An exasperated listener to one of R. Buckminster Fuller's incredible nonstop lectures once interrupted the flow of words to demand, "What gives you the right to tell us all this?"
Without missing a beat, Fuller, who often described himself as "the most ordinary person I know," pointed to his famous cranium and told the youthful questioner, "Because of what's in here."
It is hard to imagine anyone with more authority to make such a claim than Fuller, who died in Los Angeles Friday of a heart attack at age 87.
Bucky Fuller's brain produced one of the more all-encompassing world views of our time. Despite the almost stupefying complexity of his intellectual system, Fuller, with his charisma and his inordinate supply of restless energy, strove mightily to let the rest of us in on the secret.
If only we would, he said in a thousand inimitable ways, we could harness our vast, ever-changing technological prowess for the benefit of all humankind -- a fetching message in a time of outsized troubles, many of which accrue to the very forces he profoundly believed were manageable for the common good.
To some he was a hero, the near embodiment of a world savior; to others a paradigm, a secular saint; to still others an irritating and impractical dreamer.
But even this range of interpretations doesn't define Fuller's long life of thought and action, recorded in 25 books, numerous inventions and countless hours of lecturing. Nor does the requisite list of labels; Fuller was architect, planner, engineer, inventor, cartographer, author, educator, mathematician, scientist, philosopher, poet. His was, in short, a life of unstinting multifariousness, all the more amazing for having been lived in what we smugly like to call an age of specialization.
Fuller was born near Houston in 1895 to a family whose New England ancestry dates back to the early 17th century. His most illustrious ancestor was his great-aunt Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century transcendentalist, and it was her call that Fuller heeded on a day in 1927 when he stood alone, despairing, by the shores of Lake Michigan "on a jump-or-think basis."
"Truth is the nursing mother of genius," Margaret Fuller had written. "No man can be absolutely true to himself . . . without becoming original, for there is in every creature a fountain of life which, if not choked back by stones and other dead rubbish, will create a fresh atmosphere, and bring to life fresh beauty."
Buckminster Fuller, 32, concluded his life-or-death lakeside self-examination, he wrote, by deciding, "You do not have the right to eliminate yourself, you do not belong to you. You belong to the universe. The significance of you will forever remain obscure to you, but . . . you and all men are here for the sake of other men."
From that decision, after a two-year period of thought and self-imposed silence, ensued a life of extraordinary volubility, independence and originality.
Throughout his life, Fuller remained a quintessential outsider, even during the last two decades, when he was honorifically embraced by practically all of the august establishment organizations with which he had waged many an ardent battle. The American Institute of Architects, for instance, awarded him its prestigious Gold Medal in 1970 even though he was not, strictly speaking, an architect.
Fuller's contribution to architecture rests, primarily, upon three achievements. The most tangible of these is the geodesic dome, that ingenious, totally 20th-century structure made of interlocking tetrahedrous -- triangle-sided pyramid forms that, when put together, produce an unparalleled strength-to-weight ratio.
The structural uniqueness of the dome is summarized by architectural historian James Marston Fitch. "It is the only large dome that can be set directly on the ground with simple anchors, rather than a foundation, and the only practical clear span structure with no limiting dimension," Fitch said. In addition to that, the dome is the most important physical manifestation of Fuller's lifelong researches into nature's fundamental structures.
Fuller had less to show for the second of his main architectural contributions, which is his understanding of industrial processes and their applicability to the built environment.His own involvements with production-line economics in the housing field came to naught, but there is no question that, at some point in our lives upon this planet (as well as off it) we will be forced in some way to utilize with greater economy and skill our prodigious productive capacities in the way we build. The choice, as Fuller often said, is between "livingry or weaponry" -- a fateful choice.
His third contribution is theoretical: Fuller's conception of the need for the architect (and for everybody else) to enlarge the scope of his thought and activities to encompass what he called a "comprehensive anticipatory design science." His famous "World Game," played upon a large version of his own "Dymaxion map" and based upon "computerized collations of the world's available resources and productive mechanisms," is the most popular expression of this idea.
There is a profoundly disquieting aspect to Fuller's no-holds-barred embrace of technology. His vision of mankind has less to do with the individual or with historical clusters of individuals than with a constantly evolving, ever-changing species called "comprehensive man" or "continuous man." But if there is anything more chilling than the idea of actually living in the future Fuller envisioned -- to the degree that he set it down in specifics -- it might be the world we do live in, dominated by mighty nation-states spending alarming percentages of their wealth and intellectual resources upon weapons of ever-greater destructive force.
So, despite the complexity of his thought, Fuller was right to assume there is a tremendous basic appeal to be found in the relatively simple judgment that there are better ways to organize the human interchange. You don't have to believe in Fuller's utopia to appreciate the moral clarity of the concept of "Spaceship Earth."
Fuller was not a world leader, not a president, not a general. In this sense he was, as he said, the most ordinary of men, and he also was one of the great, imaginative, inventive, provocative outsiders of the 20th century, a New England original tirelessly involved in verbal warfare with world leaders, presidents and generals and their dangerously static visions of the world.
And as for his multifariousness, well, Fuller's unorthodox view was that everything he did was a manifestation of a "synergetic system that governs the known universe. Synergy, he said, "is the behavior of the whole systems unpredicted by behavior of their parts taken separately." The synergetic system, he said, "is probably nature's spontaneously employed coordinate system."
In other words, Fuller believed he had discovered the secret organizing principles of the natural world. In his huge, two-volume work, "Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking," written in collaboration with E. J. Applewhite, Fuller attempted the monumental task of systematizing his research into basic structural forces.
It remains to be seen whether Fuller was right more often than he was wrong. His vast intellectual construct has never been dispassionately tested by leading authorities in the often arcane areas of knowledge encompassed by his omnivorous, omnidirectional vision. But it is time now to appreciate the extraordinary nature and great spirit of his quest.