Review: Buckminster Fuller at the MCA

In a corner of the soaring lobby of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art sits an inconspicuous screen cycling though a series of quotes. "Don't fight forces," one suggests, "use them." A few seconds later: "Do more with less." And then: "Real wealth is ideas plus energy." These are the words of Buckminster Fuller, the great American thinker and designer famous for his geodesic domes and his pragmatic idealism. Fuller was a colorful man, and extraordinarily wealthy if measured by his own standard: his thoughts were abundant and bright, and his energy seemingly boundless. In the exhibit Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe, the MCA has crafted an impressive overview of Fuller's life and work that brings into focus his prescient worldview and, more importantly, the thought process behind it.

It was after his failure as a businessman and the death of his daughter in 1927 that Fuller resolved to turn his life into an experiment to see how much one man could contribute to society in a lifetime, labeling himself "Guinea Pig B." The exhibit opens with several rooms filled with a diverse selection of objects that recount the beginning of this experiment. Models, drawings, maps, notebooks, and other objects show the evolution of Fuller's early work into his development of the World Game and the Dymaxion map during and after World War II.

Fuller prided himself on his comprehensive thinking; he approached each problem as part of a larger system of problems. Humanity's great challenges were all interlinked, and to consider solutions for one, it was necessary to consider the others simultaneously. Nowhere in the Starting With the Universe is Bucky's way of thinking on display more clearly than in the two rooms that detail the evolution of the Dymaxion Map into the development of the geodesic dome. It was his work on creating a map that eliminated the distortion of the planet's land masses that led to Fuller's fascination with polyhedrons. His engineer's brain latched onto the structural integrity of the icosahedron form that his map created when folded into a "globe," and by the 1950s he was working with his students at the legendary Black Mountain College in Asheville, NC, on developing the dome that would define the later part of his career.

Interestingly, it is a rather inconspicuously-placed video of Fuller at the mid-point of the exhibit that offers the clearest glimpse of how his industrious mind processed information about the world. His demonstration of how a flexible polyhedric structure shifts form is underlined by his emphasis on its uniform contraction and expansion. Throughout his life, Fuller worked on devising comprehensive solutions to myriad problems; his fascination with a flexible structure in which each part was equally responsive to all of the others is hardly inconsequential.

Beyond the geodesic dome, the maturation of which is explored in the second half of the MCA show, Bucky Fuller is arguably best remembered for his prescience. His ideas about environmentalism and the consequences of man's actions on the planet presage the contemporary Green movement by decades; he is also remembered for his early conceptualization of the internet and his musings on the growing importance of mass communications. Fuller understood everything as being part of a system, a network. In Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe, the MCA has created an exhibit that presents Fuller's as a visionary worldview that remains relevant more than twenty years after the great thinker's death. Like any good museum exhibit, this one makes the visitor re-think they way that they look at the world. Bucky would be proud.

Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago until June 21st, 2009. For more information about the museum and its other exhibits, click here.

(Photos from ArchNewsNow, OSEarth, and PentaMil.)

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