Saturday, August 23, 2008

Buckminster Fuller

I went to the Whitney today with friends Dan, Steve, and Liane. It was our inaugural museum / dinner quarterly outing. (As just decided by Steve at the conclusion of our time at the Whitney.) Dan and I had been planning to go to the Buckminster Fuller exhibit for a good 6 weeks and finally our schedules aligned today. Luckily Steve and Liane were free as well. 

Fuller is an interesting guy, though after an hour long tour by a woman who is clearly a scholar and viewing close to 100 pieces of his work, I'm still not sure if or how he is relevant to the art and architecture worlds. Entirely self-taught, he can't be called a designer, architect, or engineer. (Leaving me highly skeptical about his relevance to begin with.) At 32, the age I am now, he had an epiphany that rather than commit suicide by drowning himself in Lake Michigan, he would spend his time as a guinea pig of design, throwing out crazy ideas one after another and seeing if any of them stick to help improve the quality of life on this planet. Hmmmm...I am growing more skeptical by the minute. 

Fuller was very concerned with a handful of concepts and activities: marketing and branding, developing a design language all his own, optimism under all circumstances, and the state of the human condition. Now I'm growing a bit more interested. And then two other facts really pulled me in: he did not give a lick about the historical preservation of architecture (he cared only about the futuristic city) and he was so obsessed with the ideation / prototyping phase of a project that none of his ideas ever made it to market. 

As someone who loves the history of architecture and often spends days walking around a city just looking at buildings, I'm horrified that anyone in this field would ever admit to not caring one way or another if any architecture is ever preserved. And then I considered how many people I know who love thinking up ideas with no ability / desire to execute them. I like endings; I enjoy completing projects and reveling in the analysis of the outcome. (Perhaps that's because I was born a Pisces, the last sign of the zodiac.) I cannot imagine anyone loving to think up ideas for ideas' sake and not doing what it takes to see those ideas realized first-hand. To say you are a visionary with no ability to operate is like saying you would enjoy the company of other people if only you didn't love to hide in your apartment. A million good ideas have no relevance if you don't have the inkling to make them come to life. Or do they?

My friends and I left the exhibit interested and confused. Why on Earth would the Whitney devote an entire floor to a man who couldn't get things done? I thought about this on my walk to dinner. This sliding scale of a man, equal parts genius and crack-pot. This man with no formal training who has talents that defied any kind of definition. A man without a community. 

I wonder if it is people like Buckminster Fuller who provide the shoulders for us to stand on to do great things after him. He could see that building environmentally sustainable vehicles and communities would be important, even if he didn't have the ability to get them built. He could see that we were building so much manufacturing capability in this country that someday those resources would have to be used in new ways such as green energy production. So the question becomes can someone else with more energy and organization pick up the good points of his ideas and run with them to create something that benefits humanity in a tangible way? Maybe that is his lasting legacy: he confused, inspired, and infuriated us so much that people picked apart his ideas and salvaged the pieces that could be brought to life with a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work. Not a bad legacy for a man who almost ended it all at 32 on the shores of Lake Michigan. No bad at all. 

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