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Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe

June 26–Sept 21, 2008

Key Concepts

4D stands for the fourth dimension, or time. Fuller adopted this moniker in 1928 for his earliest experiments with mass produced housing to underscore his emphasis on efficiency, both in his proposed use of lightweight building materials and the effective organization of habitable space.

Closest Packing of Spheres
Closest Packing of Spheres describes twelve spheres with the same radius packed around a single sphere to form a cuboctahedron (a polyhedron, or geometric object, with eight triangular faces and six square faces). Fuller called the resulting form Vector Equilibrium, which could ultimately be reduced to a single tetrahedron.

Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science
Fuller defined himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist”. He championed broad thinking instead of specialization; advocated for anticipatory, forward-looking exploration in order to plan for the future; and believed that together design and science could uncover how to benefit the greatest number of people while expending the fewest resources.


Dymaxion is made from of the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion.” The term is often credited to Waldo Warren, an advertising executive, who coined it after listening to Fuller describe the philosophy behind his 4D House shortly before the model was put on display in Chicago at Marshall Field’s department store in 1929. Fuller thereafter adopted Dymaxion as a trademark, and used it for numerous projects.

Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map
A flat projection of the earth consisting of eight triangles and six rectangles, Fuller’s map depicts the earth without relative distortion. The components can fold into a cuboctahedron and allow for multiple combinations that display, for example, the continents as one continuous landmass or the bodies of water as one connected ocean. This type of projection corrects several inaccuracies of the traditional Mercator Map.

Ephemeralization refers to Fuller’s effort to promote a more efficient allocation of resources, or as he continually advocated, “doing more with less.” His use of this term is a forerunner for what is now called sustainability.

Geodesic derives from the Greek words geo (earth) and daiesthai (to divide), and describes the shortest line between any two points on a surface. Fuller adopted this term as the name for his spherical dome structures that could be erected quickly as extremely strong, lightweight shelter.

Great Circles
A Great Circle describes the largest circle that can be drawn on a given sphere – the circumference. Fuller’s interest in great circles developed in the 1930s as airplane travel became a viable cross-continental means of transportation. For Fuller, this development provoked a new understanding of distances between points on the globe, which later evolved into his experiments with map projections and geodesic domes.

Before briefly using the name 4D in 1928, Fuller considered calling his housing project Lightful, a term for which he never provided a clear definition, but signified his deep interest in lightweight, light-filled, efficient, and easily transported and constructed homes.

Octet Truss
Both the name and the structure of the Octet Truss are made from a combination of octahedron and tetrahedron. These interlocking shapes form a structure that evenly distributes load pressure, resulting in an extremely strong, lightweight matrix that retains an appearance of delicacy.

Synergy and Synergetics
Fuller defined synergy as “the behavior of whole systems not implicit in any of the behavioral characteristics of any of the parts of the system when those parts are considered only separately,” and synergetics as the “exploratory strategy of starting with the whole.” He adopted “synergetics” as the name for the experiential mathematics he developed and demonstrated using numerous models.

Spaceship Earth
Fuller used the term Spaceship Earth to point out that the earth is not stationary and that humans are actually aboard a perpetually moving planet traveling through the universe. According to Fuller, the absence of an “instruction book” provided humankind the opportunity to discover how to best utilize the earth’s resources.

A neologism derived from “tension” and “integrity,” and based upon sculptural experiments by Kenneth Snelson (b. 1927), one of Fuller’s students at Black Mountain College. Tensegrity demonstrates the interdependent relationship between tension and compression within a single structure.

Fuller argued that the tetrahedron, a polyhedron composed of four equilateral triangle faces, was the essential building block of nature.


1895: Richard Buckminster Fuller born on July 12 in Milton, Massachusetts.

1899: In kindergarten, uses dried peas and toothpicks to construct what he later defines as his first octet truss.

1907: Begins saving his correspondence and other paperwork, including notes and sketches. Continues this archival project, which he later names the Dymaxion Chronofile, for the remainder of his life.

1913: Enters Harvard University, from which he is expelled twice over the next two years for deliberately missing examinations and failing to complete coursework.

1917: Enlists in the U.S. Navy Reserve Force. Marries Anne Hewlett on his twenty-second birthday.

1922: With his father-in-law, he forms the Stockade Building System, A building supply and construction company specializing in lightweight materiails. Five years later, he is ousted because of managerial conflicts with the company’s new owners.

1927: Develops plan for mass-produced, self-sufficient housing, which he calls 4D Houses.

1929: First uses the name Dymaxion for his 4D housing proposal.

1933: Produces the first of three energy-efficient, three-wheeled Dymaxion cars.

1936: Develops the Dymaxion Bathroom, an easily installed, lightweight, fourpart unit he envisions incorporating into Dymaxion Houses.

1938: His first book, Nine Chains to the Moon, is published.

1940: Transforms metal grain bins into low-cost, single-family shelters called Dymaxion Deployment Units, or DDUs.

1943: The Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map, Fuller’s attempt to create a map free of distortion, is published in Life.

1945: Completes prototype of an aluminum house built from airplane machinery and materials called the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine and nicknamed the Wichita House as a nod to its place of fabrication.

1948: Teaches at Black Mountain College in North Carolina for the first of two summer sessions. Makes initial attempt to construct a largescale dome structure using aluminum Venetian blinds.

1953: Completes the first practical application of the geodesic dome, a roof for the Ford Motor Company Rotunda in Dearborn, Michigan.

1954: U.S. Defense Department Marine Corps experiments successfully with airlifting small geodesic domes by helicopter for use as emergency shelter or equipment protection.

1956: Designs geodesic dome for the U.S. Government Pavilion at an international trade fair in Kabul, Afghanistan.

1959: A Fuller-designed gold-anodized aluminum dome houses the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, offers Fuller a research professorship. Carbondale becomes his home base for more than a decade.

1960: Designs a geodesic dome home and lives there with his wife until 1971.

1967: U.S. Pavilion of the Montreal Expo 67, a three-quarter geodesic dome designed with Shoji Sadao and Geometrics, Inc., opens.

1969: Leads the first public workshop of World Game, an educational game based on global resource allocation.

1975: Begins work on the Tetrascroll, a book of lithographs with twenty-six pages of thirty six-inch equilateral triangles, at the ULAE (Universal Limited Art Editions) print shop.

1981: Collaborates on Buckminster Fuller: Inventions: Twelve Around One, a portfolio of prints and text from thirteen projects spanning his career.

1983: Fuller dies in Los Angeles at the age of 87.

1985: Robert F. Curl, Harold W. Kroto, and Richard E. Smalley discover that the structure of the C60 molecule resembles a geodesic dome. They name their discovery buckminsterfullerene.