Saturday, April 14, 2012
Courtesy of SFMOMA
SFMOMA's Buckminster Fuller show features Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno's "HYDRAMAX Port Machine" (2012), model.
Right away it's like falling down the rabbit hole.
The first piece in the Buckminster Fuller show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art poses the kind of woozily daunting challenge Lewis Carroll might have relished. On a text-heavy chart that tracks, among other things, the U.S presidents, transportation systems and predictions of World War III, visitors can pause to contemplate, as one line puts it, "the dynamic interpositioning of all the individually remote bodies of a complex movement."
What to make of this "Grand Strategy of World Problem Solving"? Was it in dead earnest or an elaborate put-on, or perhaps a little of both?
What does Fuller, the iconoclastic scientist, designer, theorist and writer whose geodesic domes made him a 1960s countercultural emblem, mean to us now? Or is he, like his three-wheeled Dymaxion car, quixotic energy schemes and plans to end world poverty, a kind of endearing fossil of our naively visionary past? Is Bucky just too much of a maximalist dreamer for the byte-size 21st century?
The SFMOMA show, "The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area," argues that its hero's influence was wide and long-lasting. "The Whole Earth Catalog," David de Rothschild's recycled Plastiki sailboat, the global One Laptop per Child program, North Face camping tents and San Francisco's energy-efficient 2007 Federal Building, with its folded-screen facade, are all seen as part of the Fuller legacy.
Such long-lens views of his enduing, even prophetic importance are nothing new. "R. Buckminster Fuller intentionally worked fifty years ahead of his time," wrote J. Baldwin in the 1996 book "Bucky Works." "Thirteen years after his death (in 1983), his ideas, discoveries and inventions offer solutions to many of our most severe worldwide problems."
Even when the evidence for such claims seems spotty or wishfully inflated, Fuller continues to fascinate. Books, like "Becoming Bucky Fuller" and "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller," both published in 2009, continue to appear. A wonderstruck play, D. W. Jacobs' "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe," which enjoyed a long San Francisco run in the 1990s, played major East Coast theaters in 2010-11. The SFMOMA show was crowded on a recent weekday afternoon.
Like his famous domes, Fuller registers now in a multifaceted way. It's impossible not to admire and pine for his comprehensive big-picture views. Who, today, can match his scope and fervent passion on the essential issues - energy, world population, education, urban planning, housing? He may have been wrong about a lot of things - those domes turned out not to transform the way we live, and poverty is still very much with us - but the sheer grandeur of his ideas conjured a kind of collective idealism that a hundred topic-oriented TED Talks can't match.
Fuller's "Spaceship Earth," with everyone aboard, was a poetic plea to pay attention to our fragile planet long before climate change was part of the conversation. His sermons on energy make our petro-political chess games seem like so much dangerous squabbling over enormously high stakes. His concern for children is a humbling commentary on the schools and society that fail them. "Every well-born child is originally geniused," he wrote in his distinctive word-coining prose, "but is swiftly de-geniused by unwitting humans and/or physically unfavorable environmental factors."
Fuller thought on multiple planes at once, merging the macro and the micro. He pondered "the thinking proclivities of humans" and designed bathrooms down to the last detail. His drawings are at once meticulous and fanciful and sometimes eerily prescient. The tear-drop profile of his Dymaxion car could be an early draft of a Prius.
At the same time, we've grown skeptical, even spooked by the notion of the utopias Bucky proposed. A domed city brings "The Truman Show" to mind. Would we, any more than the duped Jim Carrey character in that 1998 dystopia, want to live in hermetically sealed "perfection"?
Several elaborate "future cities" models have a similarly artificial effect. Instead of seeming like places where people might like to live and work, they resemble the kind of overbuilt, transitory environments constructed every few years for the Olympics.
The flip side of any visionary is a control freak who's supremely confident that he knows what's best for all of us. In a way, Fuller was an early practitioner of virtual reality. His medium wasn't the computer but rather the physical world he hoped to master with his adhesive plans for almost everything.
Sense of conviction
All of us may be born "originally geniused," as Bucky believed. But we falter and fail and fall away from the ideal. One of the videos in the show tells the rueful tale of a '60s high school for troubled kids that set out to build a bunch of geodesic domes. What started out as a self-made hillside paradise eventually foundered on drugs and other problems. The shoddily built domes leaked, fell into disrepair and were torn down.
There's one video of Fuller spilling out a stream of talk. More striking than what he has to say is his conviction. Looking off away from the camera, through thick glasses, Bucky presses his hands together from time to time like someone worshiping. Not many of his prayers were answered, but it's instructive and even inspiring to remember how many of them this believer sent aloft. Caring about the future, as Fuller showed us, is always an act of faith.
The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area: Through July 29. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F. Museum admission: $18. Call (415) 357-4000. www.sfmoma.org.
Steven Winn is a freelance writer. email@example.com
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/04/13/DDRM1O2P3E.DTL#ixzz1s17RxTgS