3.15 / Review

The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area

By Laura Cassidy May 17, 2012

Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller (1895–1983) was a courageous and intellectually compulsive individual whose life coincided with revolutions in physics, aesthetics, industry, and technologies. He was a visionary in the truest sense, developing a particularly visual form of thinking about the metabolic and metaphysical aspects of our future. His inventive, if hyperbolic, utopian mind likened the institutional boundaries of specialized and autonomous knowledge to enslavement.1 The boundlessness of Fuller’s career, geared towards developing a higher standard of living for all, resulted in a profusion of design-science collaborations and inventions—most notably the geodesic dome—as well as an enormous and dizzying archive now housed at Stanford University, which sustains the indeterminate process of Fuller-style explorations from generation to generation.2

The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area, currently on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), focuses on the legacy of Fuller’s comprehensive global thinking as it has percolated locally in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are innumerable possibilities for curating exhibitions from Fuller’s oeuvre. Curator Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher has assembled an elegant combination of commemorative media reaching as far back as Fuller’s 1936 telegram to artist Isamu Noguchi—explaining his ideas for a Floating Tetrahedral City in the San Francisco Bay—and as far forward as to include contemporary projects inspired by Fuller, one of which was commissioned especially for this show.

Alongside the telegram, the Whole Earth Catalog exudes a mysterious hippie charm. The Menlo Park­–based publication, inspired by and dedicated to Fuller, once buttressed the countercultural commune lifestyle of the late 1960s and ’70s. It is the historic precedent to today’s technocultural magazine Wired. The inclusion of the catalog in the exhibit highlights a particular strain of Fuller’s advocacy for liberatory technologies and his interest in cybernetic systems, propagated posthumously by Stewart Brand, John Brockman, and other Bay Area figures in the 1980s and ’90s. Fuller’s legacy can be seen in Brand’s ongoing seminar series, founded in 2003 for the Long Now Foundation, which integrates art, design, and culture into wholistic thinking about the future. The series redresses a critique of Brand’s techno-capitalist “countercultural” approach, whose increasingly mainstream work manifested a computer science­–dependent utopia that sidelined social responsibility.3

On the walls surrounding this display of evocative media objects, SFMOMA presents several large-format visualizations, including the museum’s recently acquired portfolio of screen prints by Fuller, Inventions: Twelve Around One (1981). The portfolio, produced in collaboration with Chuck Byrne, documents thirteen patented design projects spanning Fuller’s career. The prints are exquisitely detailed; using white ink, Fuller inscribed his sophisticated mode of design thinking on top of grayscale photographs ranging from illustrative landscape phenomena to portraits of his patented products. These white ink diagrams and notations, much like the titles of each print in the series, are difficult to decipher. However, stepping back from the prints, one can appreciate the masterful visualization of a layered temporal perspective. Fuller breaks with the illusion of absolute representative photography, instead using visual media to think about the past, present, and dynamic variations of the future.

IwamotoScott Architecture (ISAR) with proces2. Jellyfish House, 2005–2006; nylon model and movie; model: 26 x 49-3/8 x 12 in. Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase and Gift of IwamotoScott Architecture. © IwamotoScott Architecture.
Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne. Non-Symmetrical Tension-Integrity Structures, United States Patent Office no. 3,866,366, from the portfolio Inventions: Twelve Around One, 1981; screen print in white ink on clear polyester film; 30 in. x 40 in. Collection SFMOMA, gift of Chuck and Elizabeth Byrne. © The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, all rights reserved. Published by Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.

The second gallery continues to explore the legacy of Fuller in contemporary culture, presenting the work of an entourage of artists, designers, and architects whose prototypes accommodate collective creativity and social change. Lisa Iwamoto and Craig Scott’s Jellyfish House (2005–2006) is an alluring architectural prototype modeled with white nylon that resonates with Fuller’s Inventions portfolio. This San Francisco–based architecture duo imagines the Jellyfish House as a living, sensory-rich environment, like a distributed nervous system in which the building itself can detect sensory information about its surroundings and adapt accordingly. The design was specifically proposed for Treasure Island, a decommissioned wetland military site in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. The prototype is accompanied by a digital animation that serves as a virtual tour of the building’s interior as it responds to a hypothetical Bay Area weather system.

Within earshot of the Jellyfish House is a small dark sidebar-like gallery containing a multichannel video projected onto a wall sculpture inspired by Fuller’s iconic Dymaxion Air Ocean World Map, the first edition of which was published in Life magazine in March 1943. Built by tech firm Obscura Digital, the sculpture is visually enticing for its robust angular construction and tension cables suspended from various points in the small room. SFMOMA commissioned artist Sam Green to create a video that documents Fuller in the Bay Area; the lucid work consists of twelve chapters culled from the mountain of archival footage that Fuller preserved in his personal archive, the Dymaxion Chronofile, as well as interviews with local Fuller scholars such as Fred Turner of Stanford University.

Utopian Impulse revises countercultural thinking in the Bay Area, defying stereotypes of West Coast utopias as sites of chaotic, passive, or psychedelic subversion. Rather than seeking to overthrow the whole socioeconomic system, many West Coast utopians have and continue to propose innovative ideas for structural improvement. Of the prototypes included in this exhibition, some have never been implemented at full scale, and some failed to achieve commercial success. For example, the challenge of cladding the edge of each triangular element in Fuller’s geodesic domes in order to prevent leakage proved impractical for large-scale production, even as the dome—like the yurt—endures as an eccentric option for small-scale single family homes. However, as Fletcher notes, this assessment of success or failure misses the point of the exhibition.4 Utopian Impulse fosters the courage and creativity of thinkers who actively partake in the indeterminate process of building a better future.


The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area is on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through July 29, 2012.


  1. R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 30.
  2. For example, Sir Harry Kroto and the team who were inspired by Fuller’s geodesic domes and discovered the “architectural” structure of the new carbon molecule, Buckminster Fullerine (C60), to be a dodecahedron. Martin Kemp, Seen – Unseen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8.
  3. Lee Worden, “Counterculture, Cyberculture, and the Third Culture: Reinventing Civilization, Then and Now” in West of Eden: Communies and Utopia in Northern California (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 199-221.
  4. Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher in “SFMOMA Looks at Buckminster Fuller’s Legacy in the Bay Area: Architecture and Design Exhibition Links Fuller’s Radical Idealism to Local Innovators Inspired by His Visionary Thinking,” exhibition press release, November 21, 2011.

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