Read here about "Becoming Bucky Fuller" by Loretta Lorance, the definitive history of Buckminster Fuller's earliest research. The article summarizes the book, lists some errata, and discusses the impact of the book's conclusions on tensegrity research.

Overview


Becoming Bucky Fuller Cover Small.jpg

Becoming Bucky Fuller by Loretta Lorance, published by MIT Press in 2009, is a highly original, often fascinating investigation of how Fuller laid the groundwork for his later fame and fortune after a series of early setbacks.

Buckminster Fuller's fame reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when his visionary experiments struck a chord with the counterculture and his charismatic personality provided the media with a good story—that of a genius who could play the role of artist, scientist, and entrepreneur all at once. In Becoming Bucky Fuller, Loretta Lorance shows that Fuller's career did not begin with the lofty goals hailed by his admirers, and that, in fact, Fuller's image as guru and prophet was as carefully constructed as a geodesic dome. More thoroughly than any prior scholar, Lorance uncovers crucial differences between Fuller's and his admirers' portraits of his younger days as the alleged victim of both personal and professional setbacks and what actually happened. It is now evident that Fuller's greatest invention was himself.

According to Fuller himself and most secondary sources, after a series of personal crises in the 1920s—including the death of his young daughter, thoughts of suicide, financial ruin and a "year of silence" during which he pondered his purpose in life—Fuller resolved to devote himself to the betterment of society by offering the public economical, efficient, modern manufactured housing. But drawing on a close reading of Fuller's personal papers (in particular, the multi-volume scrapbook, Chronofile), Lorance finds a more nuanced story. Fuller's first independent project, the Dymaxion House, was the end result of a year Fuller spent honing a set of inspirations regarding lightweight structural principles, industrial production, and geometry. He worked tirelessly and converged quickly on the Dymaxion House design, and set out to manufacture it. When that didn't work, Fuller began to emphasize its possibilities rather than its practicalities, and to curate a compelling story out of his personal experience. By the mid-1930s, Lorance shows, Fuller the public figure had gone from being an entrepreneur with a product to being a visionary with an idea. He had become Bucky Fuller.

Relationship To Tensegrity


The word 'tensegrity' does not appear in the book, since it focuses exclusively on Fuller's earliest creations. That said, the book is related to tensegrity research as it exposes the intellectual and motivational roots of Fuller's quest. Tensegrity ended up being This broader context is one of using less materials to deliver more human benefit, particularly centered around humanity's need for shelter, whether at home (static) or in transit (dynamic).

Summary


The book is divided into seven chapters. Below find an overview of each chapter and some discussion of how the information relates to the historical development of tensegrity and possible future implications.

1. Building Stockade


The early life of Fuller leading up to his involvement in the Stockade Building corporation. His involvement in sailing ships and being in the Naval reserve brings him a deep knowledge of ship architecture, elements of which would inform his work on tensegrity (masts and wires). He also uses early radio technologies which works on resonance and wire-conductors.

2. Corporate Restructuring


Fuller is forced to resign from Stockade's board, which along with other traumatic events leads to a financial and identity crisis for Fuller. He deduces his theory of spheres, and begins designing houses built around radically lightweight and industrial (factory-produced) structural principles. (In these ideas one sees the same intellectual motivation and agenda that would later to his discovery of tensegrity, with Kenneth Snelson, at Black Mountain College.)

3. Project Development


Fuller drafts designs based on his insights into tension, compression and pre-fabrication. He produces drawings of the house, a corporate structure for its production, and begins promoting it. Its earliest renderings show how he is attempting to segregate tension and compression.

RBF 4D Furniture 1928 lo.PNG
4D Furniture Rendering in Pencil by Fuller, 1928. From Becoming Bucky Fuller by Lorance, p74 Fig3.1


4. Trial Offer


Fuller's first public presentations of the house involve his writing up his insights, and responding to feedback. The house develops into the Dymaxion house and physical models are produced and displayed. Fuller refines his way of talking about the house, and begins highlighting his own family and experience.

5. Supporting Documents


Lorance presents an in-depth analysis of the earliest documents Fuller wrote regarding the houses and their theoretical underpinnings. This includes the difficult to express inter-relationships of time, geometry and material ephemeralization. Lorance wrote in her dissertation,

  • He believed designing in the fourth or time dimension, using radiating spheres and trigonometry, was truthful because "all matter is of globular, radiating form." The length of a radius, or "the distance from the center of the sphere to the greatest surface attained by radial measurement," represented time. As previously noted, Fuller may have conceived this formula as early as February 1928 when he recorded he formulated a theory about spheres in the diary. He made no comments about what the theory was in the diary, but in 40 Timelock he posited if matter existed at all, it "... must be spheroidal." Fuller arrived at this conclusion through a re-examination of the principles of Euclidian geometry which claim a point or dot, albeit a non-existent point or dot. as the basis of form. The "'Planeandsolid' geometrist does not claim," Fuller remarked, "his 'dot' or 'point' to be cubical," although he failed to comprehend "there is no cubism [as the] onty 'straight line' is the radial or time line." Therefore, to Fuller, the failure to comprehend the spheroidal nature of matter formed the "basis of denial of the fourth dimension, which has been supported by the theoretical and fallacious plane and cubical geometry." Unfortunately, Fuller insisted, the use of the phrase fourth dimension to denote time was also "incorrect and limiting" because it was based on the "fallacious three dimensions of cubism." Still, "4D [was] only the enigmatic term for time," so he would "use these characters as the trademark of our industrial activity, occasioned by the new or correct basis of figuring of the infinity of time dimensions." In other words, Fuller would use 4D because it was the closest approximation he had even though it was inadequate to express the relationships between geometry, industry, and time savings incorporated into the 4D House.

6. Prototype


Fuller recruited investors and continued to display the models he had constructed. He hoped to have a prototype built for the upcoming Chicago-based World's Fair.

RBF Movietone 1929 LLp185 fig6_19 lo.PNG
"Dymaxion House, Movietone short. Not the metal struts and piano wire. From Becoming Bucky Fuller by Lorance, p185 fig. 6.19


7. End Product


Fuller's inability to put the Dymaxion House into production is a problem, one that Fuller solves by promoting more the philosophy and less the physical model and particular rendition in the Dymaxion House. He revisits his original set of inspirations, his theory of spheres along with tension and compression architecture, and puts his knowledge and experience to use as an inspirational speaker and serial inventor. In the end, he not only filed 25 patents in a broad range of fields, he also produced the most compelling artifact of all: his own life as curated by him, to tell his story of assisting humanity.

Errata


This section lists errors, corrections or clarifications that have been uncovered since the book's publication.

p. 214


Lorance writes, "Nor was his cheekbone broken when he was robbed of his last dollars and watch while walking home one evening in Chicago."

Clarification: Fuller was beaten and robbed in October 1927, though the extent of the damage is not clear.

The reference under discussion is from RBF's July 1939 letter to Joe Bryant, "[A]n old friend from N Y invited him to dinner at the Blackstone Hotel. Later, walking up Wabash Ave., he had reached Monroe St. when a colored taxi-driver asked him the time. As B[ucky] reached for his watch, another man slugged him with brass knuckles, breaking his cheek bone. Unconcious (sic), he was robbed of his watch and his few remaining dollars."

On 13 October 1927, RBF noted in fountain pen in his diary, "R.B.F. - Held up and beaten." (Diary of AHF and RBF, in Chronofile Box 16 Volume 30).

The question is, how much trauma ensued? Facial trauma from such an assault has varying healing times, depending on the damage. Bruising and swelling may take up to three weeks to settle down. Significant facial damage can take months to heal.

Some cheekbone fractures can cause difficulty opening the mouth or jaw and require months to heal. If so, this period in October 1927 could have been conflated into Fuller's later reports of silence and learning to talk again.

The diaries and scrapbooks do not mention a healing period. No medical bills are preserved to detail the extent of the damage. However, there is evidence consistent with a period of healing, though it does not rule out a possibility that there was surface trauma only with a very short period of healing. This evidence is the lack of public activity reflected in the preserved archives. Between the beating and this event the diaries and preserved letters show no activity outside of caring for the baby. The first public activity is a month later on 13 November, when Fuller travels to the Joliet plant on Stockade business, a plant he had set up.

Endorsements


"Becoming Bucky Fuller is an intellectual experiment singular enough to have pleased the prodigious polymath himself. By refusing the biographical conventions Fuller forged into his own life story, Loretta Lorance demonstrates how in the late 1920s he formulated not only the Dymaxion House, but his own public persona as well. Based on close readings of deep archival research, Becoming Bucky Fuller makes clear that one more item must be added to the long list of Fuller's inventions: himself." -- Sandy Isenstadt, History of Art, Yale University

"Historians of architecture and material culture have never quite known what to do with the figure of Buckminster Fuller. In her careful new study, Lorance takes on his first successful inventionBucky himself. Becoming Bucky Fuller offers important insights into the formation of this compelling persona: an American hero of mid-twentieth-century counter-culture." -- Andrew Leach, School of Geography, Planning, and Architecture, University of Queensland, Australia, and author of Tafuri: Choosing History

"Everything in this book is illuminating. As Loretta Lorance reveals, long before Bucky Fuller became a 'visionary,' his life struggles in the hard-knocks business world of the 1920s shaped both his autobiography and his brilliant contributions to American modernism." -- Carol Willis, Director, The Skyscraper Museum

Becoming Bucky Fuller is an engaging look at the persona and development of the genius commonly known as Bucky Fuller. Loretta Lorance breaks new ground in her insightful study of Richard Buckminster Fuller’s early years... Lorance presents a strong case for her contention regarding his constructed persona... The use of color reproductions is targeted and adds value for the dollar. Certainly this book should be in academic libraries and those public libraries with advanced collections in the arts and technology. Bucky Fuller is again being studied by a new generation. Loretta Lorance’s book will help them to understand the man behind the myth.
  • Barbara Opar, Architecture Librarian, Syracuse University Library



Links and references

Read more about Loretta Lorance
Official blog, "Becoming Bucky," http://becomingbucky.blogspot.com
MIT Press official site, https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/becoming-bucky-fuller
Buckminster Fuller Institute oficial site, https://bfi.org/publications/book/becoming-bucky-fuller

Portal to Becoming Bucky
A series on how Bucky Fuller developed his methods, based on Lorance's book .
People> Bragdon, Bucky Fuller, Fuller Timelines, Margaret Fuller, Ioganson
Influences> Black Mountain College, Constructivism
Texts> Becoming Bucky Fuller, Margaret Fuller Bio, Your Private Sky, Tensegrity 1961
See also Portal To Basic Concepts for explanations of tensegrity concepts.