was screened inside the dome. It explored Fuller’s worldwide concept of sustainability—using resources efficiently and wisely. According to press clippings, all the projects demonstrated Fuller’s credo to “do the most with the least.”

Curiously, a bronze bust of Fuller, created by Alonzo Hauser in 1953, was added to the exhibition in Minneapolis. Hauser, who was head of Macalester College’s Art Department, and Fuller had become friends during his early visits in the 1950s.

In the flurry of activity leading up to the exhibition opening and lecture, a geodesic dome was discovered on farmland in Dakota County owned by the Dayton Hudson Corporation that was slated to become a shopping mall. The property had once been owned by Hauser. The 28-foot dome, which had been constructed by Fuller and his students in the 1950s, had since been fitted with a garage door and winterized, and used as a study and workshop. By 1973 it was reported to “serve as a ‘semi-stable’ and ‘warming house’ for cattle and horses on the adjoining farm.”

Forty years hence, Fuller’s wide-ranging ideas seem more relevant than ever, particularly about problem solving, energy resource conservation, and the environment. In addition to Fuller’s lack of faith in politicians solving problems, one lecture quote in particular from seems prescient. “We are entering a new era in which all humanity will be in on all the information,” Fuller stated.

A Minneapolis Star article titled “Looking to the Future” and published the day after the lecture concluded, stated, “Fuller’s concept of design science is the attempt to plan man’s future with an eye to limited world resources.” Fuller’s lecture coincided with the oil embargo and he believed “the crises now confronting man are the result of his own fear.” He did not believe there was an energy crisis but, rather, a lack of understanding about energy resources. He noted that energy cannot decrease, citing Einstein’s E=MC2 equation, but that “knowhow” can decrease. “There’s no energy crisis; just a crisis of ignorance, inertias, and fears.” He also stated in his lecture that money is not really wealth. In his view real wealth is “energy compounded with intellect’s knowhow.”

Fuller was a genius without a college degree. In 1913 he was the fifth-generation to enter Harvard, but he dropped out before his midterm exams. After working in a cotton mill in Ontario, he returned to Harvard only to be dismissed in 1915 for “continued irresponsibility.” Ironically, in 1962–63, Fuller was appointed the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. By the time of his death he had dozens of honorary degrees, including one from Harvard.

Fuller’s last visit to Minnesota was likely in 1981, when he was invited by Vosbeck as a guest at the national AIA convention in Minneapolis. Vosbeck, then AIA president, also invited I.M. Pei and Jose Luis Sert. At the time, he asked Fuller if he recalled his early visits to the University of Minnesota and constructing a dome. “He replied with more details than I ever recalled and remembered everything about it,” said Vosbeck. Did Fuller envision any new designs during his numerous Minnesota visits? Probably not. But he certainly left his mark.

Buckminster Fuller and Montreal World’s Fair Dome

Photo courtesy Magnum Photos

A 1973 Minneapolis Tribune story about The Design Science of R. Buckminster Fuller at the Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis

Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

Fuller speaking at the University of Minnesota

Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

Fuller with his Dymaxion Car and Fly’s Eye Dome

Image courtesy Stanford University Libraries and the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car

Photo courtesy Stanford University Libraries and the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller

Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

Invitation to Buckminster Fuller’s 1973 University of Minnesota lecture

Photo courtesy University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities