Buckminster Fuller, Mixed Metaphors and the Radiolarian

With the introduction of “Buckyballs” and “Fullerenes” into the scientific lexicon in 1985, Fuller’s conquest of the molecular milieu seemed complete, and his system of geodesic design gained the full weight of scientific legitimation.  This kind of migration, from the discipline of architecture to that of the sciences is rare.  In most instances, the movement of terminology works in reverse, with terms like “circulation,” originally used in the description of biological systems, slowly making its way into architectural discourse in the late 19th century.  This interaction between science and architecture continues today, with theories of morphogenetic design finding their way into contemporary architectural discourse, more often than not resulting in formally complex speculative projects based in parametric modeling, which tend to emphasize the image, rather than the concept behind it.

It is perhaps because of this misapplication of scientific principles in the architectural discourse, that when the phenomenon functions in reverse, we should both commend the architect who through the arts of form and space creation has penetrated so deeply into the principles of science, and give pause.  This is because, in a very real way, scale matters.  The ant, celebrated the world over for its incredible feats of strength, if scaled up, would collapse upon its spindly legs, and die for lack of a respiratory system.  As a complex system, the ant functions exceptionally well at its particular scale, but not at any other.  Similarly, the super-stability of Carbon 60 is as much an aspect of the unique conditions that govern atomic reactions at the atomic level, as it is of the scale at which these reactions take place.  The infinite scalability that is a hallmark of Fuller’s thought, from the atomic, to the molecular, to the biological and ultimately to the human, and by extension, the global, masks as much as it articulates in terms of the actual systems governing the performance of geodesic form at various scales.

Thus, while the Fullerene is the most efficient form of Carbon at the atomic level, its efficiency is based in the unique rules that govern chemical/atomic interaction; gravity, the most pronounced physical restraint on architectural systems, does not effect the performance of Carbon 60, any more than properties of chemical bonding reflect the essential systems of material connections that define the stability of architectural forms.  Consequently, the use of geodesic metaphor in science should be accepted as such, as a description of form, not principles.

Similarly, the Radiolarian, images of which Fuller includes in his own writing, and which also pepper many analyses of his work, functions on fundamentally different principles, even while exhibiting a similar formal vocabulary.  In the first place, the Radiolarian is an aquatic amoeboid protozoa, which means that its structural integrity is based on the medium that it inhabits.  Fluid dynamics and the properties of gravity in an aquatic environment are fundamentally different from the performance properties of geodesic domes in dry applications.  Secondarily, the stability of the short-lived Radiolarian is based as much on its mineral skeleton as it is on the interaction of its ecto- and endoplasmic constitution, which provide equal degrees of internal and external pressure on this skeleton, essentially producing a state of artificial equilibrium in which the mineral structure exhibits limited net force mitigation.  As evocative as the Radiolarian might be as a form, it is uniquely suited to the short lifespan of its host organism, and to the medium in which this organism briefly lives.

This is not to diminish the value of geodesics, which have proven fruitful in the fields of architecture, physics, chemistry and biology – a list that, in itself, attests to the virility of the geodesic geometry.  However, it is to understand this geometry in its place, in terms of performance, rather than image, two criterion which Reinhold Martin, in his article, “Chrystal Balls,” argues are equal metrics by which Fuller accessed his own work, perhaps emphasizing the latter to a degree that Fuller himself frequently underestimates.  The images are evocative, the continuity of form across numerous scales is provocative, but the principles behind each image, and the scales at which they exist, are fundamentally different.

If Fuller is to be praised for his insight into the importance of geometric form for performance (as he should be), then he should also be criticized for the limited parameters he placed on architectural performance, a tendency that was only exacerbated by the scientific justification of his work.  Yet, as Mark Wigley has pointed out in his articles “Planetary Homeboy” and “Network Fever,” Fuller’s trajectory was to bring him far away from geodesics as a formal/structural system, and increasingly into the sphere of both images and information, the dissolution of architecture into communication networks that were ultimately designed to regulate global material and energy exchanges – a formless architecture that emphasized the image over the entity.  In this respect, and despite complaints originating in the architectural community concerning Fuller’s work as engineering, as well as Fuller’s own hesitancy to don the title of “architect,” Fuller proves himself a true architect at heart, for, as Hadas Steiner argues in her book Beyond Archigram, “Architects are image besotted creatures.”  Indeed they are, but so are the scientists who so readily acquiesced to Fuller’s enticing images of geodesic structures.

While Fuller’s scientific contributions may be somewhat problematic, his inheritance is a tribute, first and foremost, to the poignancy of his images, and his intellectual rigor as an inventor and engineer; his artistry as an image-maker and his potency as an enigmatic architect.  Few architects are worthy of such appellations, and those, like Gaudi, that are, are frequently considered little less than exceptions – anomalies whose “genius” resulted in an architectural language that is considered unrepeatable, and thus eccentric to the main discourse.  Fuller’s systems approach to design saved him from this fate, as much as his immersion in media culture made him an “accessible” genius, somewhat less inscrutable and problematic than the brooding, celibate and fanatical Gaudi.  Finally, unlike Gaudi who learned from nature, Fuller’s abstract geometrical exegesis contributed in some small way to our knowledge of the natural sciences, providing validity to a discipline ardently seeking legitimacy, even at the cost of appropriating the sticky meta-narrative of the sciences, which Thomas Kuhn argues is as dangerous for sincere scientific research as it is accepted by the general public as sacrosanct.

Yet, if this seems an overly critical analysis of Fuller’s contributions to the sciences, it is not a critique of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization.  The strength of Fuller’s geodesic design is reflected in the fertility of his ideas across disciplinary boundaries; the relevance of his work to architects, designers, physicists, chemists and biologists, and this potency should not be either belittled nor disparaged.  Rather, in an age in which pseudoscientific examples are misappropriated by the architectural profession because of their imagistic power, the architectural profession might do well to ask itself what it can contribute to the very disciplines from which it so wantonly borrows.  The breadth of architecture is wide, encompassing material, mechanical, chemical, biological, ecological, sociological and psychological material; its reach is far, it is personal and political, formal, meaningful and functional, if not occasionally beautiful, insofar as it addresses its several potential spheres.  It is a bridge between the humanities and the hard sciences, but this bridge can be belittled by the mixed metaphors of its imagistic infatuation.  If architects have an example in Fuller, it is not only that image matters, but that the content of the image matters more, and that the intellectual exchange between disciplines should be synergistically omnidirectional.

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