Dymaxion history

October 4, 2008

When I was a boy in the 1960s, reading science fiction and following super heroes in Marvel and DC comics, I couldn’t get enough of the myths of the space age. That’s not surprising, since real history was being made around me. It was easy to confuse Buck Rogers and Doc Savage with John Glenn and Chuck Yeager. I was a romantic kid, so it was a short leap from my imagination to the moon.

Of course, eventually the moon’s surface appeared on prime time TV, with shadowy astronauts and lunar rovers exploring its craters and dusty valleys. I never believed the naysayers who said the whole thing was shot on a back lot in Hollywood. Of course I didn’t give any credence to the conspiracy theorists who saw Cubans and Mafia hit men behind the Kennedy assassination either.

Reading about the heroes and villains of the 1960s now is still something of a reach for me, as I have trouble squaring my memories with what historians have discovered in archives and other sources. Because of this, I find it even more important to see the record set straight, or as straight as history can get it. Being a historian of architecture, I am skeptical of all but the most careful research on the subjects I know best.

When I read the reviews of the recent exhibition on Buckminster Fuller at the Whitney Museum in New York, I was immediately struck with both nostalgia and disappointment. Fuller was to my generation a kind of Timothy Leary figure, a guru with promises that seemed incredibly important but also too good to be true. Like so many other heroes of the time, his life hid a number of secrets and contradictions.

In my previous posts, I have made it clear that romanticism for the modern movement in architecture is something I disdain. One of the reasons for this is that I suspect that most younger architects (less than say, 35 years of age) who see modernism through rose colored glasses have little understanding of its complex history during the 20th century. So, when I read about museum exhibitions that perpetuate bad history and hype about major proponents of the machine aesthetic, it raises my hackles a bit.

Bucky Fuller was a complex personality who deserves careful historical scrutiny. He was also enough of a huckster to have made even contemporaries a little uncomfortable. The same can be said of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. However, one should never confuse designers of real genius such as the latter two, with someone of minor gifts. Fuller was clearly in the latter category, but the Whitney might as well have been his publicist for all the critical scrutiny they gave their sci-fi hero.

Three architecture critics who cover the American scene were quick to write about the Fuller show, which on its merits did not seem a major retrospective but only a tribute awaiting more complete treatment in the future. Nevertheless, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the Times weighed in with a starstruck rave that betrayed his generational awe of the pioneers of mid-century modern design. A far more measured piece followed in Slate, from Witold Rybczinski, who shares my jaded view of much contemporary design.

Neither review was as penetrating, or devastating, as Martin Filler’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books. Filler has just published a well-reviewed volume of essays, and he has proved to be the least biased and most scholarly American critic for more than a decade. His wife, Rosmarie Haig Bletter, is a respected architectural historian with special expertise on the German masters of the modern movement. He gives no quarter when historical facts are mangled.

As Filler points out, Fuller attained a kind of “rock star” status only at the age of 70, after a peripatetic career working for the US military building lightweight shelters and a string of spectacular failures as an inventor. His rambling, obtuse language and utopian ideas struck a chord with students of the LSD generation, who sat four hours in Kesey-esque love-ins soaking up wisdom from a man who looked like a professor. Most people today remember him, wrongly, as the “inventor” of the geodesic dome, an idea he borrowed from someone else and claimed as his own. Wonderful in concept and seemingly perfect as a space-age building type, the domes have never been perfected as shelter for humans, serving better as conservatories.

It was easy to believe the hype, as most of us did in the 1960s. Bucky Fuller became an icon of the American view of progress, as his Expo ’67 US pavilion in Montreal captured the nation’s aspirations perfectly at that heady moment. Dymaxion, the Fuller mantra, was a conflation of “dynamic,” “maximum” and “ion,” three words that seemed to sum up the zeitgeist of the decade. Like so much of Fuller’s output, the neologism captured ideas that we wanted to believe in, but in the end amounted only to empty rhetoric.

Martin Filler dissects the myth of Fuller’s genius while also drubbing the Whitney’s “seriously flawed” retrospective. He has particular disdain for K. Michael Hays, the Harvard “theory” professor who co-curated the show and wrote a major catalogue essay on Bucky’s “Geological Engagements with Architecture.” Referring to the “inchoate syntax” of both critic and subject, he concludes that “the museum-going public is ill-served by such imparsable nonsense.” He also finds the museum’s installation curiously dry and visually bland.

I need not belabor the conclusion that Hays, Dana  Miller and the Whitney have made a pig’s breakfast of their tribute to a man who “had a profound effect” on American culture during the 20th century, according to Martin Filler. The dangerous and alas, too frequent impact of such adulatory exhibitions is that they perpetuate shabby, rhetorically weak and historically incoherent interpretations of people, artifacts and events that are fundamental to our understanding of the recent past, and thus of our own cultural identity. While architecture continues to wallow in its own philosophical miasma, and the nation spirals into chaos, it is doubly important to dig deeply into the dichotomies and contradictions promulgated by such figures as R. Buckminster Fuller.

Good history is being written about the 1960s. Read the work of Taylor Branch or Robert Dallek and you will discover a rich world under the surface of people and events. The built environment–buildings, cities, bridges, roads, landscapes–deserves similarly penetrating analysis. When reputable critics fail to identify bad architectural history, or see beneath the scrim of ideology, the public is not only “ill served,” it is left bamboozled, hyped and ultimately impoverished. That’s part of the reason why we get so much bad architecture today.

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