Domes, Films and Toys: The Role of Education in the Works of Bucky Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames

In Architecture or Techno-utopia:  Politics After Modernism, Felicity Scott maps the migration of military technologies into the popular imagination, focusing specifically on how these technologies became potent tools for the counterculture of the 1960s.  Not surprisingly, her lens is focused on the geodesic domes that Buckminster Fuller designed for America’s early warning air defense system, and the development of LSD as a tool for psychological warfare.  However, if the geodesic dome was transformed, through its application in environments like Drop City, into a symbol of countercultural zeitgeist, then the mind-expansion that many countercultural figures, like Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and Aldous Huxley, premised upon the ingestion of psychedelics, finds similar resonance in attempts to re-conceptualize systems of learning and behavior that were rooted, not only in the work of radical psychologists, like R.D. Laing, but also in attempts by both Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames to develop a new educational paradigm.

Even a passing familiarity with Fuller’s writings and lectures, not to mention his career as an educator, reveals a deep skepticism of conventional educational models.  Fuller not only argued against the specialization of individuals that he felt was unnatural, since all children are universally curious, and thus naturally inclined towards more synergistic models of education, but also that the very way that education worked from abstractions (like the straight line) to observation was backwards (since physics teaches us that there are no naturally occurring straight lines).  Fuller’s conclusion was that anyone who was sufficiently curious to become an original thinker would first have to go through a process of re-education, during which he/she unlearned all of the errors to which he/she had been exposed in their schooling.

While Fuller concentrated his re-educational efforts into his work as a professor and lecturer at the university level, something that Alex Soojung-Kin Pang argues in his article “Dome Days:  Buckminster Fuller in the Cold War,” made him a problematic, if still welcome addition to collegiate faculty, Charles and Ray Eames took a much more popular approach, producing numerous films and installations geared towards a general audience.  The potential potency of Fuller and the Eameses’ shared interest in education was made strangely and powerfully manifest in the 1959 American exhibition in Moscow, in which seven simultaneous films on American life were shown on immense screens suspended in the apse of a vast geodesic dome.  As Beatriz Colomina argues in her article, “Enclosed by Images:  The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture,” the ambition of both the dome and of the films was to exhibit American technological and lifestyle superiority to an anticipant Soviet audience.  Based on new notions of information (and energy) exchange, the combination resulted in one of the most effective campaigns of psychological warfare yet waged, and while the “kitchen debate” between Nixon and Khrushchev may have taken center stage in American media, it could only have happened against the background of Fuller’s dome and of the Eameses images, which rendered Sputnik a distant relic in the land of plenty.

Thus, like LSD, these systems were largely born in antagonism, and employed in highly effective ways towards psychological ends, and like LSD, both were adopted and employed by countercultural proponents towards goals that ultimately elided their reactionary roots.  The combination of dome architecture and multimedia saturation was common in radical communes, like Drop City and New Buffalo throughout the 1960s, finding fullest expression in the shows of USCO and in the EPI collaboration between The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol.  They became flexible systems, reterritorialized within the countercultural milieu to undermine the very institutions that had developed them.  Yet, considering the careers of their developers, their ultimate re-contextualization seems inevitable, for if Fuller and the Eameses were critical of Soviet culture, they were no less critical of their own.

Furthermore, if all three were skeptical of educational practices in America, then they found the systems of building that dominated American architectural practice equally problematic.  While the Eameses were less prolix that Fuller in their outspoken critique of American architecture, all three developed radically new building systems at approximately the same time.  The results of this critique were contemporaneous projects that fundamentally challenged American building practices – the Wichita prototype, by Fuller, and the Eames house, both designed and built in the late 1940s.  Both of these designs employ radically new building systems, and both use new technologies and similar metrics in assessing efficiency[1].  The fundamental difference between the two designs is that where Fuller created a relatively static gesamtkunstwerk, complete with plumbing, furniture, etc., the Eameses produced a kit-of-parts response to public housing, which is, in some respects, anticipatory of radical designs by architects like Yona Friedman, with an instance on personal design exegesis.

Interestingly, the joint interest in a radical reconceptualization of education and architectural production, meet in the work of the Eameses in their Toy project of 1951.  Employing Fuller’s tetrahedral design, the Eameses produced a mass-marketed and mass-produced toy, that taught children new design standards through practical application.  Using brightly colored equilateral triangles measuring 30 in. to a side, children were encouraged to design their own habitats, and parents were encouraged to join in the fun, and design stage sets, and other architectural environments, in which their children could run amok.  Architectural space became a place of play, in which a fundamental rethinking of architectural standards was enacted.  It is no coincidence that the Eameses use of play became the foundation for a serious re-analysis of architectural design, for Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, which extoled the role of play in cultural production, in the definition of human intellectual endeavor, had been published only the year before.

Yet, one need not speculate as to whether or not the Eameses used Huizinga’s work as a foundation for their experimental approach to the re-education of America’s youth.  While Homo Ludens may loom large in the background of such a project, there was already an amendable cultural myth which might have captured the imagination of Charles and Ray Eames – the Froebel blocks that seemed so instrumental to the education of the popular American modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  If the Froebel block could produce a genius as prodigious as that of Wright, whose late magnum opus, the Guggenheim Museum, would be completed in 1959, then it was equally possible that The Toy could produce youthful architects as forward thinking as Fuller, creating a new American modernism to lead a new generation of architects, equally capable of transforming the field in meaningful ways.

Unfortunately, The Toy enjoyed a relatively short life, and was replaced in the 1960s by the Dome Books that briefly popularized Fuller’s designs as a popular, accessible, and easily realizable symbol of countercultural malaise.  Furthermore, traditional systems of education proved far too recalcitrant and stubborn for imaginative redesign, and it is impossible to say how many dome builders and multimedia artists derived their inspiration from playing, first, with The Toy, or experiencing the multimedia work that the Eameses produced throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  One can only speculate that the radical individualism, the anticipation of transcendental truth through creative effort, embodied in radical design strategies, in the kind of open-mindedness that sought original solutions to traditional problems, that sought new forms of social interactions over Cold War recalcitrance and belligerence, drew inspiration from the toys, films and constructions of Fuller and the Eameses; and one can only hope that a new generation will be both as interested in the future of humanity, and as accepting to alternative techniques as both Fuller and the Eameses, and their numerous students where.

[1] Fuller sent a small booklet detailing his Wichita project to the Eameses, with a personal dedication reading, “To Charles and Ray Eames, Number one colleagues in the building of this all important industry.”  This quote, in addition to an analysis of the Eameses Toy and the Tetrahedral designs of Fuller and Alexander Bell can be found in Tamar Zinguer’s article, “Toy,” form Cold War Hothouses:  Inventing Postwar Culture, from Cockpit to Playboy.

This entry was posted in architecture, Eames, education, Geodesics, modernism, technology, Toy, Video and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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