“The dome guy” actually had a pretty colorful and intrepid name. Whether it was Richard Buckminster Fuller, R. Buckminster Fuller, Buckminster Fuller, or just “Bucky” — mention his name and most people will look blank until an additional qualifier is added: “you know…the dome guy.”
While it’s true that the geodesic dome — a pattern of self-bracing triangles that closely approximate a sphere, or partial-sphere — and the accompanying movement for inexpensive housing was his first major success, Buckminster Fuller dabbled in a lot of things. Under his Dymaxion brand name – a portmanteau of the words dynamic, maximum, and tension – he designed a house, car, world map, bathroom, and self-practiced sleep regimen of four thirty-minute naps a day. He published over thirty books, coined the term “Spaceship Earth,” and ultimately took to the world stage, lecturing about the application of science to solve the problems of humanity.
He was, in short, a decent inventor and engineer, but ultimately a much better self-promoter. He was a benevolent egomaniac. Because of his wacky futurism, the fact that many of his concepts never progressed past a prototype, his tendency for neologisms, his ultramodern worldview of Earth as a place with limited resources, and his push for alternative lifestyles, he was often viewed by the mainstream as a crackpot.
But to the Bay Area counterculture and communal-idealists of the 1960s, the 70-something-year-old man, who dressed almost exclusively in black suits and bow ties, was an icon. Despite never living in the region, it was here that many of his ideas were instantiated by “radicals” looking for a new doctrine to follow, and where his work continues to influence successive generations of experimenters.
It’s this local link that underpins The Utopian Impulse exhibition at SFMOMA (running until July 29, 2012), where Fuller’s work is laid alongside modern, local inventions inspired by his teachings, as well as backstory to his relationship with other Bay Area institutions, such as The Whole Earth Catalog — creator Stewart Brand apparently got the idea to petition NASA to release a photo of the whole Earth, after attending one of Fuller’s lectures while tripping on acid. Some of the links are slightly tenuous, some concrete, but it’s all a reasonable excuse to bring together a fascinating story that spans several generations, with Fuller’s genius as the centerpiece.
It is at this point that I must disclose a vested interest in the topic: my wife and I recently purchased a geodesic dome of our own in Sonoma County, but with little knowledge of Fuller or his philosophies. It was only after moving in that I began researching “the dome guy” a little more. An attempt to watch the unedited, web version of Everything I Know — Fuller’s 42-hour stream-of-consciousness lecture — failed after only 12 minutes, so I was excited by the prospect of a museum trip.
The exhibit showcases a lot of aesthetically-pleasing visuals associated with Fuller’s work, either his original notes and calculations, or derived graphic art by his devotees, as well as a 60-minute film from 1977 featuring some delightful insights into how his undiagnosed childhood near-blindness informed his later-life thought processes.
This, however, was all preamble to the improbable main event: a “live documentary” entitled The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green (The Weather Underground, Utopia in Four Movements), featuring an accompanying Yo La Tengo score, performed live by the band.
I was eager to see a modern interpretation of the day’s history lesson. After a brief introduction, the screen was filled with the captivating shot of a geodesic dome flying through the sky, its cover pulsating and flapping with the peristaltic motion of a jellyfish. The camera pulled back to reveal the source of its propulsion, a long cable attached to a U.S. Military aircraft, which then slowed and dropped the structure to Earth. A suited Bucky then seemingly steps out from inside and approaches the camera with a Hitchcockian menace.
The intensity of this grainy footage, featuring a real application of his domes — their lightweight-ness and strength made them especially appealing to the military, who deployed thousands — spliced together with Fuller’s own propaganda, was provoked further as Yo La Tengo took to their instruments.
And this is the live documentary — part slide-show travelogue, part TED talk, part concert. The traditionally-centered projection screen augmented by a band at house right, and the director at house left, narrating and orchestrating the event.
What’s interesting about the format is that, excepting petty breaks from the script to acknowledge obligatory represent-hollers from the audience each time a place name is mentioned, the live component initially seems unnecessary. The piece is essentially a classic documentary, so why separate the voiceover and score to be performed live? In fact, Yo La Tengo’s score was so accomplished and fitting that it, as all good film scores should, blended quickly into the fabric of the moving images. Aside from a couple of (enjoyable) volume-level freak-outs from the band, I kept forgetting they were even there, playing live. When I did remember to look at them, I wondered how they felt — it’s not often that the success of a popular band’s performance depends on not being distracting.
While the source of the music became effortlessly forgotten, the inverse was true for the film’s dialog. Having Green step up to a spotlit microphone moments before he was to speak each time, before melting back into the shadows to watch the next sequence, was as fascinating as it was distracting. In a way, it laid bare the filmmaker’s techniques. The timing and cadence of the storytelling was joined by his on-stage movements and, unlike an un-live documentary, I was consciously aware that he was watching his own work back with us.
And this was the critical difference. Even though the media itself could be combined to produce the same technical result, it was the not-usually-seen nuances of the “crew” that made the whole affair so intimate and powerful.
Green’s warm voice and obvious enjoyment at performing, conjured up the same abstract personal connection I get to a good radio presenter, which is not something usually invoked by film. And when Yo La Tengo did occasionally rise from the aural background to become the focus, well, it was great remembering that Yo La Tengo were in the room.
After a day immersing myself in the wild, but somewhat coldly analytical, world of Richard Buckminster Fuller through aged documentary and museum walls, it was Green’s less-informational, emotionally engaging Love Song that brought me closest to connecting with Bucky’s ideals.
For all of Fuller’s egotistical self-hype, and the modern-day criticism that his views were too anthropocentric, his objective was one of the truest forms of humanism: a belief that nature’s systems have already solved our engineering problems, and that the world has enough resources for everyone to lead a higher quality of life, it’s just an issue of distribution. Not many thinkers of his time were looking at the Earth as a single ecosystem, thinking outside of geographical and political boundaries, and advocating renewable energies and affordable living.
On a personal level, I’m just happy to be back in my dome, sitting writing this, with a fuller appreciation of the physics and ideologies holding up the roof above me.