The Buckminster Fuller exhibition that has just opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has already received a lot of press coverage, with long stories in The New Yorker and the New York Times. The latter ran a sensational report suggesting that Fuller's depression and near suicide at age 32—which he famously described as spurring him to embark on his lifelong creative quest—were more or less invented, and that if he had a midlife crisis, it occurred later, as a result of a failed extramarital affair. The Times story is titillating, but it pales beside the revelation made 35 years ago by Lloyd Kahn, an early geodesic dome devotee. The geodesic dome, a spherical structure constructed out of small elements that make it lightweight and extremely strong, was long associated with Fuller. Kahn revealed that the world's first geodesic dome was a planetarium designed for the Carl Zeiss optical works in Jena, Germany, by Dr. Walter Bauersfeld in 1922—30 years before Fuller filed his patent for the device.
Neither the Jena dome nor the extramarital affair figure in the Whitney show, which is content merely to celebrate its subject (and repeats the old chestnut that Fuller "developed" the geodesic dome). That's a shame since Fuller was a complex individual, and one not to be taken at face value. He is sometimes described as a global man, yet he was a quintessentially early-20th-century American type: the inventor who bootstraps himself out of obscurity, the self-promoter who turns into an inspirational cult figure, the tireless proselytizer who is also something of a flimflam man.
Fuller did not invent the geodesic dome, but he certainly popularized it, and in the 1950s domes were used by various American government departments as temporary shelters for traveling exhibitions and by the military, notably for building so-called radomes, housing radar installations in the Canadian Arctic. The geodesic dome became such a widely recognized icon of American know-how that it was used with great success as the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67, the Montreal world's fair.
Most of Fuller's inventions found less success. His most durable creation may have been his brand name, "Dymaxion," a combination of dynamic, maximum, and ion, which conveyed his intention to radically rethink the design of everyday objects. The first Dymaxion House, octagonal in plan and suspended from a central mast, existed only in model form. The Dymaxion Bathroom, a prefabricated two-piece module that used a finely atomized spray instead of a conventional shower, made it to the prototype stage. Only three Dymaxion Cars were built, and the sole surviving prototype is on display in the Whitney. It's worth the price of admission. The car looks like an airplane without wings, a three-wheeled lozenge that can turn in its own length. The elegant form owes a lot to W. Starling Burgess, a pioneering aeronautical engineer and renowned naval architect who designed several America's Cup defenders. To obtain Burgess' services, Fuller commissioned him to build a Bermuda-class sailing yacht, which he christened Little Dipper.