By Tim Hornyak
In the 1960s, the architect and author Buckminster Fuller was a sensation on the university lecture circuit. Delivering over 400 talks a year in a time of social upheaval, he enchanted students with visions of how human society could provide for all at the expense of none. What we had to do, he said, was be naive and follow nature’s design principles.
Fuller’s legacy as an educator is inextricably linked to his architectural creations. Growing up in Montreal, I would listen to my father rhapsodize about Expo 67, a world’s fair held on the Saint Lawrence River. There was a driverless monorail, Soviet satellites and luminaries including Jackie Kennedy and Maurice Chevalier. Built on natural and artificial islands, it drew nearly 50 million people and was one of the must successful world fairs ever held. Like the giant inverted pyramid that was the Canadian pavilion, Expo 67 was “a miracle,” historian Pierre Berton wrote. In the 1980s I would walk through remnants of Expo 67 on Île Sainte-Hélène. Its utopian vision of the future seemed a forgotten dream but for its architectural legacy. There was the delightful jumble of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, the Place des Nations and pavilions repurposed into the Casino de Montreal. But the structure that captured my imagination was Fuller’s geodesic dome.
Like a giant geopolitical soap bubble, the dome housed the US pavilion and faced off against the Soviet pavilion across a canal. Fuller’s sphere was made of transparent acrylic sheeting wrapped over steel trusses. Inside, the longest escalator ever built led to exhibits about Hollywood movies and the conquest of space. It projected American know-how, power and prestige, but it also reflected Fuller’s belief that scientific progress could benefit everyone.
Fuller felt that schools destroyed a child’s intuitive grasp of the world.
The geodesic dome was designed to serve several educational functions, says Kirk Bergstrom, president of media design firm WorldLink and former vice chair of the Buckminster Fuller Institute in San Francisco. “First, the structure represents a physical expression of Fuller’s synergetic geometry, the coordinate system of nature… A dome embodies the principle of ‘doing more with less,’” he says. “Second, the spherical framework can function as a ‘geoscope’—one of Fuller’s inventions to display global trends and patterns on the interior membrane of a dome. Third, a dome represents a potential learning environment. Its arching, open architecture provides a flexible and modular space for design labs, group process, and artistic performance.”
An inventor and philosopher, Fuller is remembered for his concept of Spaceship Earth as well as his visionary creations. He was influenced by the writing of self-improvement guru Alfred Korzybski, who was known for his adage that “the map is not the territory.” Fuller was also an autodidact who was very at home preaching unconventional ideas. He popularized the geodesic dome as a kind of mass housing that could be transported by aircraft. His UFO-like Dymaxion homes were hung from masts and could be packed up and moved. Some of his Dymaxion car designs were flying vehicles that anticipated today’s drone taxis. Though thousands of domes were built in the 1950s and ’60s, neither his architecture nor his vehicles sparked the sea change in thinking that he longed for.
Fuller tried education reform, drawing inspiration from experience. Born in Massachusetts in 1895, he was not a promising child. Short and cross-eyed, he was bullied in school and argued with his teachers. He got into Harvard only to be kicked out twice. After a bout of depression and an attempted suicide, he committed himself to improving the lot of humanity.
Fuller felt that schools destroyed a child’s intuitive grasp of the world by forcing knowledge into silos. “He found the goal of education was to ‘de-genius’ the child, for, as he said, ‘every child is born a genius,’” Fuller’s daughter Allegra Fuller Snyder explained in a 1998 interview. Railing against schools was a favorite theme in Fuller’s many lectures, which carried on for hours in great torrents of logorrhea. He conveyed his unshakable belief that pollution, overpopulation, inequality and the other global problems could be mitigated by education, science and technology. People responded with standing ovations.
What we had to do, he said, was be naive and follow nature’s design principles.
One of these monologues became a 1962 book, Education Automation: Comprehensive Learning for Emergent Humanity. In it, he wrote, “What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed, so that by the time that most people are mature they have lost use of many of their innate capabilities. My longtime hope is that we may soon begin to realize what we are doing and may alter the ‘education’ process in such a way as only to help the new life to demonstrate some of its very powerful innate capabilities.”
The book predicted that automation would make most work obsolete, and people would spend the majority of their time on reeducation to stay abreast of progress. Fuller foresaw the rise of lifelong education, massive online open courses (MOOCs), and even YouTube lessons and TED Talks. “The individual is going to study mainly at home,” Fuller said in a 1966 interview in The New Yorker. “And the great teachers won’t have to spend their time delivering the same lectures over and over, because they’ll put them on film. The teachers and scholars will be free to spend their time developing more and more knowledge about man’s whole experience—
past, present, and future.”
“By exploring the world around him without preconceptions, Fuller believed that he could discover patterns that would lead to the reorganization of society in ways that would benefit everybody,” says Jonathon Keats, author of You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future. “Of course he didn’t succeed.”
Fuller had little tolerance for independent thinking among his students, Keats adds, and sometimes viewed them as free labor for his projects. But he emphasized that curiosity should be the driver of education, an idea that resonates widely today. “His educational impact was probably most profound where he was least directly involved, where people went to his lectures (often stoned) and got the gist of his way of thinking without learning too many details—let alone coming under his direct instruction,” says Keats. “For them, and for those who study Fuller today, I believe he can be inspiring in the best possible way.”
In 1976, a fire broke out at the former American pavilion in Montreal, leaving the dome a charred skeleton. It later played the part of a ruined alien city in Battlestar Galactica, with an android gazing wistfully at the structure and lamenting, “It was beautiful… once upon a time.” For years, the dome lay abandoned. Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of Fuller’s greatest creation. More than a decade after his death in 1983, Environment Canada reopened the pavilion as a museum dedicated to the environment. Later renamed the Montreal Biosphere, it’s the only facility of its kind in North America, and is dedicated to raising awareness about environmental issues. Today, the dome sparkles over the Saint Lawrence River, a monument to Spaceship Earth. Surely Bucky would be proud.