Feb 15, 2012

Architecture - Letters Decode the Myth of R. Buckminster Fuller - NYTimes.com

Courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller
A model of R. Buckminster Fuller’s “Dymaxion Dwelling Machines” community, about 1946. An exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art will offer a review of some of his grandest designs.
Published: June 15, 2008
Correction Appended
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AS the designer R. Buckminster Fuller liked to tell it, his powerful creative vision was born of a moment of deep despair at the age of 32. A self-described ne’er-do-well, twice ejected from Harvard, a failure in business and a heavy drinker, he trudged to the Chicago lakefront one day in 1927 and stood there, contemplating suicide. But an inner voice interrupted, telling him that he had a mission to discover great truths, all for the good of humankind.

That was the pivot on which, he claimed, his life turned. The onetime loser entered a period of such deep reflection that he was struck silent, then emerged bursting with creativity as he developed the “Dymaxion” inventions: technologies that he promised would transform housing, transportation, urban organization and, eventually, the human condition. From 1927 on, Fuller seemed utterly self-assured, even messianic, as he developed innovations like the geodesic dome, equal parts engineering élan and poetry.

Those pioneering creations will go on display next week in “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe,” a sprawling show at the Whitney Museum of American Art that testifies to the wide-ranging intellectual curiosity of Fuller (1895-1983), who inspired several generations with his quixotic vision and his zeal for the liberating power of technology.

But recent research has shed new light on Fuller’s inner life and what really drove him. In particular, it now appears that the suicide story may have been yet another invention, an elaborate myth that served to cover up a formative period that was far more tumultuous and unstable, for far longer, than Fuller ever revealed.

That is one of many insights gleaned by researchers who have begun exploring the visionary’s personal archives, deposited in 1999 at the Stanford University library by his family.

Because he believed his ideas and life would hold enduring interest, Fuller collected nearly every scrap of paper that ever passed through his hands, including letters that raise questions about the suicide story. At 45 tons, it is the largest personal archive at Stanford, according to Hsiao-Yun Chu, a former assistant curator of the papers and co-editor of a book, “Reassessing R. Buckminster Fuller,” to be published by Stanford University Press next year.

Barry Katz, a Stanford historian who wrote one of the studies in Ms. Chu’s book, said, “If you really look for the details of his life at the time, it’s easy to see that the suicide story was a creation.”

“There was nothing even remotely in the archives suggesting feelings on the scale he later described” in 1927, he said.

In 1927 Fuller, living in Chicago, and his wife, Anne, in New York, exchanged almost daily letters and telegrams. Not a single one makes reference either to thoughts of death or to an epiphany. In addition, Mr. Katz said, he found references to lectures that Fuller gave and other evidence that he was far from silent.

Mr. Katz said he found instead signs of depression and anxiety stretching from the time his first daughter, Alexandra, died in 1922, through his financial failures and, finally, the collapse of a torrid extramarital romance in 1931. Still, he said, the suicide story seemed to serve a purpose.

“That’s why I now call it a myth, but it was an effective myth. It gave a trajectory to his career. The story was constructed after the fact to show how he suddenly developed these new ideas. I think he came to believe the story himself.”

On a recent day in the library Ms. Chu gave a sort of guided tour of the personality known as Bucky, rummaging through boxes of his letters, overdue bills, drawings and writings. Over the course of the visit a detailed inner portrait emerged of a man known for his pioneering designs for inexpensive, prefabricated houses suspended from masts, a highly efficient teardrop-shaped auto and then a series of structural designs that were strong yet lightweight and remarkably graceful.

Ms. Chu held up a crinkly letter written by Fuller in 1931, when he was a regular at Romany Marie’s cafe in Greenwich Village and intriguing friends like Isamu Noguchiwith prophecies on how his automotive and housing technologies would help usher in a new era of plenty. “He used to drink like a fish,” Noguchi would recall years later in an interview with Time magazine.

What his friends did not know was that Fuller was becoming unhinged because of the collapse of an affair with Evelyn Schwartz, or Evy. Fuller was 36, with a wife and 4-year-old daughter, Allegra; Ms. Schwartz had just turned 18. The two exchanged letters almost daily, with Fuller writing that their relationship was “completely my realization of the ideal of love.”

He wrote of marrying her, of her apparent efforts to get pregnant, and insisted, “Evy you and I bear a universal responsibility of forward thinking for which we are extraordinarily gifted.”

But when she decided she had “gotten over” him, as he related it, Fuller unleashed a cascade of desperate letters. He admitted to stalking her at her Brooklyn home “so that you may have no feeling of panicky abandonment.”

In the most revealing note, feverishly scribbled in heavy block letters across four large sheets of onion-skin drafting paper, Fuller confessed that he had suffered a “nervous breakdown” in 1931 — not 1927 — because of the romantic tumult. “Later in his life, when he was lecturing all the time, people loved him, he made them feel very special,” said Ms. Chu. “He was an oracle, a guide, and he was so confident. But when he was writing those early letters, he didn’t know who he was.”

Jay Baldwin, a designer who helped to edit the Whole Earth Catalog (which was inspired by Fuller) in the 1960s, knew Fuller and wrote a book about him, said that he learned of the affair during his own search of the archives but chose not to mention it.

“To a lot of us he just seemed so much the master of his emotions, but I read those letters, and he just lost it,” Mr. Baldwin said. “It wasn’t the only thing like that. He wrote one paper about his ideas early on that sounds like a raving maniac.”

In Mr. Baldwin’s view those episodes missed the point. “Focusing on the affair is like spending all your time thinking about van Gogh’s ear instead of his paintings,” he said. “It’s very off track.”

Mr. Katz disagreed, saying that the seemingly crazy writings were important because they showed that in recurrent dark periods Fuller was not trying only to persuade others his ideas were important, but to persuade himself that he mattered. The letters, Mr. Katz suggested, were a form of self-encouragement as Fuller struggled to find a reason for going on.

Supporting that view is Evelyn Schwartz Nef. “Those days were really quite exciting because he was so convincing that he was trying to save the world,” she said in an interview. Now 94 and a retired psychotherapist, she recalled Fuller vividly. “The question I had is whether he was as convinced as we were. He was trying to reassure himself that he was something.”

Fuller’s daughter, Allegra Fuller Snyder, a retired professor of dance at the University of California, Los Angeles, said she was not surprised to learn that the 1927 epiphany may not have been literally true.

“It was a kind of parable of his interior thinking, really,” Ms. Snyder said. Because he had such a powerful personality and was so well known for his unshakable self-confidence, few understood, as she did, that he had interludes of real doubt, often because of concern for his family’s financial well-being, she said. “That was part of Daddy, always,” she said.

She recounted another occasion on which her father seemed to find inspiration at an especially dark moment. Fuller had tried to turn his prefabricated housing idea into a business after World War II by teaming with the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kan., and other investors. But in 1946, after prototypes were built, the project collapsed.

Ms. Snyder distinctly recalled her father coming home to their small apartment utterly despondent. She said she went to bed then got up in the morning only to find that he had been up all night working at a small wooden table.

“I remember very well that he was talking about this new thing, the geodesic dome,” she said. “That’s what he said to me. He’d been working on what he called synergetic geometry before that, but suddenly he saw the fusion of that with the structure. That was when the idea came together for him.”

By 1948 Fuller developed his first dome prototype; in 1954 he had perfected the structure and took out a patent on the dome, one of his more memorable, and profitable, designs.

For all his creative energy, Fuller’s legacy is slippery. By conventional measures he accomplished little. The efforts to mass-produce his houses, though written about widely, failed. His project to develop his efficient three-wheeled autos collapsed after an accident killed the driver of one. His soaring geodesic domes, built with a distinctive pattern of triangles, have been used — memorably for the United States pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal — but never for the large-scale projects he envisioned, like the dome he hoped would cover most of Manhattan.

But Fuller had great influence through his design principles and his almost endless series of lectures and writings. His book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” helped make him a symbol of the counterculture. He even influenced some Silicon Valley pioneers.

For Ms. Chu one of the great insights of the archives is the sheer number of letters Fuller received and wrote. He nearly always responded personally to every note. (When a former collaborator in his design work, Kenneth Snelson, wrote angrily in 1979 that Fuller was unfairly claiming credit for what Fuller called the tensegrity structure, Fuller responded with a 51-page rebuttal.) “He didn’t just write this incredible number of letters, he saved them all,” she said. “It was almost like they proved he existed, that he mattered. The files were almost like the proof he needed.”

As Mr. Katz put it, “Fuller’s greatest invention was not a house or a car or a dome. It was himself.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 22, 2008 A picture caption last Sunday with an article about R. Buckminster Fuller misspelled the given name of the former assistant curator of Mr. Fuller’s archive at Stanford. It is Hsiao-Yun Chu, not Hisiao-yun.

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